In case you haven’t noticed, it seems Americans are living in completely separate realities these days. This isn’t all that surprising: perception is a fickle beast, dependent upon a myriad of factors. People can see the same situation in completely different ways depending on their knowledge, experience, hopes, aspirations, insecurities, peers, and the opinions they’re surrounded by, just to name a few. Add a bit of knowledge about something that they didn’t know before, and it’s possible for a person’s perspective to completely shift. Even something as random as which information we happen to encounter first can wind up shaping our thoughts on a given subject.
Considering the infinite number of variables that form a person’s perspective, it’s not surprising we see the world differently. What is a little bit surprising is that even educational textbooks seem to exist in separate realities these days.
Books published by the exact same publisher, written by all the same authors, can give two completely different versions of history depending on which audience they were written for. Certain facts are added, others are taken away, and events are framed in a particular way that caters to the beliefs of the people purchasing it.
“A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people,” says Dana Goldstein. “A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.”
The liberal version of one American textbook claims southern whites resisted reconstruction because they “did not want African-Americans to have more rights.” The conservative Texas version claims whites resisted equal rights because reform cost money, and therefore giving blacks greater rights would force them to pony up. (I’m not sure how that’s any less racist or despicable, but apparently it is to some people.) Texas books tend to omit any discussions of sex or sexuality, whereas other versions address such issues.
“The textbook companies are not gearing their textbooks toward teachers,” complains Kerry Green, a high school social studies teacher in Sunnyvale, Texas. ‘They’re gearing their textbooks toward states.” Which might help explain all the whacky stuff that happens in places like Texas or Florida.
The reason there’s so much conflict in the world is that there’s such a variety of different perspectives, and so few people willing to modify or step out of their own. Each perspective represents a valid conclusion based on the knowledge and experiences that go into it, but none are ever authoritative or complete. Yet we often approach situations as though they were, behaving as though there’s a singular or universal truth, or that others are “stupid” for not thinking the same things we do. Worse yet, we frequently forget that perspective exists at all, assuming that others have access to all the same reference points we do.
It would behoove us all to remember this when we find ourselves disagreeing with others. When even the “facts” that we are being fed in school vary according to the state one lives in, it’s hard to find common ground. Rather than name-calling or demonizing those we disagree with, maybe we could try a little harder to learn from one another, searching for the differences in presumption and experience that lead to such wide-ranging and divergent views.
1. Dana Goldstein, “Two states. Eight textbooks. Two American stories.” New York Times, pp. A1, A14-15