Saturday, March 25, 2006

Muddle Machine

OK, so I sometimes miss the story and end up behind the times.  

There is a topic that I have been meaning to write about for the past two weeks.  Then, when I got to writing, I did a Google blog search, and found that 15 others have already posted on the subject.  Some of the posts are almost a year old.  Plus, over 60 people have linked to the article on del.icio.us.  So it is hardly a new subject, and it already has gotten a fair amount of attention.  But I decided just now to go ahead and write about it anyway, partly just to see if I could find a new perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a post on the curiously-named blog, Notional Slurry.  Tozier pointed out an article on Edutopia entitled The Muddle Machine.  The article reveals that many high school textbooks actually are written by a committee; the author of record may not have had anything to do with the actual writing.  

I won't get into the details; the original article does a fine job on its own.  The main points are these: a lot of money is wasted on high school textbooks; also, the process of creating the textbook all but guarantees mediocrity.  

I have two thoughts about this.

First, high school textbooks are written specifically to avoid controversy.  At first glance, this may seem like a sort of institutionalized political correctness.  It is not.  The idea behind political correctness is that it is a good idea to go out of your way to avoid offending people.  That is not the same as avoiding controversy.  There is nothing about political correctness that says you shouldn't express an idea that someone might object to.  Indeed, if that were the case, it would never be politically correct to say anything.  No, the point of political correctness is to be aware of the potential impact of what you say, and to take reasonable steps to make sure it is no more offensive than it needs to be.

Second, it occurs to me that part of our national agenda, right now, is to encourage the growth of the creative class, to foster innovation, to capitalize on one of our Country's few remaining strengths.  Writing insipid textbook is hardly the way to accomplish that.

UPDATE: Dr. Free-Ride has a nice post that shows that the duty to teach well is a serious matter, with important ethical prinicples involved.
What makes life hard for the folks interviewed for this story is that they recognize their duty to provide a quality education to the students in Arkansas schools. If they're charged with teaching science, they have a duty actually to teach science and not to omit important bits because they might upset some people.
It is an interesting and informative perspective.