Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Back in 1809, a parson named Mason Locke Weems wanted to teach kids to tell the truth, which he did.....by making up a big fat lie. You already know the story, and plenty of children believe it to this very day. It's the one about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and then admitting that "I can't tell a lie, Pa...I did cut it with my hatchet." Then dear little George's dad gave him a great big hug for telling the truth, and he grew up to be so honest that he was elected president.

Hmmmm. The obvious unintended consequences of such stories-with-a-moral (and there are plenty) are that the minute kids find out they're false, they either lose respect for the grown-up who tells the tale or they learn that certain lies must be OK. On a personal level, here's another unintended consequence. When my elementary school teacher told us this "true" story, we thought it was totally lame, that George Washington was a Little Goody Two-Shoe, and that we never wanted to hear about George's corny self ever again.

On general principle, I'm in favor of telling the unvarnished truth to kids (and not because of Parson Weems either). For example, if "bad" things were done in the past, we'd profit more by learning from history's mistakes than by covering them up. Besides, the truth is so much more interesting than the cover-ups. But what's most important is that rewriting history leads to unintended consequences even when the authors' intentions are good.

Are things any better today? Enormously--but only up to a point. As we speak, all sorts of books, TV, and movies for young kids are still skirting the truth. Sometimes inaccuracies have wormed their way into the media because the authors didn't do their homework. But many twisted tales were planned on purpose in an effort to do some good. What's that supposed to mean? Read on.

Let's fast forward to the time between 1940 and the mid 1960's, when women and minorities regularly got short shrift in children's media. Elementary school students learned to read by slogging through textbooks such as Fun with Dick and Jane, which aimed to set a good example by starring an exemplary perfect white family: Father was the Provider in his suit and hat. Mother was the Happy Homemaker wearing an apron and holding a mop. And their perfectly behaved children, Dick, Jane, and Sally, frolicked on the lawn with their dog, Spot.

At the same time, kids' cowboy movies and radio shows starred white cowboy heroes as the Good Guys. But the Indians were practically all Bad Guys except for The Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, who could barely speak English and liked to say "Ugh." Women were pious weaklings who cried into their hankies and had to be rescued by white Good Guys. And most black people fit into about 4 simple stereotypes; they had menial jobs, were great tap dancers, were Mammies on plantations, or were the butt of jokes. Hispanics and Asians were barely part of the picture during peacetime, but prejudice against all minorities was unrepentant.

Enter the unintended consequences. Surely millions of kids who didn't live like Dick and Jane's perfect white family felt somehow deficient and people who did live like Dick and Jane felt righteous if not downright superior. As time went by, members of minorities got mad--who can blame them? And by the way, everyone thought schoolbooks were the most boring things on the planet.

So to set things straight, publishers thought up a new approach. Around 1975, all the big textbook publishers started sending out guidelines for the stories and pictures in their books. I know this because I illustrated literally hundreds of these books in my hungry days and I still have their guidelines. In the usual effort to do some good, they required us to show all minorities (an equal number on every page) as heroic, brilliant leaders who did everything right. But any characters who played the part of fools, bad guys, cripples, or inferiors had to be white males. I am NOT making this up!

In one series of stories I illustrated, I had to show a stupid white male who fell asleep on his job of cutting a long strip of marshmallow goop flowing out of a tube into bite-sized pieces. But while this poor dummy was sleeping, the goop grew into a marshmallow the size of a house....and was discovered by his smart female boss (get it?) when she was up on the roof fixing a leak and saw it hidden in the alley. Then there was one tale about a brave young girl who raced over an icy mountain during a storm to deliver an urgent message to a black king, and another tale about a stupid white king who was outsmarted by his youngest daughter. In yet another story, a single mother and her daughter were remodeling their house and convinced 6 kids (3 girls, 3 boys of all races) to paint their fence, but the kids accidentally used glue instead of paint and got stuck. I drew one girl whose back was stuck to the fence from the tips of her braids all the way down to her feet. Whadaya know--the art had to be redone. My art director wrote "Girl too passive. Do not show females in passive roles." A fellow artist was told to draw a very muscular woman in a crowd who was a head taller than the wimpy white male standing next to her. His next story had to picture a white male secretary in an apron trying to cook. The untended consequence was that a whole generation of little readers must have thought all white males were idiots.

I know these readers and so do you. But popular opinion to the contrary, white males are not the sole source of evil and stupidity in the world. Kindly remember that there are good and bad and smart and dumb people in every ethnic group regardless of gender. You'd never know it, though, because the next wave of messing with the truth for the "greater good" was to make stories for kids Politically Correct. This effort is still part of the picture today and has plenty of unintended consequences, which I hope to address in my next blog.

And by the way, have any of these rules or unintended consequences ever affected any of you?


Unknown said...

Great post, Rosalyn. Very thought provoking. In science books, the facts are embedded into a point of view intended to influence the readers' interpretations of the facts. Sociologist, Elizabeth McEneany, has looked at worldwide trends in children's science textbooks over the course of the twentieth century and found a dramatic shift in actorhood. Early on, the universe was presented to children as God's fixed creation; the task of the learner was to glorify God by memorizing taxonomies. Later, professional scientists were portrayed as the relevant actors; children were to learn about the lives of great scientists and about their discoveries. Finally, in recent decades, the emphasis has shifted to the child; the child himself or herself is portrayed as the discoverer. The reason for learning science, children are now told, is that it's fun and relevant to the children's own lives. This latter perspective is doubtless our own, but historically it's quite new.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks Vicki--this is exactly the kind of response I was hoping for, and I'm planning to delve into some of the more controversial aspects in my next post. I'll have to look up Elizabeth McEneany too. Sounds intriguing.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I have a funny unintended consequence story--with a happy ending. Years ago I wrote a biography of Barbara McClintock and then shortly afterward one on Mary Leakey. My father-in-law, a scientist, gave both books to a graduate student of his for his daughter. Rhoda gobbled them up--she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. But both Barbara McClintock and Mary Leakey had troublesome relationships with their mothers. Rhoda was worried. She said to her mother, "I really want to be a scientist when I grow up, but I like you. Is that o.k.?" Her mother reassured her that hating your mother was not a prerequisite for being a scientist. Rhoda is now a scientist. Phew.