Thursday, July 13, 2006

Textbooks and Authors

From today's New York Times

This is how the 2005 edition of "A History of the United States," a high school history textbook by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelley, relates the cataclysmic attacks of 9/11 for a new generation of young adults:

"In New York City, the impact of the fully fueled jets caused the twin towers to burst into flames. The fires led to the catastrophic collapse of both 110-story buildings as well as other buildings in the area. The numbers of people missing and presumed dead after this assault was estimated to be 2,750."

The language is virtually identical to that in the 2005 edition of another textbook, "America: Pathways to the Present," by different authors. The books use substantially identical language to cover other subjects as well, including the disputed presidential election of 2000, the Persian Gulf war, the war in Afghanistan and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security .

Just how similar passages showed up in two books is a tale of how the largely obscure $4 billion a year world of elementary and high school textbook publishing often works, for these passages were not written by the named authors but by one or more uncredited writers. And while it is rare that the same language is used in different books, it is common for noted scholars to give their names to elementary and high school texts, lending prestige and marketing power, while lesser known writers have a hand in the books and their frequent revisions.

As editions pass, the names on the spine of a book may have only a distant or dated relation to the words between the covers, diluted with each successive edition, people in the industry, and even authors, say.

[more at the article

The Time's article discusses something that almost never reaches the general public - the problems of the "new edition" cycle of college textbooks. I have been involved in these and I am quite sure that many of the writers are dedicated and careful. More than that texts (even in medieval history) do need to change as new information comes to light, and perhaps more importantly as the histories of hitherto disregarded people are incorporated. [George Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State, in many respects admirable, manages to avoid mention of any non-imperial woman in its index.]

But the three-year new edition cycle of some books is driven by another cause: the efforts of publishers to avoid loosing sales by students reselling books after a course. Perhaps the best solution would be for students to simply keep their textbooks - after all, if they are interesting enough, the books you buy in college should form the basis for a future library.

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