Texas textbooks: it’s not just the facts that distort the truth …

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Texas textbooks have been in and out of the news — notoriously — since 2010, when the Lone Star State’s board of education adopted its revised curriculum, which has just recently come into effect in Texas classrooms. These texts have been heavily criticized for whitewashing or rewriting aspects of American history — including most notably the facts and truths about slavery and its role in the Civil War. As Bobby Finger reported in Jezebel last month:

“In 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a revised social studies curriculum that … would “put a conservative stamp on history” once going into effect in 2015. In advance of their debut in Texas classrooms last week, it was widely reported that the new textbooks, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson, “whitewashed” slavery by downplaying the brutality of the facts and treating it as a “side issue.” … Their contents demonstrate a troubling creep away from teaching actual history—and the unpleasant truth of America’s legacy of racism—and toward a sanitized fable of historical white morality.”

But it’s not just the facts or even the vocabulary in these schoolbooks that are loaded with inaccuracies and bias or cleansed of harsh truths: it’s the very manner in which these narratives are phrased that has some commentators deeply concerned.

Yesterday, in the New York Times, Ellen Bresler Rockmore made the unnerving observation that:

“Some of these books distort history not through word choices but through a tool we often think of as apolitical: grammar. … The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad. …”

Quoting from a textbook called Texas United States History, published by HMH, Rockmore gave the following example of how using either the active or the passive voice has a dramatic impact on the way a reader parses and interprets the prose in question: “Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.” As Rockmore goes on to explain, the use of the passive voice in the latter two sentences — which are both critical of the slaveholders’ behavior, unlike the more generous description of their actions in the first two sentences — helps to shift attention, and ultimately responsibility, away from the subject of the undesirable activity by removing the subject from the sentence entirely. You can read the full, fascinating article here.

In an earlier post, “You were fired, or you GOT fired?”, Glossophilia looked at the role of the passive voice, describing it as “a tense or form that tends to be preferred when we’re focusing on what has been done to the thing or person in question rather than on whoever or whatever performed the action — or when the agent of the action is unknown or simply unimportant.” Way to go Texas for downplaying the active role of slaveholders in its passive retelling of America’s Civil War history.

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