No answer

Editor's Introduction -- It's funny when the comedian Garrison Keillor reminds us that, in the imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, "all the children are above average." But it's not funny at all when schoolbook-company charlatans concoct similar absurdities and feed them to young students as matters of fact. Welcome to the mendacious world of fake anthropology -- where all societies are "advanced" or "highly developed," and no society has ever been primitive. While you are here, you can read about a charlatan who, when asked to explain his claims, refused to answer.
This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter for July-August 1994.

Advanced Fakery

William J. Bennetta

Textbook-writers use various devices to dupe students, and the most common device is the printing of "information" that is simply false. Another trick -- one that seems equally evil -- is the printing of stuff that is absurd. Such stuff is surely not true, but neither is it false. It can't be true or false because it has no meaning at all. It is fed to students, usually in the form of cheesy little slogans, and the students are led to believe that they are learning something. In fact, though, they are being duped in ways that entail the stifling of thought and the undermining of reason itself.

Absurdity has gained new prominence during the past few years, as schoolbook-writers have promoted a new kind of nonsense: fake anthropology. This odd endeavor blends racism with boosterism, wrapping both in an anthropological disguise. The slogans of fake anthropology are showing up in schoolbooks for various subjects, as some examples will show:

  • Merrill Earth Science, published by the Glencoe Division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, says that "The Pueblo people of the Southwest had one of the most highly developed civilizations to ever inhabit North America" (page 117). Intelligent students will wonder what "highly developed" means, and what criteria are used in judging how "developed" a civilization was (or is), but the students will be out of luck. Merrill's writers don't explain.

  • The middle volume of SciencePlus, a three-book series issued by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, says this about the plains Indians of North America: "These people had a highly developed society but no permanent architecture" (page 294). If students wonder how a "highly developed" society can be identified, or what "highly developed" may mean, that's just too bad. The Holt writers give no clue.

  • Glencoe's American-history book Challenge of Freedom says that "Many advanced Indian societies had developed in the Americas by the time the first Europeans came to the new lands" (page 17). "Advanced"? "Advanced" in what way? "Advanced" in comparison with what? Glencoe's writers explain nothing.

The prize for fake anthropology, however, must be given to Walsworth's American-history book ". . . to form a more perfect union . . . ." In a shabby, false account of the slave trade, this book casually declares that "The African civilization [in the 1500s] was as advanced as that of Europe." That's all that the book says. It doesn't tell which African peoples were civilized, it doesn't tell which people merited the unique title "the African civilization," it doesn't tell what "advanced" means, and it surely doesn't explain the rating system which led to the explicitly quantitative claim that "the African civilization" and European civilization were "advanced" to the same degree.

The title page of Walsworth's book says that the book's author is one David A. Bice. I have written to Bice three times, asking him to explain his claim and to tell me the criteria that he used for rating civilizations and assessing how "advanced" they were. He has not replied. I am not surprised.

Along with their devotion to sloganeering and their consistent failure to explain anything, the practitioners of fake anthropology have another quaint habit: No matter what group of people they consider, they always announce that the group was "advanced" or "highly developed." They seem not to know of any group that was primitive, although the very idea that some group was "advanced" must mean that some other group was (by comparison) primitive, backward, static or retrograde. This is clear to anyone who is capable of thinking, but the clowns who dispense fake anthropology are plainly hostile to thinking and are concerned only with getting students to absorb meaningless slogans -- slogans that, I infer, are intended to promote some sort of racial or political ideology.

As I remarked earlier, the injection of absurdity into schoolbooks is an attack on reason itself. I hope that schools will immediately reject books that deal in fake anthropology, but I know that such books are bound to get into classrooms here and there. Let me point out, then, that an alert teacher can use fake anthropology as material for a lesson in analytical thinking, giving students some insight into how charlatans trade in unexplained terms and unsupported claims.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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