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THE HORROR FILE: "Silicon crystal = Linda Ronstadt," claim today's error-filled schoolbooks
by Kate Gladstone



A 1964 folk-pop song ("What Did You Learn in School Today?" by Tom Paxton) poked fun at elementary school curricula that train children to idolize the government: "I learned that Washington never told a lie. I learned that soldiers seldom die. / ... I learned our government must be strong. It's always right and never wrong.") Since then, the situation has gotten worse. The authors of today's textbooks do not content themselves with inculcating worship of the State. They have moved onward -- downward -- to teaching scientific and mathematical falsehoods as fact.
Rather than nauseate you with a full recounting of the evidence, I refer you to M. W. Hodges' recent investigative report on the subject. Here, I will quote and summarize (then discuss some implications of) key points in that report.



POINTS TO PONDER from the M. W. Hodges report:


--- " ... 200 mathematicians and scientists, including four Nobel Prize recipients and two winners of a prestigious math prize, the Fields Medal, deplore math teaching methods saying they are 'horrifyingly short on basics' ."


--- " ... the president of the American Association of Physics Teachers and his review committee say, 'none of the 12 textbooks used by 85% of middle school students have an acceptable level of accuracy' ... " --


--- Twelve of the most popular middle school science textbooks abound in false-to-fact info: researchers found 500 pages of errors presented as fact. The errors include maps which show the equator crossing the southern USA, and a photo of Linda Ronstadt labeled "silicon crystal."


--- The books also require students to study and perform experiments that could not possibly work, and provide drawings -- presented as accurate -- which in fact represent impossible situations.


--- One textbook incorrectly states Newton's First Law of Physics.


--- "Errors in the multi-volume Prentice-Hall 'Science' series included an incorrect depiction of what happens to light when it passes through a prism ... [The publishing firm] acknowledged errors, partly because states alter standards at the last minute and publishers have to rush to make changes. "

In other words:
An author or publisher of schoolbooks -- hurrying to make the books fit whatever standard the state has just created or altered -- must now prioritize state regulations above the factual content of the material.
If they don't have time, budget or staff to shoulder both types of burdens -- factual content and the state regulations too -- with perfect ease and efficiency, schoolbook authors and publishers who want to stay in business must now attend to regulations first and foremost: letting the factual content slide.

What consequences does this have? Can we assume that teaching fake information doesn't matter because the students may learn the correct information at some later date? 
--- "Some might suggest that corrections [to erroneous early teaching] can come later, but evidence shows that many students are turned off by their Middle School experience and most never choose to take another physical science course. There is also clear evidence that it is very difficult to overcome early established information. ... "
Presumably, students who do decide to go on and take more science courses have made that decision because they enjoyed, and succeeded in, their middle school science courses. In other words (given an educational system of fake facts), it means that our scientists and engineers learned early in life to accept, to master, to enjoy -- and to use as premises -- fake facts.
(Do you really want the design and manufacture of silicon chips in the hands of those who got straight "A"s for accepting the textbook's failure to distinguish between a silicon crystal and a rock star? How about a GPS system whose programmers either still believe -- or have had to spend precious time unlearning -- that the equator passes through the USA?)

The M. W. Hodges report further notes:

--- " ... publishers now employ more people to censor books for content that might offend any organized lobbying group than they do to check the correctness of facts." The report goes on to point out the eerie reality that "[f]rom a business point of view, that makes sense" if the publisher wants to stay in business under current conditions: "A book is far more apt to be struck off a purchase order because it contains terminology or vignettes that irritate the hypersensitive than because it is erroneous. Publishers are much more interested in satisfying a group of selection committee members who typically have little knowledge of the subject matter, but are impressed by pretty pictures and seemingly up-to-date new information which for the intended audience is not at all relevant."

Putting it plainly: An author or publisher chooses whether to prioritize accuracy or to prioritize charming phraseology and graphics. When the publisher knows that customers may or may not look for accuracy -- but definitely look for charm -- the publisher (and the authors selling to that publisher) will almost certainly prioritize charm. (Textbook authors who prioritize fact won't find publishers -- because textbook publishers who prioritize fact won't find customers.)


George Orwell's "Big Brother" missed a bet by fighting to establish himself as dictator of a starveling Oceania. He could have influenced far more minds, far more easily, as a textbook publisher in the USA. Some beautiful graphics (perhaps a picture of a popular entertainer) over his most famous slogan, some properly soothing and/or trendy prose surrounding it, and schoolbook selection committees might declare themselves well pleased with "2 + 2 = 5."

Of course, we cannot blame all that on the authors and publishers alone (or even on the customers: school administrators, school boards, and state education departments who pay for erroneous information). The authors, publishers, and purchasers of textbooks would have no market for demonstrable factual error in textbooks if teachers refused to allow demonstrably erroneous textbooks into their classrooms.
Teachers who accept and distribute fact-fakery must answer for their willingness to do so. The report summarizes it better than I could:
"Some teachers complained that they have no power to influence [the purchase and use of textbooks]. While it is recognized that often teachers are placed in difficult situations in this regard, they must accept that they are the ones that must stop error-laden textbooks and improper teaching methods from entering the classroom. If they try but cannot stop that, then they should resign in public protest, inform all parents of their students, and relocate themselves to a school with integrity. ... if a teacher allows students to use error-laden texts without first correcting same, then either the teacher is insufficiently educated to recognize and ferret out errors -- or the teacher is unconcerned with education quality ..."

Just as professional thieves stay in business only because of people who accept and re-sell the stolen goods, so the producers of false-to-fact textbooks stay in business only because of people who accept and distribute the fake facts.
What if teachers refused to allow demonstrably false-to-fact textbooks/teaching materials into their classrooms?
What if teachers all across America -- or across any country where someone forces teachers to accept textbooks and other materials packed with glaring errors -- went on strike (or simply left the field of teaching) rather than accept payment for accepting and distributing fake facts?

Even though laws impose hefty fines and/or jail time on striking teachers, teachers do strike for a variety of issues (which I will not analyze here). Usually, teachers justify their strikes as necessary for students' education. (Teachers striking for higher wages point out that their schools will not or cannot provide basic supplies -- paper, pencils -- which the teachers must therefore buy from their own wages -- teachers striking for repairs to decrepit or otherwise hazardous school buildings have noted the dangers to health and safety -- for teachers and students alike -- in such buildings.)
 A requirement to work from factually incorrect material endangers a student's education (and a teacher's ability to provide that education) at least as much as a broken window or a shortage of crayons.
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