The Terrible Textbooks of Freshman Comp

Mary Grabar

Freshman composition class at many colleges is propaganda time, with textbooks conferring early sainthood on President Obama and lavishing attention on writers of the far left--Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, Peter Singer and Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance--but rarely on moderates, let alone anyone right of center. Democrats do very well in these books, but Abraham Lincoln--when included--is generally the most recent Republican featured.

Take The Norton Reader, for instance. Someone sent it to me, presumably because I teach freshman composition myself. Much of the volume is made up of popular writing by ideological writers of the left and political speeches that strain the traditional standards of rhetorical worthiness. Among the latter is the instant classic, Barack Obama's "A New Beginning" speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. It drew quite a bit of criticism, especially over historical inaccuracies. Yet none of this was mentioned. Topic questions were also embedded to trigger predetermined responses from students. 

Lincoln, King and Obama

With my curiosity piqued by the obvious bias, I decided to look at other textbooks. What I found was the widespread promotion of Obama, thinly disguised by claims about his rhetorical skills. (Entering college freshmen are likely to have already been exposed to a lot on Obama, much of it from Scholastic, which offers a teachers' workbook, as well.) Other than one or two columns by a token conservative, like David Brooks, the rich array of conservative writing was ignored.

The Norton Reader, like most, is divided thematically. Interestingly, Obama's speech is not included in the section, "Politics and Government," where Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" appear. It shows up in the "Spoken Words" section that is made up of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech, Eleanor Roosevelt's "On the Declaration of Human Rights," William Faulkner's "Nobel Prize Speech," and Al Gore's speech, "The Climate Emergency" that became the basis of the film and book, An Inconvenient Truth. While acknowledging that Gore's speech was given during the 2004 presidential campaign, the editors treat his data as undisputed scientific fact. For example, topic question 4 asks the student: "Gore gives three leading causes of the climate emergency: population growth, technology, and our way of thinking. List the kinds of evidence and examples he uses in this part of his speech, and suggest how the diversity of evidence and examples helps him communicate with his audience." There is no hint that there is disagreement on the issue. None of the five topic questions allow the student to dissent from any part of Gore's argument.

Similarly, Obama's claims in his Cairo speech are presented without any skepticism. CBS News, hardly a conservative organ, reported that praise for the speech usually focused on its "delivery," but noted that even the Huffington Post marked the "lack of substance in the words." William Bradley's column there claimed that the speech's arena itself was reason for its success: "The positions [Obama] laid out are positions he had in his campaign. But he did say it all at once, and quite well."

Obama's historical inaccuracies in the speech go unchallenged, like attributing the invention of printing to Muslims (it was the Chinese) or crediting Morocco with being the first to recognize the United States ( No--Russia, France, Spain and the Netherlands did it earlier). And again, there is no mention of criticisms of the speech, many of them well-founded.

Two of the four topic questions require the student's uncritical affirmations. Question 2 refers to the seven "specific tensions or issues affecting the current relationship between the United States and Muslim nations." Were the enterprising student to select one of those as instructed and examine it in detail, but with outside evidence, he would then be faced with the next part of the question: "How does Obama develop his argument so that it will appeal to various audiences?" The assumption that Obama does appeal to various audiences gives the lie to the usual claims about making students "critical thinkers."

Just Obey the President's Call

Usually the last topic calls for a more open, creative response. For Obama's speech we have: "Obama concludes with a call to action directed especially toward the world's youth: 'And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country--you, more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world.' Write a paper in which you discuss ways you personally might respond to this call." Disguised as a question, this is a not-so-subtle request to obey the president's call.

There is not only lack of balance in terms of political representation, but also in sources of the essays. While the anthology does contain a smattering of classics from Emerson, Thoreau, Orwell, and the like, modern selections make up the bulk of the volume. Most come from general interest publications, but it seems the editors never heard of National Review, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, or New Criterion. Yet, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and Harper's offer numerous excerpts each. A number also come from American Scholar and Georgia Review. There are multiple offerings by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Joan Didion. The "Ethics" section contains an offering by Peter Singer, by an abortion clinic nurse, and from several animal rights advocates, but nothing from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Bedford/St. Martin's too includes Obama in several textbooks. A Memorial Day speech at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery provides the sole presidential offering in Making Sense. The 2012 edition of The Writer's Presence: A Pool of Readings offers Obama's election night "Grant Park Victory Speech." (The previous, 2009, edition that contains an excerpt from Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father apparently went to press before the election. Dreams must have been assigned widely, for enotes offers help to students, as does BestEssayHelp.com for the Inaugural Speech.)

The Victory Speech's salvific message is enhanced by its placement amidst accounts of the inherent hopelessness of life in America by the same authors (Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Singer). Again, no balance is offered. What might be useful is Ronald Reagan's short speech on his landslide victory that is marked by humility, in contrast to Obama's insistent proclamations of the historical significance of his election as "the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful...." Topic questions at the end ask students to connect this speech to the Gettysburg Address (!) and MLK's "I Have a Dream."

The editors seem to be aware of crossing a line, however, for in the instructor's manual they acknowledge that Obama is "the focal point of a great deal of emotion on either side of the political spectrum." They therefore advise limiting class discussion to the speech's "persuasive power." The attempt to mask such cheerleading is further betrayed by the inclusion of other selections, like John Edgar Wideman's "Street Corner Dreamers," which is about what the Victory Speech means to the hitherto hopeless denizens of our nation's cities. Wideman asks, "Do I glimpse that change in the way they walk and talk, the way they occupy space and flash looks at one another, urgent exchanges of joy, anger, longing, understanding, impatience, solidarity, challenge, like the undeniable, irrepressible reality embodied in singer Sam Cooke's voice when he promises change that must come--music that might be in the general air now or playing just around the corner in the voice of Barack Obama?"

(An accompanying photo announces, "Barack Obama plays basketball with local youths in Chicago's Southside, where he launched his career in public service as a community organizer.")

Wideman continues the rhapsody: "Not Barack Obama singing, but Barack Obama in charge, calling the meeting to order. Putting a finger to his lips: Quiet, everybody, please." The section includes an essay by Howard Zinn, the late over-the-top historian who is simply described as "professor emeritus of political science at Boston University . . . known both for his active involvement in the civil rights and peace movements and for his scholarship," however, strains credulity regarding simple rhetorical criteria. The editors list Zinn's numerous publications and say only about his political allegiances that he argued "that perseverence [sic] in the face of opposition is essential." Topic 1, though, asks, "Explain what Zinn means by what Leon Trotsky called the 'natural selection of accidents' (paragraph 2) preventing true depictions of war, class, and race from appearing in films." Topic 3 then directs students' attention to Obama again: "'What steps do you believe President Obama will take to improve your life? (Possible answer: he could lose in November.)

'Hearts Bursting with Love and Pride'

Another Bedford anthology, America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals, does not include speeches or book excerpts. Yet, a thematic section focuses on "Barack Obama: What Does His Election Mean to America?" The head note introduces the readings with the claim that Obama's election "filled the country, from left to right, with a momentary euphoria." In this section are two essays from Essence, one the aforementioned Wideman essay, and one by Diane McKinney-Whetstone on "The First Family" ("When the crowd surged forward, hearts bursting with love and pride, the lens shifted and altered the world's view of the Black family," with topic questions driving home the point that racism had hitherto stymied the black family); an essay from Tikkun that the editors explain is a criticism from the left, "arguing that [Obama] represents a continuation of the conventional policies of the Bush administration, policies [the author Christopher Hedges] believes are determined and orchestrated by a corporate oligarchy"; and a student essay titled "Obama--President for All" ("while Obama embodies a milestone in America's history as the first African American president. . . .").

Hedges, an unusually angry senior fellow at the Nation Institute, who wrote what is described as a "call to arms" for the first issue of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, claims that "the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country." Obama is simply, in Hedge's estimation, a new brand of the unlawful President Bush, for he refuses to "dismantle Bush's secrecy laws and restore habeas corpus." The editors' footnote explains only, "habeas corpus: The principle that an accused person should be allowed to know the charges against him or her exactly; the Bush administration suspended it during the War on Terror."

The substitution of "person" for "citizen" and the refusal to describe Hedges' real position is, of course, irresponsible. The fact that this textbook is aimed at the student with a low reading level, one who would be least likely to know this information on his own, suggests a goal that has very little to do with education. Nor do the other volumes for that matter. They want to tell students what to think, not how to write.
 

Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on March 9, 2012.

Image: Flickr, commonreaders

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