Messy subjects: From old textbooks, we learn how much we didn’t know

Last week, history geeks drooled over a news break — inasmuch as 20,000-year-old “news” can “break” — claiming that the Americas’ first inhabitants were not Siberians who wandered across a land bridge to Alaska, but rather Solutreans who paddled across the Atlantic Ocean. A number of archaeologists say that stone tools found near the Chesapeake Bay suggest a westward, rather than southward and eastward, expansion.

It’s just one theory, and a contested one — in the news mostly because of a new book by its proponents. Still. Couldn’t this completely bung things up?

For decades, grade-school students have prepared for tests by reminding themselves that early peoples migrated straight across the Bering Strait. It was nearly as useful a mnemonic device as the one used to remember the nine planets: My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Except, of course, scientists have taken away Pluto. And My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Noodles does not have the same appeal.

“When [Pluto] happened, it was really hot news to our science team,” says Lisa Carmona, a vice president in editorial at McGraw-Hill. “A lot of people were really whipped up about that. . . . This is what gets them up in the morning.”

Ever since the common school movement of the early 19th century began encouraging set curricula and standard readings, textbooks have been considered symbols of absolute knowledge. But science marches onward, social analysis moves forward and textbooks end up being not definitive records, but rather historical artifacts. Years after editions have expired, the biggest thing we learn from old books is exactly how much we didn’t know.

The typical human temperature is not 98.6 degrees. Continental drift is not hogwash — although the theory has been refined as plate tectonics. Almost everything Freud said is hooey, and until 30 years ago, no one knew that a large rock from outer space took out the dinosaurs (some people still debate it).

“There’s so much knowledge, and it’s growing all the time,” says Joy Hakim, whose science and history books have won educational awards. “We’re in the information age, and you can’t keep up with all the information.”

When she was researching “The Story of Science: Einstein Adds a New Dimension,” first published in 2007, “there were a few dozen planets that we were talking about,” Hakim says. “Now every 10 minutes, we’re discovering a new planet.”

“Or take the Human Genome Project,” says Sam Kean, a science writer whose coming book chronicles the exploration of humans’ genetic code. “If you go to any textbook up until the project got going, it will say that humans have 100,000 genes — even up to 150,000. That was an overestimate.” A big one. We have about 22,000. Pre-Human Genome Project, scientists had estimated our genetic code based on what we knew about other species’ genes. Because humans were vastly intellectually superior to other organisms, it stood to reason that we’d have more genes. But we have fewer. Fewer even than grapes.

Scientific revelation and a blow to the collective human ego.

There’s the added complication that, in researching material for textbooks, authors often turn to previous textbooks. This is how, for example, celebrators in 1992 preparing for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage came to be grappling with the Columbus-as-discoverer narrative assembled for the 400th anniversary in 1892. Historians now often cite the explorer for launching “the Columbian exchange” — a swapping of flora, fauna, people and communicable diseases between the Eastern and Western hemispheres — rather than “discovering” America.

The pesky trouble with official records is that sorting out history is a historically messy business. Books can have only so many pages — and while supplemental information can appear online, print real estate is prime. Should the Pluto formerly known as a planet receive the same consideration it did when it was one of the nine? Should the Columbus formerly known as the discoverer have a prominent place in modern teachings? And should we teach that we used to teach those things?

“Traditionally, textbooks are uncomfortable with not knowing the right answer,” says Jim Loewen, who pored over more than a dozen history textbooks to write “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” “But history is alive with controversy. It might be about dead things, but it’s alive with controversy.”

If debates occur even over facts that seem cut and dried — either Pluto is a planet or it’s not — then other subjects get even messier. Last year, the Virginia Board of Education had to review and reissue a state history textbookbecause it controversially asserted that thousands of black soldiers had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Most historians disputed that.

“It starts out as a conversation,” says Luess Sampson-Lizotte, who oversees product development for K-12 students at Pearson, about how her editorial staff adjusts content to reflect new discoveries. Pearson’s current textbooks lay out the Bering Strait scenarios, although its high school texts mention that there are other theories afloat. Scholars and educators are constantly monitoring revelations, debating which ones are worth putting on the page.

After all, for a long time, “we thought the Earth was the center of the universe,” Hakim says. “Very serious thinkers believed that. And they were wrong.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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