Environmental history errors in a high school textbook

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Writing a high school textbook is a difficult (and likely underappreciated) undertaking. Such texts must provide a wealth of information in an understandable and engaging manner. (No small feat given the audience.) In some subject areas, authors must also be cognizant of political, religious, cultural and ideological sensitivities. But none of these obstacles is an excuse for factual inaccuracy.

The other night I took a look at a few pages in my daughter's U.S. History textbook (Pearson Prentice-Hall, U.S. History: Reconstruction to the Present (Ohio Edition, 2008)) concerning the growth of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, as I was curious what my daughter was learning about it. I expected to disagree with some of book's choice of emphasis or the way certain events are portrayed. What I did not expect, however, was to find a series of plain factual errors.

Here is some of what I found in just a few pages:

  • "In the 1920s, Progressives had worked to conserve public lands and parks. But no one thought to worry much about the ill effects of industrialization." (p. 699)
    This is not true. There was a vibrant smoke control movement during the Progressive Era that led to the enactment of municipal smoke-control ordinances and industrial fuel switching. For a thorough account of this movement, its successes and failures, see David Stradling's Smokestacks and Progressives.
  • "Her [Rachel Carson's] work eventually compelled Congress to restrict the use of the pesticide DDT." (p. 699)
    This is not true. Various restrictions were imposed on DDT use by the Department of Agriculture and other agencies in the 1960s. The cancellation of DDT's registration (which effectively prohibited its use for agricultural purposes) was imposed administratively by the EPA in 1972. It was not enacted by Congress. The EPA surveys this history here.
  • "When a fire erupted on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, activists instantly spoke out." (p.699)
    Contrary to this characterization, the 1969 fire—which was not the first fire on the Cuyahoga River (or on other American rivers)—did not spark an immediate outcry. It was a local non-event, and did not get substantial attention until reported in Time and National Geographic several weeks later in sensationalized fashion. While the fire later became a symbol that helped galvanize environmental concern (aided by Time's publication of a photo from a much earlier and much worse fire), it was not an instant trigger for activism. This is a particular bugaboo of mine, as I've written what is arguably the definitive account of the fire and its significance.
  • "Under Nixon's leadership, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970." (p. 700)
    Wrong again. The EPA was created by an Executive Order issued by President Nixon. Although this order was submitted to Congress, the reorganization was not enacted or compelled by Congress. See, for instance, the EPA's own account of its history.
  • The book's listing of laws "signed" by President Nixon (p. 700) includes the Clean Water Act. Yet President Nixon vetoed the CWA, and it was enacted over his veto and without his signature. (Nixon did, however, sign several other landmark environmental laws.)
  • "In 1974, he [President Ford] created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission . . ." (p. 700)
    Here, instead of crediting Congress with actions taken administratively, the book makes the opposite mistake. The NRC was not created by President Ford. Rather, it was created by an act of Congress, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974.

It is important to stress that these are all basic factual errors, not questions of interpretation. I have some problems there too (e.g. the book's discussion of Rachel Carson and her significance) but such disagreements about tone and emphasis are inevitable in this sort of subject, particularly where relatively recent events are concerned. In other words, I don't expect to agree with every textbook, but I would not expect to find so many mistakes in a handful of pages.

I have not gone through the rest of the book to see whether the sloppiness chronicled above is endemic. It's possible that the book's errors are largely confined to its brief discussion of environmental history. For the sake of those students throughout the state that use the book, I hope so. And for the sake of those who use future editions, I hope these mistakes are corrected.