159. Changing With the Times

As our society moves forward, backward, or sideways, school curriculum often responds. In the early and mid-1970’s, as gender equity issues seemed to make their way to the surface, people expressed their concerns about the sex role stereotyping that was prevalent in school textbooks. In basal readers, the female characters usually stayed at home and did housework while the male characters went out and led much more interesting lives. It took a lot of work to change this, but it did change. School textbooks now present the roles of men, women, boys, and girls much more fairly and accurately than they used to.
As issues emerge, textbook companies are fairly quick to pay attention. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, some respond because their decision-makers care about children, and want to make sure children get the best possible preparation for life. Not giving them the benefit of the doubt, they aren’t going to sell as many books if they don’t take cues from the purchasing public.
To some parents and other community members, who are critical of schools, the constantly evolving curriculum may look like a sign of weakness. Don’t we know what children should learn? Are we going to jump on every bandwagon that goes by? Some teachers voice the same concern.
I’m a somewhat of a revisionist on some issues. If old books teach children things I think children shouldn’t learn, or don’t teach them what I think they should learn, I think we ought to provide newer books, or find better old ones. If we learn that a historical character was less admirable than we used to think, or that certain stories teach children what we now consider the wrong things, I think we should change our teaching and use better materials. I prefer to think of this as book-shelving, not book-burning. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, with its blatant racism, can still sit on the shelves, but if I use it at all, I will make sure the racism in the book is acknowledged and addressed. And as I teach history, I’ll make sure children don’t think this continent was first “discovered” by Europeans. This does not have to mean abandoning classics. It means taking another look at them. If a book is well-written, it need not alter when it alteration finds. Shakespeare, though well ahead of his (their?) time on many issues, also reflected Elizabethan thinking on many. But Shakespearean plays and poetry are among the best the English language has to offer, and I, personally, refuse to discard “The Taming of the Shrew” and replace it with “Kate Enlightens Petrucchio.” But I would make sure there was plenty of substantial discussion.

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