Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Problem with American History Textbooks

The Problem with American History Textbooks

Dan Lavelle

            Being a history buff since I was twelve years old, I have always loved a good historical story.  Truth be told, reading about history was just about the only reading I enjoyed doing in my youth.  By default, of course, most of the reading came from whatever social studies textbook I happened to be studying that year, along with any other materials that coincided with the text (DBQ’s anyone?).  From the start, I quickly became enamored with the some of the first U.S. Presidents, the American Revolution, The Civil War, World War I, World War II and so on.  By age 16, I realized that the United States of America was truly a special country—perhaps the most special country in the world.  Our journey from 13 colonies to world superpower was magnificent—divine even—with only few bumps on the silky-smooth historical road.  Of course, I am not stating the whole picture here—or even stating something remotely accurate—about American history.  The reason is because I was not given the whole picture during my middle and high school social studies classes.  Quite frankly, I was given a romanticized version of American history. 

            The brief personal statement above represents a much wider problem with social studies education in the United States.  In the most simple and direct terms, the majority of social studies textbooks—and perhaps by extension, teachers—teach students a largely fake, romanticized, glossed-up version of our history.  The implications of this are immense.  Michael Apple states “The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation.  It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. “  What does this mean?  According to James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me (2007), textbooks dominate American history courses more than they do any other subject.  It is widely known in the education world that most American history textbooks come from Texas, a red-blooded red state where it’s clear the “textbook editors have a clear political, social and economic agenda” (Zinn, 2009) Michael Apple refers to this agenda as being an integral part of the New Right’s vision, which foresees a curriculum that becomes more of a nationalistic or hyper-patriotic indoctrination of our youths than an accurate retelling of our past (Apple, 1996).  The evidence is seen even in the titles of some popular textbooks, such as The Great Republic, The American Pageant, Triumph of the American Nation, and Land of Promise. (Loewen, 2007)   Clearly, then, we see that Apple was right; the curriculum is not neutral.   It is someone’s vision of legitimate social studies knowledge—and that person happens to be severely mistaken. 

Why is this a major problem?  American history textbooks can be described as the official portraits of our Nation’s past, as state governments who are endorsed by the federal government purchase them with the knowledge that they will be given to thousands of students who are learning (trying to learn?) to be productive, civic-minded citizens.  The information within the textbooks, then, will greatly influence the civic character of our students, who in turn will represent American ideals and who we are as a nation in the 21st century (Sewall, 2000).  If our textbooks represent inaccurate, glorified, romanticized, even quasi-racist or sexist tendencies, then that will be passed to our students, ill-equipping them for the realities of modern-day America while making them ignorant of our immensely complicated, sad, and wonderful past.  So how can we solve this problem, or at least try to change it?  

Gilbert T. Sewell, just one author among hundreds who have explored the issue, wrote an article entitled “History Textbooks at the New Century” (2000) explaining the problems surrounding the issue.  The problem he seems to place at the top of the scale is the fact that the textbook-publishing industry is a multi-billion dollar a year business.  Loewen (2007) adds that textbook publishing companies serve to make millions from a popular textbook, and most the time what makes a textbook popular is not the content, but rather the design, the extracurricular instructional activities within, and most importantly, the discounts and incentives offered by the company for districts and states to adopt them.   Clearly, the content of the textbook is last on the list of issues school districts consider when picking a textbook, a fact that is increasingly worrying as districts face economic uncertainty and begin to adopt “the best textbook is a cheap textbook” policies (Sewall, 2007). 

In addition, as Apple (1996) talked about, there is a push by certain political action groups (The New Right) for textbooks that ensure nationalism, patriotism, and pride for America are at the center of their content—among all of the other factual inaccuracies.  Howard Zinn is the author of the famous People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (2007), a remarkable work that sets out to tell a “people-centered” (read: more accurate) historical narrative.  He even wrote a version for young people, slightly simplified but still quite a bit more accurate than most social studies textbooks.  Zinn was asked the following question by a conservative journalist who (in my opinion) characterizes the New Right’s agenda while also being a possible indication of why textbooks are the way they are, as well as why they have struggled to change. 

 Do you think your history, which is radically different than the usual histories of the United States, is suitable for young people?  Won’t it create disillusionment with our country?  Is it right to be so critical of the government’s policies?  Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt?  Isn’t it unpatriotic to emphasize slavery and racism, the massacres of Indians, the exploitation of the working people, the ruthless expansion of the United States? (Zinn, 2009, p. xi)

Zinn responded by stating that if it is all right for adults to hear an honest and critical point of view, then why not teenagers?  Teenagers have to deal with a myriad of complex social, intellectual, emotional and physical issues—they should be able to deal with our Nation’s accurate history.  Also, in raising our children, and in teaching our students, we want them to become honest, upstanding citizens.  How can we achieve this if we are not being honest with them in the first place about our Nation’s past?  (Zinn, 2009)  How can we teach our students to be critical of our government, their lives, and their surroundings—the core principle of democracy—when our textbooks seldom critically question anything in our complicated history?  Instead, they have lines like, “The 1960’s were a decade of rapid social changes, as America began to come together as a nation in a push for the 21st century.”  Really?  REALLY?  We came together as a nation in the 1960’s?   The line is completely ignoring the vast social disorder, chaos, and disillusionment that occurred in the 1960’s—among other things—instead calling it “social change” as part of some grand and magnificent push to the 21st century.  This is only one example among so many others that try to paint our history as something without conflict, problems, chaos or disorder—in turn, ill equipping our students to question it later in life.

I agree with the positions taken by Zinn, Apple, Sewall, and Loewen, among countless other authors who have written about the problem with American history textbooks—no doubt other social studies teachers do as well, especially the 25-30% of teachers Sewall estimates are passionate about their subject (myself included).  So why does this problem continue?  Some of the above scholars have cited that textbooks—whatever textbook they are given—make the lives of teachers easier.  I certainly see where this position comes from—teaching five classes a day is a rigorous undertaking.  However, I believe that if your passionate about teaching social studies, you must find the dedication and motivation to stay away from the biased, inaccurate textbooks and find materials that accurately represent American History.  It is imperative for the next generation that we equip our students with the tools, skills, and knowhow to be part of a functioning democratic society. 

John F. Kennedy famously said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”  If we continue to use American history textbooks that offer inaccurate, romanticized, and nationalistic versions of our history, we are impeding the progress of our nation because we are not giving our students the right resources to be able to enact changes in America that we know are necessary for the survival, security, and prosperity of the United States of America.  Luckily, authors like Sewall and Loewen have devoted their energy to activism on the topic, pushing state education departments, school districts, and textbook publishers to adopt and create better textbooks for our youths.   But in reality, the power lies within each social studies teacher.  I think it is necessary that all passionate social studies teachers make a pact with themselves to not rely on the textbook (accurate or not) as the primary means of instruction—we know we can find better, more engaging, more insightful, more interesting and more accurate materials at the click of a button!  So why not give the extra effort?  Our students—and the Nation—depend on it!


Works Cited:

 Apple, M. (1988)  Teachers and Texts.  New York: Routledge Press. 

 Loewen, J.W. (2007) Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook

Got Wrong.   New York: Simon & Schuster

Sewall, G. T. (2000) History Textbooks at the New Century.  New York: American Textbook


 Zinn, H.  (2009) A Young People’s History of the United States.  New York: Seven Stories


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