They just don’t write ‘em like they use to…


I am a lifelong textbook connoisseur. I snagged my first teacher’s manual in second grade and never looked back. By middle school, I could tell you the comparative differences between the textbook series of dozens of publishers.

Today nearly all the 20th century textbook publishers have been conglomerated into the “Big Three” – Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin. On the upside, these publishers have been able to upgrade their product in significant ways, including better teacher resources and online platform integration. But there is also a notable downside, particularly in the Social Studies: the narrative.

It used to be that social studies textbooks had “voice”. There was an author or editor who ensured that the “narrative spine” of the book was unified, logical, and interesting. It was as if your text had a sort of personality of its own. Sadly, this has been intentionally removed from contemporary textbooks. This is in part, I suspect, due to concerns of the politically correct variety, since in today’s world everyone is offended. But it is also structural. There has been a push to make textbooks more flexible and modular, so that any teacher using any paradigmatic approach can still use the same text.

These authors wrote well. They were generally rhetorically gifted. Something far more fluid and artful than today’s glorified sentence outline. But then they also said things. There was substance. There was unapologetic bias, but it represented the shared civic virtue which marked all Americans until the 1960’s.

Here are a few examples from one of my favorites, Geography and World Affairs 3rd ed. by Jones & Murphy (Rand McNally, 1971). Though the text is long out of print, I still use a few of these essays with my students because they are so clearly written; yet they do more than merely inform, they also inspire.

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These are only a few of the ways in which good politics can lead to wise policies. Good politics is the oil that makes human affairs run smoothly. Good politics is one of the best things a country can have. It is worth working for; it is more precious than gold.

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We often say that some people are idealists. Idealists are people who have a vision of a world much better than it now seems to be. They think that criminals can be reformed, the mentally ill cured, and wars prevented. Sometimes they are right. Some criminals have been reformed. Some mentally ill people have been cured. Some wars have been prevented.

Some other people we call realists. Realists tend to take the world as it is. They mistrust visionary schemes to make it better. And to some extent, realists are right. Some criminals never reform. Some mentally ill people seem incurable. Many wars have been fought.

Realists say that idealists are dreamers. Idealists say that realists are hard-boiled. What we need are idealistic realists and realistic idealists. We need realists who look upward and forward, and idealists with feet on the ground.

Young men and women are nearly always idealistic. Sometimes, when they come in contact with selfishness and cruelty, they swing to the opposite extreme and become hardened realists. But there is no happiness in hard-boiled realism. No one can live happily without some faith in the worthwhileness of living. On the other hand, no one should build his faith on the dream of a perfect world inhabited by perfect people. Such a faith will collapse like a punctured balloon when one comes face to face with reality.

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We are fortunate living in a country with a democratic form of government. We have free speech, a free press, and frequent elections. No one man or group can get all the power unless we fall asleep politically. In spite of all this, we grumble. We grumble because the wheels of government turn slowly, and because we don’t always like the laws that are turned out. The right to grumble – freely and loudly, and without fear – is a precious thing. In most countries ruled by dictators, people don’t grumble about politics because they don’t dare.

But grumbling is not enough. If we do not take part in politics as much as we can, even if that only means voting on election day, we can’t expect the kind of government we want. Other people will take over, and they will get the kind of government they want. If politics in a democratic country is dirty, lazy voters failed to keep it clean. We can have good government if we work for it.

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Blerkins
 
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