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This article appeared in The Textbook Letter for September-October 2000.
It accompanied a review of The American Nation, a high-school textbook,
issued by Prentice Hall, that purportedly deals with American history.

Glorifying Ignorance

William J. Bennetta

Dumb teachers demand dumb schoolbooks, and all of the major educational publishers have produced books that such teachers will buy -- books in which factoids substitute for concepts, slogans substitute for explanations, and pedagogy is often reduced to inane gimmicks which look like didactic devices but which, in fact, don't require teachers or students to know anything or learn anything. These pseudopedagogic gimmicks include questions and exercises which impel students to bray opinions about matters that they don't understand, to specify "solutions" to problems that lie far beyond their comprehension, or to vent their juvenile emotions as if emotions were equivalent to knowledge. Let me cite some examples by quoting from reviews that The Textbook Letter has carried:

From Ellen C. Weaver's review of Merrill Life Science in TTL for January-February 1993:

On page 64, . . . a "Technology" box asks: "What is the advantage of bacterial plastics over plastic-cornstarch mixtures?" The box gives no information about the characteristics of those materials, so the student can only invent a fantasy that has nothing to do with the real world. . . .

That "Technology" box exemplifies how the writers handle environmental matters in general: They urge the student to form opinions in the absence of information. This brainless approach recurs in various "Science and Society" features that start with the command "You Decide!" Without having anything that even resembles respectable information, the student must invent categorical judgments about hugely complicated questions, deciding (for example) whether all states should be required to develop recycling programs, or whether we should discontinue all use of pesticides. So the student learns to substitute ignorance and sham for knowledge and reason!

From my review of Addison-Wesley's Science Insights: Exploring Living Things in TTL for September-October 1995:

[Addison-Wesley's book has] a bunch of "Consider This" sidebars that conform to a very nasty pattern. First the writers state a question and give a tiny, compressed account of some "issues" that supposedly are related to it; then they ask the student to take a position on the question, though the student doesn't have enough information to form any kind of rational judgment. The "issues" are often distorted or based on false dichotomies, and some of the topics are inherently too complicated for middle-school students to grasp.

On page 44 the question is "Should Animals Be Kept in Zoos." The "issues," presented in 100 words or so, are just some vague claims, and they implicitly assume that all zoos are the same, are stocked and operated in the same ways, and can be subjected to the same judgments. After reading that drivel, the student is supposed to "Write a paper stating your position for or against keeping animals in zoos." On page 204 the question is "Should Food Be Irradiated?" Again, the writers present "issues" in the form of vague claims that are nearly meaningless; then they tell the student to "Write a paper stating your position for or against food irradiation." . . . On page 505 we find the question "Should Tobacco Advertising Be Allowed?" The writers' statement of the "issues" is ridiculous, but that is beside the point. Even to ask the initial question, in a middle-school book, is absurd: The question lies in the realm of constitutional law, and it has a history that involves difficult legal doctrines. A middle-school student can't hope to deal with it in any meaningful way.

From Lawrence S. Lerner's review of Addison-Wesley's book Science Insights: Exploring Matter and Energy in TTL, November-December 1995:

Along with its store of misinformation, Exploring Matter and Energy has some pious "Consider This" pieces that pretend to encourage students to think about societal questions and issues. . . .

The theme that unites all those gimmicks is the glorification of ignorant opinion. The same theme is conspicuous in Prentice Hall's The American Nation, for Prentice Hall has developed many gimmicks which teach the student this: You don't have to know what is true; you just have to gush what you imagine to be true. For example:

The American Nation has many other gimmicks that glorify uninformed opinion, including a particularly perverse item which appears in chapter 16 ("A Dividing Nation: 1820-1861"). The writers tell a little about the Dred Scott case, and then they instruct the student to perform this "activity":

Writing a Protest Letter      You are outraged by the Dred Scott decision! Write a protest letter to the justices of the Supreme Court explaining why you think their decision in this case was wrong.

The writers don't say what a protest letter might accomplish, but they apparently believe (or want the student to believe) that the Supreme Court has a habit of reversing itself if it receives a lot of negative mail from high-school kids. In any case, Prentice Hall's hacks have flatly excluded the possibility that the student may agree with the Court's decision and may want to compose an approbatory letter saying that the justices did a fine job. The only course open to the student is to feign outrage and to tell the justices why he thinks that "their decision in this case was wrong," even though the hacks haven't told him about the content of that decision: The hacks haven't said anything about the history that the justices recounted in their ruling, or about the precedents that they cited, or about the issues of federalism that they articulated, or about the reasoning that they put forth. The student, knowing nothing about what the justices wrote, cannot advance any meaningful analysis or criticism of the justices' work. The student can only produce some ignorant drivel.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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