The Inside Scoop on History Textbooks

Updated: May 15, 2019
Learn about the difficult and controversial process of textbook adoption.

The Inside Scoop on History Textbooks

Anyone who's tried to pick up a student backpack knows that textbooks pose a weighty problem. And it's not just their size. Critics complain that today's texts are inadequate for any number of reasons -- bland content, glitzy pictures, factual errors, even out-and-out bias. Yet when you consider the daunting content textbooks try to encompass, it's a wonder they're not being carted home on flatbed trailers. "For history texts to be relevant in classrooms throughout the United States in the 1990s, they must take into account the origins, beliefs, and values of a variety of cultural groups," notes one observer. "They must also be inclusive and up to date -- not a small feat in our ever-changing world."

Big Business
It's certainly true that history textbooks have become bigger, more expensive, and more elaborate. Gone are the days when they were written by one or two authors. Today they're likely to be put together by a "development house," where multiple writers work on a single book, often independently of each other. Publishers have merged -- and merged again -- with a few huge conglomerates dominating the market. It's a fiercely competitive business. A new textbook series can cost more than $35 million with all the add-ons (workbooks, teachers' editions, testing materials) required by law in states such as Texas and California.

In 1992, a Christian advocacy watchdog group in Texas discovered over 5,000 errors in history textbooks being considered for state adoption. Houghton Mifflin, Prentice Hall, Scott, Foresman, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston were among the big names generating the bloopers, which ranged from the petty to the preposterous. In one text, Sputnik, the first space satellite, was defined as the Soviet Union's first intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead.

"Publishers value salesmanship rather than academic content," is the opinion of one watchdog group. "The emphasis is not on accuracy." And when publishers scramble to meet state-adoption deadlines, the potential for error escalates. "It's the amount of material we have to provide in a relatively short period of time," explained the president of Holt, Rinehart & Winston's school division. "Time really is the enemy here."

Publishers Under the Gun
In the world of textbook publishing, there's pressure to pay close attention to sentence and paragraph length and to confine vocabulary to an inventory of grade-appropriate words. No wonder some books come across in what one college professor calls "classic social studies prose" -- short, flat sentences using only those words that do not raise "readability" levels.

How are Texts Selected?
In many states, textbook adoption committees determine which books find their way into schools. Some states have compliance committees that comb through textbooks to ensure that issues raised by special-interest groups are adequately addressed. It's hard to imagine how any one publisher can satisfy liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, feminists, black power advocates, family values groups, and religious organizations without treading on someone's toes.