This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1998.

The Flat-Earth Story -- Again

William J. Bennetta

In a review that begins on page 9 of this issue, Charles B. Paul points out that Glencoe -- in a high-school book titled World History: The Human Experience -- is still peddling the flat-Earth story.

Before the Renaissance, Glencoe's writers assert, "most Europeans believed that the earth was flat." That is moonshine. There were no medieval opinion polls to show what "most Europeans" believed about anything, so we have no way of knowing what they thought about the nature or the shape of Earth. (Indeed, we have no way of knowing whether "most Europeans" thought about such things at all.) But among educated Europeans, anyone who asked about the matter learned that Earth is spherical. Earth's shape and approximate size had been known to the ancient Greeks, and this knowledge had been preserved and elaborated.

The last time we noticed flat-Earth stuff in a schoolbook was several years ago. The book was Prentice Hall Earth Science, and its flat-Earth story included the claim that nobody was sure about Earth's shape until Columbus's voyage in 1492 provided "final proof" that Earth "was indeed round." (See "Fake 'History' That Is Flatly Wrong," by Lawrence S. Lerner, in The Textbook Letter for January-February 1992.)

This flat-Earth nonsense is derived from a 19th-century fiction that was used as anticlerical propaganda: During medieval and Renaissance times, it was said, the benighted and dogmatic Church of Rome had forced Europeans to deny Earth's sphericity. That tale was retold and embellished, with signal results, in a book of fictionalized "history" written by the American novelist Washington Irving (1783-1859). Irving fabricated a scene in which Columbus, having perceived that Earth was spherical, was assailed by wrong-headed priests -- and the scene was so compelling that it was widely accepted and disseminated as fact. The flat-Earth story quickly became a popular piece of pseudohistorical folklore, and it remains popular today. That Glencoe is still promoting it, as fact, is a measure of Washington Irving's skill. It is also a measure of the scholarship practiced by the people who write Glencoe's "history" books.

Teachers can learn more about the origin and history of the flat-Earth story by reading Jeffrey Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, issued in 1991 by Praeger Publishers.

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 often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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