OpEdge Redux: The ideological subtext of just accepting that unregulated market forces rule the textbook publishing industry

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on March 19, 2010.

Most of the first round of hand-ringing about the Texas Board of Education’s decision to infuse inaccuracies in social science textbooks is over.  I’ve noticed a very interesting fact about the comments in the main stream news media.  Here is a sampling of what four mainstream and four regional media said about the Texas school board.  Most but not all are against the school board’s reckless pushing of one point-of-view, but for or against, they all make one assumption.

First the sample stories:

  • Washington Post reports historians hate the changes.
  • Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Thomas Frank that looks on the school board’s actions as a much needed anodyne to liberalism.
  • The New York Times bemoans the decision of the Texas School Board to introduce so many distortions into the study of history.
  • The Economist cheerfully reviews what happened in a half-satirical tone, ending with a note that even Texas Republicans are “growing weary of the board’s antics.”
  • Kansas City Star columnist also bemoans the decision.
  • Washington Monthly reporter gives a good history of what happened in Texas
  • Columnist for the Toledo Blade likes the move to reconsider standards but is concerned that the Texas curriculum was “deliberately dumbed down by hard-core ideologues tweaking textbooks to indoctrinate instead of inform.”

The assumption all these opinion-makers take for granted is that the textbook industry will bend over and say “yes sir” to Texas.  The underlying ideological subtext is unregulated free marketplace in which it is natural and appropriate for there always to be a seller for the buyer.

Let’s take a look at that assumption: When a corporation or individual wants an attorney to help in creating a fraudulent business structure or covering up a crime, don’t we assume that virtually all lawyers will turn down the work?  What about when a client asks a PR agency to knowingly lie?  My agency would turn the work down and so would most agencies I know, which is the expectation stated in the industry’s ethical standards.  Accountants asked to fudge the numbers? An architect asked to cut costs by substituting unsafe materials?  A food store asked to sell unsafe food?  All against ethical standards of the industry, and mostly against the law.

Now I know that corrupt people and organizations can always find corrupt professionals to do their bidding, unethical and/or illegal as it might be.

But the textbook industry is much smaller.  There are perhaps a handful of publishers, whereas there are millions of lawyers, so many that you could even find one or two who would write that torture is legal.

Additionally, textbooks are typically written by experts in the field: historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists.  These professionals all have standards of ethics.  If the small number of textbook publishers hewed to these standards of expertise in the writing and revision of textbooks, then a body of elected no-nothings like the Texas Board of Education would not be able to dictate changes that introduce inaccuracies and lies into textbooks.

Companies and industries walk away from “bad business” all the time.  Certainly, if the textbook industry walked away from Texas, someone would fill the void.  But that would take time and a greater outlay of resources by Texas, as new books would need to be written.  The resulting impact on the rest of the country would be smaller, because the new or rogue publisher wouldn’t have the contacts and database required to sell to the thousands of school districts across our 50 states.  I understand that the voters of Texas hate new taxes more than they like right-wing myths and homilies, so facing the need to recreate the industry in its own image, there might suddenly be a lot of pressure on the Texas Board of Education to reconsider its lunacy.

But did one of these columnists chide the textbook publishers for rolling over and playing dead?  Did one of these columnists advocate that publishers close ranks against Texas?  Or did any of them suggest publishers’ create a voluntary set of standards that prevent any from publishing what are known to be historical inaccuracies in textbooks for public schools?  Did any of them call for associations of historians take action?  Did any even recommend that school districts outside Texas refuse to buy Texas-poisoned texts? No, no, no, no and no.

No, because to do so would be to question, even if it’s only in a small way, the total dominance of the free market ideology in all thinking about all social issues.  The assumption that everything is for sale and that the market dictates all decisions by economic entities is so engrained in the ideologies of those who write for the mainstream media that the idea of exercising a little ethical self-control would never occur to any of them.

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2 comments on “OpEdge Redux: The ideological subtext of just accepting that unregulated market forces rule the textbook publishing industry
  1. Terrific post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?

    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
    Cheers!

  2. Hilo School says:

    Hi there! This is my first visit to your blog!
    We are a group of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche.

    Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

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