Phi Beta Cons

Capturing the College Textbook

At least superficially, the Right’s counterattack on the Left-dominated academy seems a roaring success. We now have dozens of conservative-leaning think tanks whose experts daily churn out policy analyses, together with innumerable Internet sites telling our side of the political story. Add traditional media outlets galore, particularly Fox Cable News, our own conventions — even affinity European and Caribbean cruises where we can eat, drink, and be re-energized.

Unfortunately, this otherwise vigorous counterattack lacks a critical element: the college textbook. Here our ideological enemies totally, absolutely, and positively dominate, and this power undoubtedly trumps our entire arsenal. In the war over culture, the college textbook is the ultimate weapon, but one all too easily ignored.

As an academic lifer and college-textbook author, let me describe the terrain. Virtually all college students regardless of major will take required courses in the social sciences and humanities. With scant exception, these courses will be built around a survey-type textbook. Thus, every semester, thousands of undergraduate learn American government, sociology, anthropology, or history from these books and the accompanying lectures that often regurgitate textbook material. Exams guarantee attentiveness to these textbooks, no matter how cockeyed.

This influence cannot be exaggerated. The dozens of erudite (conservative) policy analyses that daily enter my e-mail inbox probably have a half-life of one day, and sheer volume suggests that many are only scanned. By contrast, the college textbook’s half life might be measured in decades, and the student hours expended reading them must annually run into the millions. Textbooks often survive for generations thanks to updated editions. Further keep in mind that textbooks target impressionable youngster. For those hoping to win the Culture War, “owning” the textbook market is akin to capturing the enemy’s capital.  

Advancing an ideological agenda via writing a textbook is easy. Picking and choosing among thousands of candidates for inclusion is inescapable. Less obvious is the need to navigate political sensibilities given that authorship is almost always driven by money and “heresies” kill sales. I once spent hours in a DeKalb, Ill., motel room with Holt Rinehart editors laboring to find pictures of politically important black women to make my Understanding American Government more sellable. I was also forcefully told to drop certain “controversial” items lest they reduce sales. Most political censorship was, however, self-imposed.

To illustrate the power of textbooks to influence culture, consider a bit of research conducted by my friend Steve Goldberg, a now retired CCNY sociologist. His concern was how introductory sociology textbooks recount Margaret Mead’s 1935 description of sex roles among the Tchambuli of New Guinea. To condense a long story, Mead’s description somewhat under-played male dominance, e.g., noting effete male headhunters. But she never argued that sex roles were malleable, and in a 1937 letter to the American Anthropologist, Mead strongly reiterated this point (and did so repeatedly over her distinguished career). Nevertheless, Goldberg checked some forty introductory sociology textbooks 40 years after Mead’s writings and found that over 90 percent claimed that Mead’s research “showed” the malleability of sex roles. Goldberg then wrote a letter to Contemporary Sociology, the book-review journal of the sociology profession, pointing out the textbook misinterpretation of Mead’s research. A decade later, Goldberg again checked textbook interpretations — the error had still not been corrected.

In other words, tens of thousands of college-educated youngsters have now “learned” that sex roles are “socially constructed,” and if challenged, they will correctly say, “I read in my college textbook that it was proven by Margaret Mead’s field research, and my professor spent two class periods telling us how the lack of women engineers results only from gender discrimination.” 

For four decades, I have assigned textbooks to my students. Let me emphasize the difficulty of avoiding the Left’s ideology mongering. Bias is inescapable, perhaps consciously inserted to boost sales among the faithful, and the best that I can hope for is just bland one-sidedness. At least here my lectures can add omitted material, a far superior strategy than telling students, “don’t believe your textbook,” to which they will rightfully respond, “then why did you a assign it?”

The situation is not hopeless; well-known conservatives like James Q. Wilson have written best-selling textbooks (and I’ve used them). But conquering the textbook market will not be easy. I’ll leave the details to another time.

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