The Catastrophists

Why Are They Lying to Our Children?
by Herbert I. London.
Foreword by Herman Kahn. Stein & Day. 197 pp. $15.95.

The dogmas of the 1960’s counterculture have not stood up well either to logic or to experience. Yet for certain intellectuals and educators, nothing better demonstrates the value of an idea than its discrediting. In this they are hardly alone; indeed, it is amazing how many of the discredited ideas of the 60’s are enjoying a prolonged after-life. Thus, political analysts can point to the posthumous triumphs of McGovernism and Carterism long after their repudiations by the electorate. Literary critics, both inside and outside the academic world, know that in their field the contempt for the professional establishment that emerged and was (apparently) beaten back in the late 60’s eventually metamorphosed into a respectable counter-dogma within the profession itself. As for history, the crudest attempts of the 60’s to demonize America and the West have ended up being installed as received wisdom in American textbooks.

Some years ago an article in the American Historical Review, titled “American Imperialism: The Worst Chapter in Almost Any Book,” exposed the faulty scholarly basis for claims that America around the turn of this century had emerged as a jingoist, racist, imperialist, oppressor nation. The article then pointed out that this false picture had nevertheless made its way into the standard textbooks, and thence into the classroom. Another study, How the Cold War Is Taught: Six American History Textbooks (1978), by Martin F. Herz, detailed the triumph of similarly discredited ideas about America’s responsibility for the cold war. Now Herbert London, who has previously written on contemporary culture and American education, offers still another valuable discussion in Why Are They Lying to Our Children? His subject is the future of the earth as it is viewed in high-school textbooks.

According to the sixty-eight textbooks London has surveyed, the most likely future is one in which natural resources will be depleted, and the air and water thoroughly polluted. Overpopulation promises to lead to mass starvation, and a growing gap between rich nations and poor holds out the threat of worldwide revolution. One text, under a typically misleading heading, “Toward a Better World,” sums up the general message:

You may have read about “four giant horsemen” galloping across the face of the earth. One stands for Famine, the second for Disease, the third for War, and the fourth for Death. Today these “four giant horsemen” are galloping more swiftly than ever before. Some people say it may already be too late to slow them down. But many, many others still do not see the danger.

Predictions like these are based on projections of current trends. Since, as London points out, the trends have been misrepresented, the entire scenario rests on error. And of course it is tendentious error, calculated to dismay; London describes having had to reassure his own children about the future after they had been exposed to the reigning catastrophism in school. For other parents faced with the same problem, his book will provide useful ammunition for refuting promiscuous predictions of doom.

Where, for instance, textbooks teach that energy prices are rising, natural resources and farmland are disappearing, and starvation is increasing, the facts are that the amount of food per person in the world has been on the rise, as has the world’s total amount of farmland. Life expectancy is growing substantially, and at the quickest rate in the poorest countries. Known reserves of minerals have increased and continue to increase, while the prices of minerals decline steadily. Air and water pollution have been reduced substantially. And so forth.

The typical textbook of today was issued between 1977 and 1980, and thus incorporates the received wisdom of the 60’s and early 70’s as it took form in such books as the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits of Growth, and Ecotactics: The Sierra Club Handbook for Environmental Activists (1970). The fact that such works were challenged as soon as they appeared (see, for example, “Growth and Its Enemies” by Rudolf Klein, COMMENTARY, June 1972), and that the Club of Rome report in particular had to be revised on account of inaccuracy within two years of its appearance, did not prevent them from influencing such interim predictions of doom as An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect (1974) by Robert Heilbroner and later The Global 2000 Report to the President (1980). The textbooks surveyed by London employ the most pessimistic figures available from these books, always preferring the Club of Rome report in its unrevised form.

It should be conceded that most of the texts in question are surveys of world and American history, so that the pages dealing with the environment and its future are relatively brief. My own son’s high-school history text, which happens to be included in London’s list, devotes only its final twelve pages to the future. Still, there is no mistaking what that future holds in store: “Underdevelopment and Overpopulation”; “Science and Technology: A Mixed Blessing”; and “Violence and Alienation.” Moreover, while my son’s class may not reach the section on futurology by the end of the school term, the attitudes embodied there can be found elsewhere in the book and in the curriculum.



London’s analysis points to the need for an imminent revision of textbooks, and along with them, it is to be hoped, the even more tendentious teachers’ manuals. But the ideas of the 60’s have taken hold at a deeper level than reason can touch. As London himself makes clear, to a certain kind of mind the vision of an improving future can appear no less menacing than that of a declining one. For most textbook authors, industrial development and rising standards of living are at best “mixed blessings.” “The green revolution,” one textbook has it, “promised to relieve the threat of widespread famine; its need for chemical fertilizer threatened the environment.” Moreover, industrialization and economic growth end by robbing poor people of their indigenous cultures. Whatever the facts that textbook authors might be forced to agree upon, then, the West in general and the United States in particular are slated to remain the villains.

The younger generation of teachers educated in the 1970’s is not likely to be soon converted from its generally disparaging view of the Western world. Civilization itself hardly finds a good word in their classrooms, unless the subject is pre-Muslim Africa or pre-Columbian America—as it often is. At best, then, changes of attitude in textbooks and teaching lie far in the future. In the meantime, parents are faced with the responsibility of becoming knowledgeable about what their children are being taught. Parents who are not satisfied are now in a position to arm themselves with London’s facts and figures, and to demand at least that the other side of the argument be presented alongside that of textbook author or teacher.

London himself would have education foster optimism about America and the future, for he believes that confidence is an essential ingredient in building a successful nation. For the time being, however, the most that can be looked for from educators is a greater respect for facts. For inspiration our children will have to look elsewhere.



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