Textbook Case of Diversity

The textbook industry is starting to build a bad rap. The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition (paid access only) ran a frontpage article blasting publishers (especially Houghton Mifflin) for “overshooting diversity” by having quotas of disabled and minority kids for appearing in textbook photographs. Even worse, some photographs show able-bodied kids posing in wheelchairs. The quotas help the companies win big contracts with state schools. California, interestingly enough, has a law that requires publishers to reflect diversity without specifying percentages for particular groups.

Of course you want the diversity of the nation to be reflected in the textbook but the publishers are getting themselves into more trouble than it’s worth with quotas and making physically disabled kids visible enough to be seen if just thumbing through the book. My high school, San Francisco University High School (UHS) had similar issues with its viewbook which is meant to go out to prospective students. Essentially, people complained that two of three black teachers got profiled for the viewbook. I’ve heard countless stories about minority students being chosen for posed photographs for the viewbook (one story: a photographer said, “we’ll take the young asian lady to take photographs with the head of school,”).

My view is not to put such an emphasis on forcing diversity. When Grey Anatomy came out as a hit show for ABC on television, one of the most complemented things was that the cast was incredibly diverse but the show rarely made a point of that diversity. In other words, the scripts didn’t revolve around ethnicity or racial conflict. The same should go for textbooks and viewbooks. No textbook should have able-bodied kids faking being in wheelchairs just so a publishing company can check off that box. If there is a physically challenged model for the picture, great. If not, then that’s okay.

Oh and textbooks may running advertisements to reduce cost… but that’s another story.