America's best-selling civics textbook: poll-tested and super-sized.

How popular culture gets popular.
Sept. 9 2002 12:46 PM

Magruder's American Government

America's best-selling civics textbook: poll-tested and super-sized.

A graphic image of how a bill becomes a law
A graphic image of how a bill becomes a law

Among high-school government and civics textbooks, Magruder's American Government is the 800-pound gorilla. Well, the 6-plus-pound gorilla, according to the scale I used to weigh the 844-page 2002 edition. (A hardback edition of John McPhee's Annals of the Former World weighs 4 pounds.) If that sounds a little heftier than the books you remember, you're probably right. But that's part of what it takes to be No. 1 in the textbook game these days. Like other classic American textbooks, Magruder's has experienced significant weight gain.

Two grand forces shape the textbook business (a $4.5 billion business, by one estimate). On one side are a small handful of publishers: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, Harcourt (part of Reed Elsevier Group), Houghton Mifflin (a division of Vivendi), and Pearson Education (a wing of the media company of the same name, with divisions that include Prentice Hall). On the other side are the state commissions that make decisions about which textbooks those states will buy for their school systems. Those committees can be influenced by outside pressure groups from all points on the political spectrum (from those pushing multiculturalism to those with religious agendas, etc.). This effort to satisfy multiple interest groups helps explains why so many textbooks have bulked up. As one expert put it to the American School Board Journal in a story a couple of years ago, "No one punishes a publisher for having too much material in a textbook."

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This is obviously a setup that's distinct from the traditional book business, in which publishers generally court the people who will actually use, or at least personally buy, a given title. Textbook publishing is also different because its end-customer base fluctuates with school enrollment, and there's pretty much no way for one title to surge without taking market share away from a direct competitor. So textbooks are a rather cutthroat business.

It's also a mysterious one. There's no independent best-seller list for textbooks, and specific numbers tend to surface only in the form of publisher claims used essentially as marketing tools. I'm indebted to Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, for steering me toward Magruder's as one title that's clearly No. 1 in its category. Prentice Hall has claimed that the book has held at least 70 percent of the civics-text market since it was first published in 1917. Obviously I wanted a look, but Prentice Hall wasn't interested in helping. After badgering the publisher for several days, I finally got an e-mail (from "Pearson Education Communications," not from any specific human being) that read in part that the firm was "abiding by our corporate statement of not releasing review copies to the media." So I bought the 2002 edition from Barnes & Noble, for a somewhat startling $76.

A Peanuts cartoon illustrates a point
A Peanuts cartoon illustrates a point

The hulking volume certainly gives off a powerful sense of comprehensiveness. In addition to the stuff you'd expect how a bill becomes a law and so forth there are some surprises, like a chapter on polling, which is not exactly part of the Constitution. There's also a lot of graphic information and snappy color photography; the polling section makes one point by reproducing a Peanuts cartoon, and a section on the court system includes a picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, justified by the latter's involvement in a copyright case that was dismissed in a district court.

As I paged through the textbook, I looked for old, outdated, or politically biased information. Textbooks tend to be updated pretty much every year (although of course schools don't buy new ones every year) and are often assembled by far-flung teams; Magruder's is apparently written or revised every year by one guy, William A. McClenaghan, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University. (He inherited the gig from Frank Abbott Magruder himself.) The 2002 edition includes a very brief section on the impact of Sept. 11, citing an Oct. 1, 2001, USA Today poll to imply that in a time of adversity, public trust in the government is likely to increase. (Again, choosing to draw a lesson about public opinionrather than, I don't know, civil libertiesseems like an odd decision to me.) More remarkably, the book's opening chapter apparently was also rewritten and actually starts with the sentence, "Today, the United States is at war." The intro recaps the attacks and President Bush's early public responses to them before segueing quickly into the usual "government has many important tasks to perform" theme.

But my main impression as I went through Magruder's was of all the distractions from the text. I don't think there's a single unbroken page of words in the whole book.

One page of the 6-pound book covers free speech
One page of the 6-pound book covers free speech

In fact, it finally started to remind me of a busily designed magazine, larded with sidebars and "news you can use." A one-pager on free speech gave a hasty pro-and-con on the United States v. Eichman flag-burning case and invited students to "debate the opposing viewpoints." Elsewhere was an excerpt from a Ralph Nader speech. ("Would you label this speech propaganda?") Another recurring gimmick is the occasional "Skills for Life" page, which aims, I gather, to teach practical lessons, including one on "Filing a Consumer Complaint" and another on "Taking a Poll." Other elements include pull quotes, a lot of political cartoons, and results of polls in which something called the Close Up Foundation asked high-school students which characteristics of a presidential candidate might influence their vote.

Between all these bells and whistles and the apparent desire of textbook publishers to be all things to all people, it's no wonder their products have gotten so bloated and tome-y. And maybe there's a lesson even in that: If the kids can figure out how to filter out the distractions of polls and sound-bite-sized debates now, they'll have learned an extraordinarily useful skill.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.