Language in Textbook Sparks Outrage Issues of Journalistic Ethics

By Emily Moran

Elm Staff Writer

Textbook publishing company McGraw-Hill has come under fire recently due to their apparent erasure of slavery in the United States.  One of their World Geography textbooks contained language that many feel makes light of the issue of slavery.

A graphic in the textbook showing the immigration patterns during the colonial age of the country features a block of text describing the Africans that came to the country through the The Atlantic Slave Trade as “workers.” The outrage began when Roni Dean-Burren received a text message from her 15-year-old son containing a picture of the problematic text.  Such an incident demonstrates the real issue of the erasure and white-washing of American history.

This is not the first incident of McGraw-Hill getting into trouble over problematic phrasing. The company’s Texas materials have been criticized in the past for the presence of inaccurate facts about American history, which were included in order to comply with changes made to the state’s curriculum.  A Washington Post article titled, “Historians Speak Out Against Proposed Texas Textbook Changes,” lists some of these inaccuracies that were approved for future textbooks such as the downplaying of Thomas Jefferson’s role among the founding fathers, questioning of the separation of church and state, and claiming that the US government was infiltrated by communists during the Cold War.

McGraw-Hill’s latest textbook has sparked contrvoersy due to its phrasing of delicate political events highlighting an ongoing worry of political bias and “white washing” slipping into American public classrooms.
McGraw-Hill’s latest textbook has sparked contrvoersy due to its phrasing of delicate political events highlighting an ongoing worry of political bias and “white washing” slipping into American public classrooms.


This wildly inaccurate re-writing of American history is undoubtedly harmful to the education of students in America. There are already many problems with how American history is presented to students.  For example, many history curriculums throughout the country tend to gloss over terrible events that occurred due to U.S. governmental policies such as the genocide of Native Americans and the placement of Japanese Americans into internment camps.  Such cases of erasure are harmful to how we understand the past and how our past affects our and policies going into the future. The language that has been used in such cases, while subtle, undoubtedly matters.

Within the past week, this story has taken social media by storm. Many Twitter users have posted about the incident using the hashtag “#RecallAndReplace.” Pushing McGraw-Hill to recall current copies of their textbooks and replace them with a newer version, fixing the problematic vocabulary that is present in the current version.  Dean-Burren’s voice, among many other Americans, did not go completely unheard.  On Oct 5, McGraw-Hill issued a statement on their official Facebook page stating that a mistake was made and that they are offering those currently using the book “either a sticker to cover and replace the caption or a new, corrected, and printed copy of the book.”

While this is an attempt to solve the issue at hand, it falls short. Rather than completely recalling  the book, McGraw-Hill has only offered replacements to those who request it.  To many, this does nothing to solve the problem and still leaves the problematic passage open to the general public. Such passages could possibly teach inaccurate facts about important events in American history such as slavery or the genocide of Native Americans. It could become more difficult to connect the past issues of slavery to the present racial issues we face today and thus potentially lead an entire generation learning ignorance of the struggles of the oppressed in America.

The scandal has highlighted the importance of erasure in American history curriculums throughout the country.  It also shows how important our language is, especially when discussing such sensitive topics relating to race. While many criticize the necessity for sensitivity when discussing such controversial matters as being too politically correct, I think that such sensitivity is necessary.  How else could we discuss the many problems that people in the country face today? I also feel that while its intentions were good, McGraw-Hill fell short in attempting to rectify the situation. Instead of just promising to do better the next time around, it would have been much more effective and sensitive to recall the textbook entirely.  The method it is using still allows for many people to make light out of the very serious issue that is slavery in the United States.


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