Half-Baked Ideas to Save the World: A Wiki History Textbook
Random Nerds believes that we as a collective internet body are capable of great things. We might even be able to save the world, if we don’t destroy it first.
Half-Baked Ideas to Save the World is where we’ll try and harness that power with
probably terrible possibly decent hypotheses and schemes.
As Barack Obama’s second term winds down, political pundits have jumped at the chance to speculate on what his legacy will ultimately be, with guesses running all ends of the political gamut. In fact, when NYMag brought 53 historians together to weigh in on the topic for a piece published earlier this year, they gave essentially 53 different answers to the question. And while that makes sense, as history is a deceptively subjective topic, unfortunately there’s only room for a few hundred words on Obama when it comes to the future history textbooks of America.
Even more unfortunately, it looks like Texas — the state that elected Ted Cruz to the Senate — is going to decide what those words will be.
To yada yada# over a lot of explainer journalism, all you really need to know is that because Texas buys the most textbooks of any state, they end up being the customer base that a lot of textbook companies tailor their material to:
Texas originally acquired its power over the nation’s textbook supply because it paid 100 percent of the cost of all public school textbooks, as long as the books in question came from a very short list of board-approved options. The selection process “was grueling and tension-filled,” said Julie McGee, who worked at high levels in several publishing houses before her retirement. “If you didn’t get listed by the state, you got nothing.”
Shockingly, Texas has found a way to abuse this power.
The Texas State Board of Education, which approves textbooks for the state’s schools, is composed of fifteen members from fifteen districts who run in staggered elections that are frequently held in off years when voter turnout is especially low, which the New York Review of Books points out tends to favor candidates with passionate, if narrow, bands of supporters (particularly if those bands have rich backers). This has resulted in an incredibly conservative-leaning curriculum in Texas that caters to a very specific set of ideals; Former Texas State Board of Education chairman Don McLeroy even once proudly boasted that Texas is “light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!”#
And that, as unbelievable as it seems, is why capitalism is now referred to as “free enterprise” in textbooks all across the country, and why students won’t learn that the Founding Fathers opposed the establishment of a state religion in the Bill of Rights. That’s why the transatlantic slave trade system is now called the Atlantic triangular trade, why Moses is named as a major influence on the Constitution, and why hip hop was deemed culturally irrelevant and replaced instead with country music.
Even the conservative Fordham Institute called Texas’ approach to U.S. history “a rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure with a politicized distortion of history,” going so far as to say, “The result is both unwieldy and troubling, avoiding clear historical explanation while offering misrepresentations at every turn.”
But history, as we’ve been told, is written by the victors. And in America, where the dollar is the ultimate weapon, Texas has emerged victorious; they spend the most money on textbooks, so they get to determine what’s in them.
However, as someone with a firsthand view of the crumbling publishing industry, I have an idea for a way to break free from this economic educational enslavement:
A wiki U.S. History textbook.
The reason Texas has so much control over what high schoolers all over the country are learning is because they buy the books. And ask any college student come fall, textbooks aren’t cheap:
Given the high cost of developing a single book, the risk of messing with Texas was high. “One of the most expensive is science,” McGee said. “You have to hire medical illustrators to do all the art.” When she was in the business, the cost of producing a new biology book could run to $5 million. “The investments are really great and it’s all on risk.”
But in 2015, there’s this new thing called the internet where one can publish anything they want for $0 down and $0 a month. Some bold sociologists are even calling this era The Information Age, as an internet connection also means a connection to the unfathomable amount of human knowledge collected so far. In fact, Wikipedia.com, the king of all wikis, has been ranked in the top 10 most visited websites of all time since 2007.
So why haven’t we taken better advantage of this technology?
There are easy answers like the slow adoption of ebooks (students report actually preferring hard copies over digital screens) and the reliability issues that come with crowdsourced wikis — Stephen Colbert coined the phrase “wikiality,” the reality that exists if you make something up and enough people agree with you — but considering most college students already rely on Wikipedia as an academic resource, why not try and capitalize on that existing ‘consumer’ base?
Even Harvard defends Wikipedia has a place in the world of higher learning:
The fact that Wikipedia is not a reliable source for academic research doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to use basic reference materials when you’re trying to familiarize yourself with a topic.
Not to mention, Wikipedia already has something called the Wikipedia Education Program that helps educators and students around the world contribute to Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects in an academic setting (e.g. Wikibooks). There’s even a really cool tool on the site that lets you create your own “book” of pre-existing Wikipedia pages.
Imagine getting to read a history textbook specifically curated by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Howard Zinn or Rosabeth Moss Kanter…
And it’s not like this would be that hard for them to do. All the Wikipedia pages are already written. It would be more like them putting together a playlist on Spotify than writing their own album from scratch. Besides, whatever they come up with can’t be any worse than what 15 evangelical Christians in Texas have chosen to include, right?
Plus, having multiple interpretations of history might help highlight the fact that history isn’t actually one easily-comprehended story to memorize. As Michael Conway once eloquently explained:
Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative — a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same.
Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose the American national story.
Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network said, “The fundamental problem is that partisan politicians are making decisions that should be made by scholars,” but we have the technology available to give the scholars near complete control of the process. There is, technologically and logistically speaking, nothing stopping all the Ivy League history professors from coming together to write the digital US History textbook. And in similar industries, we’re already getting there. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post recently discussed the rise of annotation in online journalism, and he made a prophetic assumption that could just as well apply to how we should view and construct our own history: “Journalism is moving away from a model of speaking down from the mountaintop and moving toward the idea of working together to build the mountain.”
It may not be the most strictly academic approach, but considering our ‘purely academic’ textbooks have already been hijacked by the subjective whims of politics, it seems like a pretty good place to start, or at least start over from. Then we just throw that puppy online for free, maybe add on a Patronizing tipping system to help cover costs, and ta-da, we’ve saved the youth of America from falling further into a pit of ignorance and apathy.
So what do you say Ta-Nehisi? Want to help us build a mountain?
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