Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Textbook diversity

I recently stumbled across a website that provides stock images for textbook publishers and other media outlets. Unlike Reuters and similar services, however, this organization has a slightly narrower focus. Take a look at it, and make sure you move your cursor up to the scrolling bar of images at the top of the screen.

At first, I thought this service was hilarious just because it was such a tiny, bizarre niche. But part of the humor lies in the fact that the website is blatant about something which is usually handled quietly.

A related story that got me thinking about this question of creating images of a cheerful diversity that doesn't actually exist: Houghton Mifflin got in trouble recently for using healthy children from a modeling agency and having them sit in wheelchairs when shooting their textbook images. Apparently they did this so often that they had to start keeping careful track to make sure that someone who was handicapped in Chapter 2 was not jumping around in Chapter 5. (Incidentally, insisting on a vision of the world where children in wheelchairs are stuck there forever, in addition to being rather hopeless, is clearly discriminatory, since it disregards the claims of the large community of American faithhealers.) Naturally, there is something a little seedy about this sort of thing, and the author of the article where I read about these various practices, says that truth is being sacrificed to political correctness.

He makes some legitimate points. It is offensive for the CEO of PhotoEdit (and Hollywood, for that matter) to indicate that some races can be passed off as others, and clearly we can't pretend that the high points of American history and literature are more diverse than they actually are. And if a school can’t actually find a legitimate picture of black and white kids together, then perhaps something is going wrong at their university.

Some of his other points, however, indicate that he has a very particular version of the truth that he wants presented. He rails against the publisher for not wanting to use a picture of a barefoot African villager, indicating this ignores the grinding poverty that is the norm in Africa. Who exactly decides what is representative? And even if determining this were possible, why exactly are we required to depict the median? Shouldn't the pictures in certain types of books be of the world as we wish it to be, instead of the world as it is?

I'm sure that somewhere out there in an African village is a kid with shoes. In a French textbook introducing a student to francophone Africa, I don’t see why the picture can’t be of a healthy smiling kid, instead of someone dying of cholera. A complete education will inform a student what the actual proportion is, but indicating that the former image is somehow a lie is ridiculous.

I foresee an objection that the world as we want it to be would, perhaps, not contain anyone handicapped. But this would be a world in which no one ever had an accident, and medicine had reached a stage that it appears unlikely ever to reach. A world where kids in African villages have shoes, however, and different sorts of people enjoy hanging out with each other might require a little more generosity than we appear to currently possess, but it can at least be imagined.

Obviously, an image in a textbook doesn’t go very far towards creating this reality. But even if someone laughs at how unrepresentative a collection of images is, acknowledging the gap between reality and fantasy is at least the beginning of progress. I read a good essay recently by John Crowley that said that perhaps creating an awareness of this gap is one of the functions of art.

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