To bias or not to bias | The Triangle

To bias or not to bias

Photograph courtesy of Terimakasih0 at Pixabay

I’m sure all of you have just been through the termly ritual that is textbook buying season. You’ve gone to your first class, hoped the textbook wouldn’t be mandatory, found out you need it for homework assignments, paid $300 for it and read the first two chapters in a foolish belief that if you start well, you’ll stay up on the reading all term. Even though most of us don’t like them, textbooks are a required part of how we all learn in school.

Typically, we expect facts in textbooks to be unbiased, and give us a neutral view of the class material. But textbook writers know their material well, and it’s not surprising that they’d have some pretty strong opinions. So my question is — should it be their responsibility to make sure their textbooks stick entirely to the facts?

On the one hand, textbooks are written as an introduction to the subject material. It’s not really ethical if the first thing a student reads in a field is already trying to tell them how to think. A good writer who really understands what they’re talking about should be able to give equal weighting to all sides of an issue, rather than just focusing on their own. And, if textbooks are unbiased, that encourages students to form their own opinions when writing papers rather than just repeating what they’ve learned in the readings.

On the other hand, any good professor should teach their students to question the textbook, and have debates and discussions based off it. Textbooks are written to supplement a class, not to teach it, and the writer can’t expect to be the student’s only source of knowledge. Plus, in some subject areas, avoiding bias is just unrealistic. It’s famously said that “history is written by the winners” and that definitely applies here — you don’t see any Revolutionary War textbooks written by British soldiers.

I think it’d be interesting to see textbook writers put a disclaimer at the beginning of their work, acknowledging some of the views that are important to them that might influence how they write. This would make students aware of the writer’s views before reading the book, which solves the problem of people reading the book and not realizing the bias – but it would mean the author could write how they wanted, which slightly reduces the chance of a boring textbook.

But ultimately, I think that textbook writers are human and that it’s impossible to ever completely get rid of bias, especially in opinion-driven fields like politics, history and law. Obviously, a textbook writer should not purposefully use their book to push opinions onto students — for example, when a professor uses their own book as the required text and gives lower grades to people who disagree with them. But ultimately, I think it’s everyone’s job to look at information critically. Possible textbook biases can be a good talking point in class, and noticing them might even win you participation points, so there’s a bright side to all of college’s problems.