Gresham's Law of Education


Why Are They Lying to Our Children? by Herbert I. London, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 197 pp., $15.95

The textbooks being used in our schools, says Herbert London, are "encouraging a generation of students to be intolerant about matters over which they have been systematically misled." Primarily, these textbooks have uncritically endorsed the idea that the world faces a future of pollution and poverty. London himself is keenly concerned about the future, being National Chairman of the Visions of the Future Education Program of the Hudson Institute, as well as the dean of the Gallatin Division of New York University. But don't conclude that this is an academic book—as its title indicates, it is addressed primarily to parents who have children in American elementary or high schools. London has taken on all the school textbooks that discuss the future and concluded that "Gresham's law of education today seems to be that bad news—even when false—will drive good news out of circulation."

His findings are based on all the texts published "in the last five years" (copyright dates range from 1975 to 1983) that discuss the future, a list of which—67 of them—he appends. He calls Why Are They Lying to Our Children? a review of these books. London summarizes, with numerous quotations as well as refutations, the information these texts present in seven areas: population and food, energy, minerals, environment, economic development, outlook on the future, and the limits-to-growth ideology. The final chapter offers questions to be asked of the advocates of doom, as well as specific recommendations to parents on how to counter the effect of these teachings by encouraging their children to think critically.

The conclusions about the end of abundance and the imminence of environmental catastrophe presented in these texts are based on trend projections in studies such as the 1982 Global 2000 Report to the President, E.F. Schumacher's bestselling book Small Is Beautiful, and Limits to Growth, written in the early '70s by a group of thinkers, referred to as the Club of Rome, concerned with global economic problems. Many of the findings of these studies have been modified or contradicted, but they live on in our schools, supported either by dogmatic assertions, which London demonstrates are often contrary to fact, or by out-of-date facts. For instance, a 1981 text uses a 1955 figure on life expectancy in India to support its contention that life-expectancy rates in less-developed countries are contracting, when in fact they are expanding.

What the conclusions presented in these textbooks particularly lack is any form of risk analysis. By presenting the dangers inherent in contemporary industrialization—dangers of pollution, of environmental damage, of species destruction—without any discussion of the trade-offs, a completely false picture of the actual policy decisions to be made is created. This is not endemic only to textbooks, of course—it is also true of the media in general.

As I write this, the world is still reeling from the impact of the largest industrial accident it has yet experienced—the deaths of an estimated 2,000 Indians in Bhopal, due to the leaking of poisonous gases from a Union Carbide pesticide plant. A fat folder of clippings on the tragedy holds article after article about the need for regulation that the tragedy underlines, about the "outrageous disregard for health and safety concerns by the Reagan Administration," about the culpability of Union Carbide, even though, as was gradually revealed, the Indian government passed the regulations, formulated the work rules that required manual rather than computerized safety devices, and required Union Carbide supervisory personnel and technicians to leave in 1982 and be replaced by an all-Indian management.

Overall, the media saw the story as pointing to the need for more controls over and regulation of technology. Only a handful of stories (including an outstanding front-page story by Philip M. Boffey in the New York Times on December 16, 1984) mentioned the trade-off involved. Pesticides are a major contributor to the "green revolution" that has brought India from a land of periodic famine to self-sufficiency in grain; the particular pesticide is less environmentally toxic than the notorious DDT.

True, the chemicals were dangerous, particularly when the Indian government overruled the safety regulations suggested by the American parent company. But would we prefer India not to develop pesticides and therefore still have people starving? This is not, of course, to say that we should not continue to improve the safety record of pesticide and other chemical plants. As a matter of fact, in the United States the chemical and refining industries have the best safety record in US manufacturing, precisely because of the dangers involved. It is this kind of trade-off that our children should be encouraged to analyze but are not, either by the media or by their textbooks.

Although London's book will appeal to conservatives, it would be a mistake to read his argument as merely an argument for more "conservative" content in textbooks. He is a strong opponent of the conclusions reached in these textbooks, but his thesis is not so much that what is presented in contemporary textbooks is wrong as that it is wrongly argued. Over and over he tells his readers that whether the arguments against the textbooks' cited doomsday positions would be persuasive to the teachers or to the students using the books is not the point—the point is that such arguments aren't there to be considered. Our textbooks are singularly lacking in materials that could help students learn how to think and examine and understand argument and proof.

However, London does not despair about this lack of critical content in our textbooks. "There isn't that much to do," he rather optimistically says at the end of the book. "The application of commonsense standards of 'fair play' and 'balanced argument' will go a long way toward correcting the lies our students are routinely taught."

Joan Kennedy Taylor is the publications director of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.