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Texas and textbook publisher still scrambling to repair damage from racially charged caption
Reference to "millions of workers from Africa," actually slaves, leads to broader questions about how textbooks are written and vetted, and whether to use them at all. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Teaching history is inherently controversial, but sometimes the perspectives offered are so out of left field that no one is willing to defend them.

That was the case earlier this month, when a black Texas high school student snapped a photo from his history book and sent it to his mom.

Next to a map showing immigration patterns in the U.S., a caption read, "The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations."

"We was real hard workers, wasn't we," her son noted in the text.

"The Atlantic slave trade brought millions of workers notice the nuanced language there," Ronni Dean-Burton wrote on her Facebook page. "Workers implies wages yes?"

The firestorm that followed put the publisher, McGraw Hill, on defense, responding on its own Facebook page: "We believe we can do better. To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor. These changes will be reflected in the digital version of the program immediately and will be included in the programs next print run."

"In the past year," NPR notes, "Texas textbooks have been criticized for listing Moses as a Founding Father and for downplaying slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Those issues stemmed from the learning standards that the Texas State Board of Education sets to guide publishers."

Texas is highly influential in textbooks because the state orders so many books, thereby influencing what other states choose.

"This is in part why a growing number of educators are calling for a fundamental shift in how the subject is taught," writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. "Some are even calling on their colleagues to abandon traditional models of teaching history altogether. Instead of promoting the rote memorization of information outlined in a single, mass-produced textbook, these critics argue that teachers should use a variety of primary-source materials and other writings, encouraging kids to analyze how these narratives are written and recognize the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials."

Focusing on source materials and their interpretation, some experts argue, would sidestep some of the controversy while helping students better understand the interpretative character of history, rather than memorizing what they read as "truth."

Reference to "millions of workers from Africa," actually slaves, leads to broader questions about how textbooks are written and vetted.
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