School Textbooks Reflect our Societal Values

I recently wrote a post about What Makes a Literary Classic in which I was thinking about what we culturally consider a ‘classic’ and how we might define it to ensure we’re including authors and stories from all background and experiences. This, combined with reading and researching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), had me broaden my analysis from the fictional novels that make up assigned reading lists to also consider the role of textbooks in school age education (elementary and high school).

Morrison begins The Bluest Eye with a passage from the Dick and Jane childrens' books. Describing the nuclear family—white, middle class, stereotypical gender roles—Dick and Jane textbooks, or basal readers, were published in the 1930s to help children learn to read. For 35 years these works by William Gray and William Elson were used in schools to teach elementary school-aged children. By the 1970s criticism of Dick and Jane was growing and Morrison’s novel reflects this, distorting the Dick and Jane text visually in her prose to show a 'corruption' or 'malfunctioning' of the American dream (and juxtaposing its affluent whiteness and her Black protagonists).


“Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white-house” (Morrison 1).


What becomes apparent is that by including the Dick and Jane passage, readers are meant to infer through Morrison's commentary that these two idealized white children, and their lifestyle, reinforce and reflect a specific cultural and social era of American history. Set in the 1930’s, Dick and Jane encouraged women to give up jobs 'given' to them during war time—creating openings for men—in order to raise a family and maintain a suburban home that contributed to consumerism. Little (white) boys were bold and adventurous, little (white) girls needed to be domesticated.


Thinking about textbooks as a snapshot in time, we can begin to see how they may be used as mirrors for our society and, more importantly, dominant values. Through the comparison of the Dick and Jane text and her own story’s development, Morrison posits that Dick and Jane perpetuate limiting ideas (such as the nuclear family, misogyny, and class divisions) and lack any kind of racial or cultural diversity. Everyone is excluded in the white, suburban, middle class text; only white men have rights.


“Here lies the essential issue concerning textbooks and their content: What is to be taught? Whose knowledge is to be valued? Which ideas are to be passed on from one generation to the next?” (Provenzo 5).


These are great questions for discussion! Textbooks are meant to ‘prime’ students for further education, making them ready to read, write, and think critically. However, without thoroughly considering diversity in textbooks, we are potentially instilling (seemingly 'sanctioned') prejudices on generations, in a mass way.


But how can a textbook be developed that reflects the diversity of a population? How can a textbook portray an array of experiences and backgrounds? Perhaps the first step is to look at who decides what to include in a textbook, having committees making the decision who look like a microcosm of the population and tailoring it as such. A textbook in America will look different than a textbook in Japan. Of course, the other side up for debate is who should influence these decisions and how much power do we want them to have? There can certainly be a fine line between decision making and political dictating.


A policy of inclusion could lead to an examination not just of the textbooks chosen for literature and social studies, but broadly across required courses: from the artists highlighted in art history classes to the sports played in gym class to the way sex education is explained.


But that may be a long-time coming. So, what can we do in the immediate? Let's fill in the gaps and have the conversation—using it as a learning opportunity—so all students can see themselves in the content being taught. There are a growing number of resources for teachers on how to reflect the diversity of their classrooms from how to vary learning activities for different types of learners to developing learning plans that reflect race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and concepts of consent.


And if Dick and Jane has taught us anything, it is that a an accurate reflection of our society can still be harmful. Perhaps we need to think about and create textbooks that are not only more inclusive, but really reflect the values we want young students to learn.


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