The Problem with Textbooks

One really interesting activity I did in my Curriculum Theory course last year was to analyze a curriculum artifact. My department doesn’t use textbooks, but I really wanted to analyze a textbook after reading Michael Apple’s 1985 article “The Culture and Commerce of the Textbook.” I highly recommend this article, by the way. I found it fascinating, especially as it seems we are still discussing some of the issues Apple identified 35 years ago. This CBS This Morning segment on textbooks includes a really interesting statement near the end regarding the fact that textbook companies can make changes to texts to make them more accurate, but it’s up to the schools to adopt the standards and texts.

Apple (1985) argues that the textbook is one of the main means through which “legitimate knowledge,” which he defines as “the ‘cultural capital’ of the dominant classes and class segments” (p. 148), is transmitted. This becomes problematic because the market and production methods affect textbook production, and the textbook production industry is decentralized and caught between the tensions of profitable sales and obligations for transmitting knowledge (Apple, 1985). As a result, large markets, particularly in conservative areas of the country, sometimes drive the content of textbooks because these more conservative school districts will not purchase materials that challenge the ideological or political beliefs of those in power in these districts (Apple, 1985).

Textbooks can make things easier for teachers. There are handy questions for discussion in the teacher’s edition. You can assign questions after readings (if that’s your thing). But relying on them means that students often don’t get the whole story because what goes into a textbook is very political. At the time when the article was written, admittedly a long time ago, the top twenty publishers sold the vast majority of textbooks, and most of the people making editorial decisions about the content of textbooks were White men (Apple, 1985). I would imagine that it’s still true, but I’d have to do a bit more research to find out.

In 2015 a student at Pearland High School near Houston found his textbook described enslaved people forcibly removed from Africa as “workers” (Isensee, 2015). Apple (1985) questions “Who determines what this ‘public’ [that publishers respond to] is?” (p. 157), which is a question that I have as well. I would argue that, as Apple (1985) implies, the “public” whose “needs” publishers respond to is probably White, middle- to upper-class, and largely privileged in other ways (such as cis-gender, heterosexual, Christian, etc.) and thus are more likely to see themselves and stories of people like them reflected in textbooks. Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, and textbook companies want Texas school systems to adopt their books, as seen in the CBS video.

Apple (1985) suggests that researchers should undertake a “grounded ethnographic investigation that follows a curriculum artifact such as a textbook from its writing to its selling (and then to its use)” (p. 159), and I think this would be well worth our time as educators to do. When I get a chance to do some digging, I’d like to find out if anyone has done it since Apple wrote this article in 1985.

In case you are wondering how my curriculum artifact analysis turned out—the world history textbook I analyzed devotes twenty pages to the history of the entire continent of Africa (Gainty & Ward, 2011). Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) maintains that culturally relevant curriculum, including learning about topics that affirm students’ identities, will help students, particularly students of color, experience more success in school. The small amount of space devoted to learning about African history may communicate to students, particularly African-American students, that this history is not important or not worthy of study.

To be fair, the book is meant to accompany a larger textbook that I didn’t examine, and I also did not analyze the balance of coverage of societies on other continents in the book, mainly because the main crux of the assignment was to examine the curriculum artifact’s strengths and weaknesses, and in order to make the assignment manageable, I zeroed in on one lesson in the book. In my analysis, I found one strength is that the text asked students to analyze images. Students should learn how to analyze images critically, as this form of media is one of the most common communication methods in the age of Instagram and Twitter and is also not often considered important in schools. Another strength of the textbook is the use of storytelling (from the Epic of Sundiata) to capture a culture. As Geneva Gay (2002) explains, many cultures, including African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino cultures, use storytelling in their communication; thus, learning about a culture through its stories contributes to a more culturally responsive learning experience.

In terms of weaknesses, I felt the questions following the image and the passage are somewhat low level. Asking students to “describe [the] structure” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 225) or “wedding ceremony” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 223) are simple comprehension questions that do not ask students to draw inferences, interpret, or analyze or synthesize information. Even most of the comparative questions on p. 223 of the book are fairly low-level questions on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

The book really does not adequately explore African history. According to Gay (2002) “culturally responsive teaching” involves “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students for teaching them more effectively,” and while she posits that “academic knowledge and skills are situated in the lived experiences and frames of reference of students,” it also stands to reason that the cultural history of those students is as important as their lived experiences (p. 106). Students, particularly African-American students, using this text are not learning much about African history from a text that purports to cover world history. Ladson-Billings (1998) argues that “the official school curriculum [is] a culturally specific artifact designed to maintain a White supremacist master script” (p. 18), and the space devoted to exploring African history in this text certainly supports her argument. This omission is particularly glaring in light of the text’s fairly recent publication date of 2011.

I definitely think teachers who have to use textbooks should do such an analysis of their text. In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus narrowly on one issue that you want to make sure students learn thoroughly. For example, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand the actual causes of the Civil War, as evidenced in the CBS video, and if you teach American history (or even American literature), see what your textbook says, and if it’s inadequate or misleading, make sure students know that.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet students would be interested to know the textbooks they use are not politically neutral. What if you asked students to analyze the way a topic is presented. Whose point of view is centered? Whose is missing? Why?


Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman

Apple, M. W. (1985). The culture and commerce of the textbook. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 147-162.

Gainty, D. & Ward, W. D. (2011). Sources of world societies (2nd ed., Vol. I). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(20), 106-116.

Isensee, L. (2015). Why calling slaves ‘workers’ is more than an editing error. NPR, 450826208/why-calling-slaves-workers-is-more-than-an-editing-error

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Textbooks”

  1. Writer of the article seems unprepared to explain the conundrum regarding textbook selection, content, and cultural implications. I suggest the writer do more research before writing such a weighty tome.

    1. You can address me directly rather than call me “writer.” Plenty of research cited, all of which I read. The conundrum is pretty clear: textbooks are commonly used tools, but they have a lot of problems with being inclusive and culturally responsive.

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