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June 06, 2006

textbook politics

A paper by Sharareh Frouzesh Bennett confirms my unsystematic impression of the leading high school textbooks for civics and government (pdf). Bennett analyzes the big three, which are published by Prentice Hall, Glencoe, and Holt. She finds that they present American government as a well-organized system for implementing what the people want. Voting is by far the most commonly mentioned form of civic engagement, which makes sense if the government is basically satisfactory, and majority-rule is the essence of democracy. Since the existence of profound disagreement is not acknowledged in any of the leading textbooks, little is said about tools available to electoral minorities, such as "boycotts, lawsuits, protests, and civil disobedience." Because the government is portrayed as capable of handling all public issues, virtually nothing is said about citizens' roles in social movements, voluntary associations, and (more generally) civil society. "The Holt text refers to civil disobedience during the section on the civil rights movement and indicates that the method was used in the past to defy laws that were thought to be wrong." Overall, politics is portrayed as a formal system that offers a limited role for citizens (basically, voting). It is not described as a struggle over contested issues.

If young people study the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights, but they are not made aware of any particular controversies about economics, war, or moral issues, I would predict no impact on their interest in politics. Surveys tend to find a positive relationship between taking a civics class and political participation. Perhaps that relationship is misleading. (Maybe students who are already interested in politics are more likely to take civics classes.) Or perhaps courses really boost interest in politics--but no thanks to the textbooks.

Bennett's findings are consistent with our surveys, which find that most students are taught about the excellence of the American political system. Only 5.2% recall studying "problems facing the country today." Contrary to the fears of conservatives (who dwell on scattered anecdotes about leftist teachers), most students receive a civic education that is "conservative" in a particular sense. Textbooks do not introduce them to right-wing ideas, such as reducing the size of government or banning abortion. That's because textbooks contain few political ideas of any kind. Instead, students are taught that the status quo is desirable and uncontroversial--a form of conservatism that both right and left should reject.

Posted by peterlevine at June 6, 2006 08:35 AM

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