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The Approved System: The United States

As noted above, while it is practically impossible to make exact comparisons between the small Australian textbook system based on a national curriculum and the very much larger US system based on multiple curricula, the politi?cal contexts for history textbook authorship and production in each liberal democratic nation can be explored successfully as indicators of similarities and differences. Three points need to be made at the outset. First, textbooks in the USA are very big business (Hogan, Lingard, & Sellar, 2015). Publishers keep sales figures to themselves but the ‘Big Three’ textbook corporations operating in the USA—the UK’s Pearson, Boston’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and New York’s McGraw-Hill Education—control 85 % of a $US13.7 billion elementary and high school market in the USA (figures from 2013). Second, the hard-copy textbook industry is slowly dying. Third, teachers in the USA seem to be moderately textbook dependent but are moving to other, cheaper and more varied sources (Strahler, 2012).

Having said that, the US education system provides an interesting and controversial example of an approved print textbook arrangement at work in a decentralised curriculum culture where textbooks are seen as key deliverers of, and elaborators on, a largely permissive set of ‘national standards’ (US term for curriculum guidelines and syllabuses). However, in the 1980s, the outstanding educational issue when it came to history education was not so much about textbooks but was indeed a controversy over the voluntary national history standards (Nash, Crabtree, & Ross, 2000). According to the account by Nash and colleagues, from 1986 to 1994, the redoubtable Lynne Cheney, at that time chair of the US National Endowment for the Humanities (1986-1993) and fellow of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, was aided by the Wall Street Journal in a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful fight against the national history standards on the grounds that they were corrupted by leftist tendencies.

Since then, the arena for national debate has shifted back to the individual states. In these debates the California’s post-2001 progressively framed elementary school textbooks are under fire from conservative and religious groups for allegedly favouring Islamic perspectives. The struggle continues, having now incorporated supposedly critical attacks on textbook representations of Hinduism (Sewall, 2003; Taylor, 2007; Watanabe, 2006). More recently, in several conservative US states, education authorities have reacted against education professionals’ views of the past, which conservative administrators, commentators, politicians and business figures see as secularist and subversive: for the last of these, see especially the influence of the Koch brothers (Schulman, 2015). The most egregious example of this conservative reaction is Texas, where the Religious Right dominated the small (15 member) Texas State Board of Education since the mid-1990s.

For example, according to New York Times columnist Gail Collins (2012a), in Texas’s 2010 decennial social studies/history curriculum review and promulgation, McCarthyism could be studied but only if controversial Soviet espionage documents, since published as the Venona project transcripts, were also included as a ‘balanced’ justification for McCarthyism. Students of modern history were also obliged to study closely the triumphs of the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association. The Texas board also insisted that the his?tory of country and Western music be studied. Considering the state’s cultural and demographic contexts and country and Western music’s prominence in US musical culture, this might seem a reasonable suggestion but perhaps not a reasonable directive. Collins goes on to cite many more examples of the Board’s determination to include and exclude topics for study in Texas editions of nationally offered textbooks.

There are two key points to be made about the activities of the Texas board. First, until recently, the board has been run in a determined if eccentric fashion by an elected group dominated by the Christian Right who have insisted on including pro-Christian, far-Right curriculum topics and excluding unfavoured topics such as advances in anti-discrimination and the critique of hetero-normative narratives (see Scott Wylie in Hickman & Porfilio, 2012: 129-148). These interventions are so extensive that the textbooks produced by the major publishers who try to accommodate both the conservative Christian and the progressive sides are now regarded even by the moderately conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute as overblown and unreadable manuals that are a ‘confusing, unteachable hodgepodge, blending the worst of two educational dogmas’ (Stern & Stern, 2011: 142). For example, the 2013 Holt McDougall one-year textbook, World History: Patterns of Interaction, (Beck, Black, & Krieger, 2013) totalled a massive 1011 pages, more than the combined length of all three equivalent Australian history textbooks cited above.

Second, these books are part of an ideological movement that crosses state boundaries. In 2011, Texas had an estimated 4.8 million school-age students who were potential textbook readers. Since the state itself pays for the students’ textbooks and since the captive audience is so huge, the publishers are obliged to take into account the proclivities of the Texas Board when commissioning their books. This means that many of the smaller and less wealthy states are obliged to use the Texas version across the curriculum. In Gail Collins’s sardonic view expressed in her article How Texas inflicts bad textbooks on us (Collins, 2012b):

Texas didn’t mess up American textbooks, but its size, its purchasing heft, and the pickiness of the school board’s endless demands—not to mention the board’s overall craziness—certainly made it the trend leader. Texas has never managed to get evolution out of American science textbooks. It’s been far more successful in helping make evolution—and history, and everything else—seem boring.

Some publishers have circumvented the problem by offering special Texas editions but that was a hard-copy solution. If recent digital trends in textbook publishing continue, such as the Big Three’s iPad alliance with Apple, online student and school customisation of discrete historical topics, the once anticipated 19 % decline in print sales between 2010 and 2014 (still going down) and the forecast death of the textbook (Lee, 2013) the idea that Texas ‘inflicts bad textbooks’ on the rest of the USA may be history itself.

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