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Textbook authors' reasoning hard to fathom

Medford School Board members who raised questions about a proposed U.S. history textbook were right to delay its approval. The authors' technique of inserting explanatory phrases in brackets within the text of the U.S. Constitution is perplexing and simply unnecessary. One such insertion, inadvertently or not, risks a political dispute over one of the most divisive issues in the nation's founding document.

The book is among several recommended by advanced placement teachers for AP classes in chemistry, history, literature and composition. The School Board members present at Monday's meeting unanimously approved all but the U.S. history text, "The American Pageant" by David M. Kennedy and Lisabeth Cohen.

Board Chairman Jeff Thomas and member Kim Wallan objected to the insertion of explanatory notes in brackets within the text of the Constitution. One such example was innocuous. The Fifth Amendment appears in the book this way: "... nor shall private property be taken for public use [i.e., by eminent domain] without just compensation."

Inserting the term "eminent domain," which is the term for the power of government to take land for public use, is not controversial, although the taking itself can be.

The same cannot be said, however, for the insertion that bothered Thomas and Wallan. The Second Amendment appears in the book this way: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms [i.e., for military purposes] shall not be infringed."

The meaning of the "well regulated militia" language is the subject of strenuous disagreement between those who favor strict gun control laws and those who oppose any restrictions on firearms. The bracketed phrase "i.e., for military purposes" reflects one side in that debate and not the other.

Thomas and Wallan say they like the rest of the textbook, but think the text of the Constitution should be presented without editorial comment. We agree. Helping students parse the sometimes archaic language in the nation's founding document and providing historical context is the role of the teacher, and the textbook should not interfere with that process by appearing to take sides in a political disagreement.

The textbook in question was recommended by The College Board, which administers the AP program, and it is apparently the most widely used AP history text in the country. If that's the case, it is surprising that no one has raised this specific objection to it already.

The district's AP curriculum committee has been in touch with the texbook's publishers, who have offered to come to Medford to discuss the matter with the School Board before a final vote is taken. That's a good idea. Perhaps the board can ask the question that occurred to us about the book's authors: What were they thinking?