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Jewish World Review May 4, 2000/ 29 Nissan, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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From George Washington to Mansa Masu -- WHEN LATE-NIGHT COMIC Jay Leno conducted sidewalk interviews for a video at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, he couldn't find anybody who recognized Washington media mavens Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell. The passersby thought they were sitcom characters. Well, so what? Nobody needs to keep up with journalists.

But when Jay Leno takes to the streets of Los Angeles for pop interviews testing the facts of history, he gets the same results and that's no laughing matter. He asked bystanders who was the president of the United States during World War II and one of them replied Abraham Lincoln. Another thought it was Jimmy Carter.

In more systematic tests in the 1980s, two-thirds of American 17-year-olds couldn't get within 50 years of the dates of the Civil War. It got worse when they were asked about current events. There are lots of reasons for such ignorance, and we can round up the usual suspects -- bad public schools, poor teachers, broken homes, bad study habits.

But it's even simpler than that. History textbooks are lousy and they may be getting worse. For more than a decade Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, has examined history and social-studies textbooks for the fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades, and the message isn't good. Textbooks are worse than ever in both content and style.

Many of them are wedged into narrow-minded ideological agendas, with pride in the vision and courage of the Founding Fathers replaced by exaggerated attention to the abuse and exploitation of minorities, women, and immigrants, especially `Native Americans` and black and brown men and women. Garish graphics dumb down the presentation further, overwhelming the text with simple-minded images.

A typical example is in a text published by McGraw-Hill entitled "A New Nation,'' a history of the United States for fifth graders. It's hugely popular with teachers. So many 10-year-olds read it that it could be considered a national primer, offering some of the first lessons about America's past.

One passage describes the Mississippi River, citing its origin in Minnesota and how the Indians named it. The reader learns how the barges carry goods from Minnesota to St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. So far, so good.

But the text is overwhelmed by a huge photograph of a black man singing into a microphone, superimposed on a photograph of barges. The caption: "The Mississippi River forms the western border of the state of Mississippi, birthplace of Charley Pride and other country music singers.''

I like the music of Charlie Pride, the rare black man who can sing redneck country, but is he the most notable example of the pride and culture of Mississippi? Why not tell the fifth graders about William Faulkner, a Nobel laureate in literature, or the historian Shelby Foote? Or the opera diva Leontyne Price and blues legend B.B. King?

Textbooks today exclude such majestic figures as explorers, statesmen, inventors and writers, replacing them with pop celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Pride, patriotism and faith in G-d and country have vanished as diseased symptoms of "triumphalism.'' The American character is redefined as a ruthless patriarchy that exploits women, nonwhites, Indians, and the ecosystem.

To introduce black history, a good idea, European history is downgraded or short-changed, which is a bad idea. "Textbooks now lavish attention on medieval African centers of learning and universities,'' writes Mr. Sewall. " `Timbuktu boasted over 100 religious schools as well as a university' declares (one textbook), ignoring contributions to American culture originating in European intellectual centers such as London, Geneva, and Seville.'' The same textbook celebrates the "magnificent reign'' of Mansa Musa, a West African king of the 14th century who was "the richest and most noble king in all the land'' and "who worked to bring peace and order to the kingdom of Mali.'' He's become a stock figure in politically correct texts.

Not all the textbooks are this bad, but there's an appeal to anger and indignation toward America rather than an inculcation of pride in a remarkable democracy that continues to attract immigrants from every corner of the world. Alas, the giants of history such as Julius Caesar, Augustine, Martin Luther, Copernicus and Magellan play only supporting roles to the heavy hitters of history like Rigoberta Menchu (Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan political activist), Chico Mendez (Brazilian "eco-martyr''), Anita Hill, Anne Hutchinson and, of course, Mansa Masu the Magnificent. Should we be surprised when our children grow up to know nothing?


05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate