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This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, May-June 1997.

A Dumbed-Down Textbook Is
"A Textbook for All Students"

William J. Bennetta

James A. Michener is well known today as a prolific American novelist and essayist, but sixty years ago he spent some time working as a schoolbook editor. A short recollection of that experience appears in his book This Noble Land, which was issued in 1996 by Random House:

[I was working for] one of the premier New York publishing companies, Macmillan, where I helped produce textbooks in a variety of subjects for use in schools across the nation. While I was at Macmillan, a radical new discipline began to dominate the writing of schoolbooks. A highly regarded educator and psychologist, Edward Lee Thorndike, compiled a list of words and the frequencies with which they occurred in everyday American life: newspapers, popular books, advertisements, etc. From these basic data, he published a list, sharply restricted, which he said ought to determine whether a specific word should be used in writing for children. If, for example, the word take received his approval, use it in schoolbooks. If discredit did not appear on his list, don't use it, for to do so would make the books too difficult for children.

We editors worked under the tyranny of that list, and we even boasted in the promotional literature for our textbooks that they conformed to the Thorndike List. In my opinion, however, this was the beginning of the continuing process known as "dumbing down the curriculum." Before Thorndike I had helped publish a series of successful textbooks in which I had used a very wide vocabulary, but when I was restricted by Thorndike, what I had once helped write as a book suitable for students in the sixth grade gradually became a book intended for grades seven through eight. Texts originally for the middle grades began to be certified as being appropriate for high school students, and what used to be a high school text appeared as a college text. The entire educational process was watered down, level by level.

That endeavor has been continued, off and on, in the time since Michener toiled at Macmillan, and it recently has resurged with special virulence. Major schoolbook companies are making their books dumber than ever, because they perceive that there is a big, ready market for such products. The market is provided by schools where "education" consists chiefly of submerging students in feel-good pastimes, furnishing students with easy successes, and ensuring that even the laziest and the worst-prepared students will seem to be doing well.

Publishers usually avoid admitting to their complicity in such skulduggery, but a candid acknowledgment was offered last year by Glenn Gordon, a textbook salesman employed by Harcourt General Inc. (Harcourt General's textbook-publishing subsidiaries include Holt, Rinehart and Winston.) Speaking about today's schoolbooks, Gordon said this to a reporter for The Seattle Times:

Absolutely they've been dumbed down. I think what we've heard a lot of, throughout the country, is that there needed to be an image of American students doing well. In order for us to show them as being smarter, let's dummy down what we're teaching them. You'll appear to be smarter, even though you're not. [See "Textbooks Too Easy, Too Dull, Experts Say," by Nancy Montgomery, in The Seattle Times for 3 March 1996.]

In its heaviest and most pernicious form, the dumbing down of high-school books comprises four interlocking processes. The first is the elimination or dilapidation of concepts that may require a student to expend mental effort: Such concepts are excised entirely, or they are reduced to little heaps of factoids. Next comes the process that Michener saw sixty years ago and that is still going on -- the reduction and impoverishment of vocabulary. Then comes the ostensible simplification of style, effected partly through the suppression of compound or complex sentences. This process often requires that logical connections be destroyed for the sake of ensuring that sentences will be simple and short. Finally comes the replacement of written material by pictures -- pictures which, as often as not, are mere decorations.

Sometimes a dumbing-down operation is carried out gradually, over several successive versions of the book in question. Sometimes it is carried out abruptly, as in the recent case of Glencoe World Geography. (See the review in TTL for September-October 1996.) Either way, heavy dumbing down has the effect of turning high-school books into products which, if they have any value at all, may be appropriate for middle-school students.

Dumbing down is also obvious in some of the brand-new books that are being produced nowadays -- books that haven't existed in any earlier versions. A notable example here is Biology: A Community Context, a new, dumbed-down product issued by South-Western Educational Publishing (Cincinnati, Ohio). In my judgment, Biology: A Community Context has exceptional merit as a middle-school book and would be a fine choice for use in a middle-school life-science class. South-Western, however, is selling it as a high-school biology book. This strikes me as a sad joke.

South-Western is also promoting a pair of newly created books titled Science Probe I and Science Probe II, which allegedly represent a two-year course in "coordinated science" for high-school students. These books have been so grossly dumbed down that, in most respects, they are indistinguishable from books that the major publishers have been selling, during the past ten years or so, as middle-school texts. The Science Probe books are not even suitable for use in middle schools, however, because the "biology" that they provide has been purged of the principle of organic evolution, the central organizing principle of the biology of the 20th century. South-Western is evidently pandering to the creationists, and these dumbed-down Science Probe books have also been dumbed back -- back to the 1500s. No honest teacher would consider using them.

In the past few years, the demand for dumbed-down books has increased because many schools have abandoned the strategy of grouping students according to their abilities. Instead, these schools indiscriminately mix together, in the same courses and the same classrooms, students who vary widely in their talents, intellectual capacities, goals, and states of preparation. As far as I am aware, no one has been able to suggest that this practice serves any educational purpose (by which I mean a purpose that can pass the straight-face test). As far as I know, this fad is based entirely on a political construct which -- in the name of social equality -- prescribes that all students must be reduced to the level of the least able students, and that the brightest and best-prepared students should be hobbled and handicapped.

Be that as it may, this much is certain: When students who have vastly different capacities are randomly mixed together in the same classroom, the teacher must choose textbooks and other instructional materials that even the slowest and worst-prepared students may be able to use. This is impelling schoolbook-publishers to perform new feats of dumbing down and to produce books that plainly have been designed for dimwits. The books are quite unfit for use by capable students, and capable students are very badly served when they are made to use such books -- but never mind that. All that matters is that everybody is using the same book, so everybody is equal to everybody else.

Of course, schoolbook companies can't promote these books by saying outright that the books are aimed at backward students and dullards, so some companies have taken to using a code-phrase. The phrase is all students, as in "This is a book for all students." Knowing that all students means the least capable and worst-prepared students can be useful when one is talking with a schoolbook salesman or reading a publisher's promotional claims.


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 frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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