Build Our Nation
Our United States
United States: Adventures in Time and Space
Columbia University Professor Jack Garraty was surprised to open the latest edition of the eighth-grade textbook he had written in 1982 and learn that a Spanish explorer named Bartolomeo Gomez, and not the Englishman Henry Hudson, was credited with being the first European to discover the Hudson River. Garraty, who had taught history for thirty years, had never heard of Bartolomeo Gomez. After some research, he learned that Gomez was in fact Portuguese and not Spanish and that his claim to have discovered the Hudson River was based on extremely slender evidence: he had sailed along the Atlantic Coast and made a map that described three rivers, one of which might, or might not, be the Hudson.
“The map didn’t even include Long Island,” Garraty said. “He certainly didn’t sail into the river.” But the publisher of the book, Holt, Rinehart, anxious to create a new multicultural hero and to cater to the substantial Hispanic populations of Texas and California—the largest markets in the nation for textbooks—had elevated this obscure Portuguese explorer into the Spanish discoverer of the Hudson and inserted him in Garraty’s book without his permission.
The American history taught in schools has been rewritten and transformed in recent decades by a handful of large publishers who are much concerned to meet the demands of both the multicultural left and the conservative religious right. In 1994, when Texas announced that it wanted to purchase new social studies textbooks for fifth-grade students, major publishers competed to produce history textbooks that would not be offensive to political and cultural pressure groups in the state. Four textbooks by different publishers were formally adopted as suitable for Texas last year; and children throughout the country will be reading one or another of them during the next five to ten years.
They will be doing so because the states of Texas and California taken together account for 20 percent of the textbooks sold in America. They are the biggest of some twenty-two states that review and choose textbooks on a state-wide basis, and their choices therefore have disproportionate influence among the fifty states. Approval of a textbook series in Texas or California guarantees millions of dollars in sales, while rejection will almost certainly mean financial failure. Textbook publishers spend much time answering angry letters from Christian fundamentalists and counting the illustrations in their books to make sure that they have the requisite number of women and minorities. “We would sometimes joke that we should just leave some of the presidents out of the book so that we could make our fifty-fifty male-female quota,” I was told by a woman who worked as an editor of one textbook.
To satisfy the religious right, many textbooks have largely banished the words “imagine” and “feel.” According to an editor at McGraw-Hill, who did not want to be identified, “We were told to try to avoid using the word ‘imagine’ because the people in Texas felt it was too close to the word ‘magic’ and therefore…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.