Wednesday, February 07, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

Back when I was a kid in school, one year all the textbooks changed, subtly. Where the word problems in the math worksheet used to begin, "John is an engineer ..." they now as often began "Jane is an engineer ...." On another page was the same simple line drawing illustration of a group of kids on a playground. The same picture as last year, but now some of the faces were stippled over with black Benday dots to make them African-American.

Which was odd because such things really didn't exist much around us when I was very young. Women didn't typically hold high-tech jobs; neighborhoods and schools were pretty segregated, de facto. Nor did most people around me think this was a problem. The girls I was in second grade with in 1967 didn't seem to be dreaming of engineering careers. People who bought new homes in the suburbs generally didn't ask their banks about racial double standards in lending.

But some did. And some adults thought all these things-that-were-not, ought to be in America. Patriotism is more than a refuge for scoundrels. Others didn't care about patriotism, but they thought discrimination was simply wrong. Many of both groups worked for change.

A few vigorously fought against the changes as though the issue were life itself, and for them, in a way, it was. They were few, but loud, and they tend to claim a disproportionate amount of space in the newscasts and the history books. Which, after all, rarely are about telling you what the average person is quietly doing, or thinking, or changing.

And some people weren't so sure change was good, but they saw it was coming, and they thought they better prepare people to deal with it, for the good of everyone.

The vast majority, I think, watched the debates, watched the behaviors play out, watched the character of the people on each side. And they shifted some weight around in their heads, and though they started on one side of the question, they ended up more or less on the other. In bulk. And the changes came.

And to this day I have no real idea whether the cosmetic (literally) changes in our textbooks in Mary C. House Elementary School in 1967 made a damn bit of difference in that big story. Or whether they just wasted publishers' time and perplexed the students. Nor does anyone else. If anyone tells you he can prove this, she's wrong.


This is how real people -- even those who write history for a living -- think about the recent past. It's a global civilizational experience wrapped around a personal one.

If I feel in my heart that the changes in textbooks made a difference, helped bring justice, fairness, and equality that much more into the light in America and that much sooner, should that inform what I think about the media? Does that thought tread down a forking path?

My inability to know for sure whether these things mattered or not is what makes them fun to argue about. If you argue about what's provable, that's a pretty quick deal. You pull down a book and look it up, and either it's true or it's not. Or if the sources conflict, you determine which is more reliable, or which makes the better case. That's debate.

This other thing is what goes on in blogs, 90 percent of the time. Ideally, a dialogue of bloggers would be like that. But I'm pretty sure that an attempt to start a discussion online on the topic:

"Did cosmetic changes in the wording of math problems in elementary school textbooks, in advance of the achievements of the women's movement, help precipitate gender justice in America?"

would fall apart at once over the question of whether it really is "justice" or a violation of God's Divine Plan, or whether it should be spelt "womyn," or a challenge to broaden the definition of "women" to include trannies.

Which would be opinions of small minorities, but very vocal ones. So naturally they would dominate in a free media.

Arguing is more human than debating, because you have to agree first on large terms you use and what they mean. There's no big reference dictionary for that. But you also have to have shared senses of the importance of things like justice and integrity. You have to be fully human. You have to recognize that, though you may never be the radical or the reactionary, in some situations you will be that person stating, "this is unfair and must change," and in others you'll be the one saying, "wait, go slow, think about it first." When you mock either, ultimately you mock yourself.

Maybe you were wondering what point I had hidden behind my back to thrust at you at the end after I lured you in here, eh? That would be the nature of the Internet. I'm simply thinking out loud.

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