Act Locally » June 17, 2008
A Textbook Case
AP students learn ABCs of right-wing talking points
It is a foolish politician who today opposes environmentalism. And that creates a problem, because not all environmental issues are equally deserving of support. Take the case of global warming.”
This quote might sound like it’s from the conservative Heritage Foundation’s handbook, or a speech by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Congress’ infamous global warming denier. But it’s not – it’s from the most popular American government textbook in the country, and it’s being taught in hundreds of high schools and colleges.
The line – from American Government, by conservative scholars James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio Jr. – goes on to describe the environmental movement as “entrepreneurial politics.”
Wilson is the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and chairman of the American Enterprise Institute’s Council of Academic Advisers. DiIulio is a University of Pennsylvania political science professor and former director of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives.
The textbook’s section on global warming continues: “The earth has become warmer, but is this mostly the result of natural climate changes, or is it heavily influenced by humans putting greenhouse gases into the air?” The science of global warming, the authors conclude, has created a “conflict among elites who often base their arguments on ideology as much as on facts.”
Questions about the book’s treatment of global warming arose in December, not from the book’s editors, but from high school senior Matthew LaClair of Kearny, N.J. His Advanced Placement American Government class at Kearny High School uses the textbook, and he noted that it plays into conservative talking points that argue science is still divided on global warming.
“It’s unfortunate that many of the students will read this stuff, and those who may not be aware of the factual errors are learning misinformation,” says LaClair, 18, who made headlines in 2006 when he recorded a history teacher telling students that they’d be eternally damned if they didn’t accept Christ. In addition he says, it leads “students to think that it’s all those annoying activists who are making this stuff up.”
The book tries to make global warming sound appealing: “On the one hand, a warmer globe will cause sea levels to rise, threatening coastal communities; on the other hand, greater warmth will make it easier and cheaper to grow crops and avoid high heating bills.”
What’s more, the book repeatedly claims that prayer in public schools is illegal when, in fact, it’s state-sponsored prayer that the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional. And the book gives the wrong vote count for the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 ruling that overturned the Texas law that criminalized homosexuality.
Richard Blake, spokesperson for the book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, refused to provide a specific figure for how many students use the textbooks, saying only it is “the most widely used American Government book.”
LaClair took the book to the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a non-partisan think tank in New York that promotes scientific investigation and critical thinking in public life. In April, the center put out a blistering 65-page report on the book’s errors and biases, and has since launched a campaign to get Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to correct the errors.
“We thought because this textbook is being used so widely in classrooms across America, that it was very important to address these misperceptions so that our next generation of leaders aren’t confused about these issues,” says Derek Araujo, the group’s executive director.
Friends of the Earth launched a campaign to get the book’s claims about global warming revised, and two of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute, sent letters to the publisher urging it to correct these misleading statements.
In April, Blake assured the Associated Press that the publisher “will be working with the authors to evaluate in detail the criticisms,” and that the problems have been resolved in the 2008 edition.
But some of the same errors remain, including the erroneous Supreme Court vote on the Lawrence v. Texas and most of the erroneous claims about prayer in schools.
Neither DiIulio nor Wilson responded to requests for comment. But on April 27, Wilson wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he called LaClair and CIF’s complaints “ridiculous.”
Blake maintains that the authors were simply trying to convey the “politics” of the issue rather than disputing the science. He says a team of editors, copy editors and outside experts review their books. “We’re proud of the process that we have,” he says. “We believe it is a very even-handed book.”
Meanwhile, students like LaClair are using the book to prepare for exams, and are left to choose between hard facts and the answers that their official curriculum deems correct. LaClair’s class reached the global warming section in May, and the New School-bound senior wasn’t sure what he would do on the exam – give the answers his teacher wants based on the text, or an answer based on current science.
“It’s a tough call,” says LaClair, “because I would be risking my grade.”
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Kate Sheppard is the political reporter for the online environmental magazine, Grist.org. She has also written for The American Prospect, Bitch, The Guardian and MSN.
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