Lies My Textbooks Told Me: Blowing Up Controversy on Three Mile Island

Commonly used history textbooks in American classrooms often misrepresent major historical events, and present material based in liberal political ideology rather than factual happenings. 

The Culture and Media Institute has obtained six textbooks commonly used in American classrooms. Three of these textbooks are used to teach 8th graders: Glencoe’s “The American Journey,” Prentice Hall’s “The American Nation,” and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston’s “Call to Freedom: Beginnings to 1877.” The other three textbooks are used to teach 11th graders: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston’s “American Anthem,” Prentice Hall’s “America: Pathways to the Present,” and Prentice Hall’s “A History of the United States.”

These textbooks are used by a majority of the public schools in this country, according to the American Textbook Council, which describes itself as a “non-partisan research organization interested in textbook improvement and review.” In 2003, the director of the American Textbook Council, Gilbert Sewall, testified before the Senate: “Many history textbooks reflect lowered sights for general education. They raise basic questions about sustaining literacy and civic understanding in a democratic polity and culture.”  

A careful examination of these textbooks shows that they often display a disregard for basic factual evidence when discussing many major historical events and figures – reflecting the tendency of some historians to interpret history from a liberal political standpoint. CMI will be revealing the results of its investigations into these textbooks in a series of future articles.

Three Miles from Fact

CMI first examined textbooks’ recounting of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America’s most famous nuclear incident. The accident at Three Mile Island, which lasted from March 28, 1979, to April 1, 1979, killed no one and caused negligible environmental damage. However, journalists hyped the accident, creating the myth that it was a horrible disaster, as the Business and Media Institute has detailed. That myth has persisted in American history textbooks. 

Of the six textbooks that CMI examined, four covered the Three Mile Island incident. Three of those provided misleading and incomplete coverage of the Three Mile Island accident, while just one textbook provided a fair analysis.

Prentice Hall’s “A History of the United States” used the Three Mile Island accident to attack nuclear power in a manner more suitable for anti-nuclear activism than for a history textbook, claiming:

There were other fears about nuclear reactors. If something went awry in the plant, radioactive material could be released in the air, endangering lives for miles around. This threat appeared remote during the first twenty years of nuclear power. Then suddenly, in the spring of 1979, something went wrong at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For several days there seemed to be a danger of a massive escape of radiation. Though the immediate problem was brought under control by the end of a week, the full cleanup would take decades. This incident advertised the problems of the whole nuclear power industry – which already supplied 12 percent of the nation’s electricity.

By the 1980’s, problems of safety, pollution, and soaring costs resulted in the cancellation of all new nuclear plants ordered after 1973. To many observers, it appeared that energy from coal, small plants producing electricity from streams and rivers, windmills, and such new alternative sources as solar power might be the wave of the future.

Prentice Hall’s “America: Pathways to the Present” also told only part of the Three Mile Island story: “Nuclear power seemed to be a promising alternative energy source. Serious questions remained about its cost and efficiency, however. In March 1979, people’s doubts appeared to be confirmed by an accident at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A partial meltdown of the core occurred, releasing some radiation. About 140,000 people who lived near the plant fled from their homes, terrified by the idea of a radioactive leak. The story made headlines around the world.”

Glencoe’s “The American Journey” was less strident in its anti-nuclear message, but it also failed to provide a full picture of the incident. “In the late 1970’s, nuclear power became a major issue. In March 1979, a major accident appeared at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. An antinuclear protest movement soon spread. President Carter, however, did not want to halt nuclear energy which provided more than 10 percent of the nation’s energy. At the same time, supporters of nuclear power argued that, with safeguards, nuclear power did not harm the environment.”

Holt’s “American Anthem” was the only textbook that gave an accurate portrayal of the incident, noting: “In 1979 a mishap at a nuclear power plant located at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania terrified the nation. For a time, officials seemed unsure how to correct problems that threatened a massive release of radiation into the environment. Some people in the immediate area of the plant were evacuated. In the end, very little radiation was released, and no one suffered any ill effects. However, public concern about the safety of nuclear power continued to grow.”

It is fair to say that Three Mile Island caused great fear among the American populace, and that the incident played a major role in turning America against nuclear power. But the claim that it was a “major accident” or that “new alternative sources such as solar power might be the wave of the future” – without noting the fact that no lives were lost or that there were no long-term health effects – delves into the realm of anti-nuclear advocacy.  

Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, told CMI: “History textbooks always have heroes and villains. The question is which heroes and villains textbooks choose to highlight.”  

The consistent slant of American history textbooks - on Three Mile Island and other major historical events – leaves no doubt about which heroes and villains the authors have chosen to highlight. When 8th and 11th graders are given a consistently incomplete and one-sided picture of major historical events by supposedly authoritative textbooks, they are effectively being indoctrinated to hold a political point of view.