Jewish World Review August 6, 2003 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5763

Diane Ravitch

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What Harry Potter can teach the textbook industry | As the world knows, the latest installment in the Harry Potter series sold 5 million copies on the first day it was available. Many thousands (or millions) of American children stood in line for hours to buy the book.

Here's the rub: the same children complain incessantly that their textbooks are boring. Whereas they hunger to get a Harry Potter book of nearly 900 pages, they can barely tolerate the equally large books that are assigned in school.

What does Harry Potter have that the textbooks don't?

Today's textbooks represent a major achievement in visual design. They glitter with charts, photographs, drawings and pedagogical advice to the reader. But they are boring.

While researching a book about textbooks, I asked a major publisher why the textbooks are so heavy with graphics. He said, "American kids don't like to read anymore. They are so accustomed to watching television and the Internet that a book can't hold their attention without lots of visual stimuli."

The success of the Harry Potter series shows that this assumption is wrong. American youngsters will read books that are exciting and well written, regardless of their graphics. They devour the Potter books because author J.K. Rowling has infused them with classic themes drawn from legend and myth, as well as biblical imagery. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings'' books, Rowling's books resonate with suspense, mystery, intrigue and showdowns between the forces of good and evil.

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In contrast to the gripping tales told by Rowling and Tolkien, our history textbooks skim lightly above the surface of events, ignoring the fact that history is first of all a story. The history books excel at mentioning vast numbers of events, people, and ideas and compressing them into short summaries of a page or two. The drama of history and biography is sacrificed to the imperative of "covering" everything in a single volume. Clashes of good and evil have been banished, replaced by pedestrian prose and thumbnail sketches.

Similarly, our reading and literature books have achieved the heights of banality. Those who assemble them are careful to weed out controversial themes, anything that might upset pressure groups from left and right. They aim not to engage students' imagination but to bolster their self-esteem. Demographic correctness - the right percentage of authors and characters from every possible segment of society - has become more important than literary excellence.

Harry Potter has triumphed because his author understands the power of story. If the story is good enough, children will take a flashlight to bed so they can keep reading after the lights are out. Unlike textbook publishers, who must screen everything they print to avoid giving offense, she is free to write about a dysfunctional family, about the moral necessity to confront evil, and about how bad things happen to good people.

There is something terribly wrong with the political process that dulls the materials in our classrooms. Our children quite rightly reject writing that has been processed and homogenized by scores of textbook committees.

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Diane Ravitch is a research professor, New York University; distinguished visiting fellow, Hoover Institution; and member, Hoover's Koret Task Force on K12 Education. Her latest book is The Language Police. Comment by clicking here.


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