Study Faults 'Bland' Prose in History Texts
The recently documented lack of student enthusiasm for American history may be largely the product of bland, fact-filled textbooks that pay scant attention to great events and heroic individuals, according to a new report.
"On the whole, particularly at the lower grade levels, textbooks provoke student disinterest because the prose has become so neutral, so safe, so bland," said the report's author, Gilbert T. Sewell, who is co-director of the Educational Excellence Network, which sponsored the study.
"The fire that history can be, the electricity that gives history its edge, are tending to disappear," Mr. Sewell said.
The report, which examined 11 leading history and social-studies texts for 5th, 8th, and 11th graders, found that, for the most part, the books lacked lively writing styles, strong narrative lines, and individual voices. Rather than being well-presented tales, the study concludes, textbooks are often bulky compen4diums of facts set off by dazzling graphics.
The report also charges that as a result of pressure from special-interest groups on state textbook-adoption committees, "key elements in the many-sided panorama of American history are watered down, distorted, or evaded entirely."
It recommends that publishers scale down the size of textbooks, hire better writers, emphasize primary-source materials, and put minority-group issues into historical context.
In addition, the report proposes that journals, magazines, and newspapers review textbooks as they would trade and scholarly books.
Its author acknowledges, however, that such recommendations may be difficult to implement.
"The probability of broad-gauged textbook reform is slight as long as publishers face the market forces and selection committees face the political cyclones that blow around them," the report states. "The road to the practices recommended ... is steep and inclement."
"American History Textbooks: An Assessment of Quality" was prepared with a $70,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department. It is to be released this week by the excellence network, a Columbia University-based coalition of some 800 educators, scholars, and journalists that seeks to advance the quality of American schools.
While previous studies have examined the content of history textbooks, particularly with an eye toward omissions or biases, this was the first study to analyze the literary quality of the books, Mr. Sewell said.
"Attempts to assess American-history textbooks have centered on their accuracy, balance, and representation," the report states. "Less explored is the literary merit of textbooks, as market forces and clashing ideologies seem to take a toll on elegant, solid, and even honest historical writing."
Copies of the study can be purchased for $4 each from the Educational Excellence Network, Box 32, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027.
In a related project announced this month, the excellence network has formed a national commission to conduct a broader study of the way history is taught in the schools.
The commission, which includes both schoolteachers and such prominent historians as C. Vann Woodward and William H. McNeill, will meet four times over the next year to discuss the state of history in the K-12 curriculum and ways to improve it. The project will be financed by a $209,000 grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history and urban planning at Columbia University, is chairman of the panel. Paul A. Gagnon, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of a recent study of world-history textbooks for the American Federation of Teachers, will write the final report.
Other members include:
John M. Arevalo, history teacher, Harlandale High School, San Antonio; Marjorie Wall Bingham, Western Civilization and history teacher, St. Louis Park Senior High School, St. Louis Park, Minn.; Charlotte Crabtree, professor of education, graduate school of education, University of California at Los Angeles; Gordon A. Craig, J.E. Wallace Ster4ling Professor of Humanities Emeritus, Stanford University.
Robert H. Ferrell, distinguished professor of history, Indiana University; Hazel Whitman Hertzberg, professor of history and education, Teachers College, Columbia University; Claudia Hoone, 4th-grade teacher, Public School 58, Indianapolis; Nathan I. Huggins, W.E.B. DuBois Professor of History and Afro-American Studies, Harvard University.
Michael Kammen, Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture, Cornell University; William E. Leuchtenberg, William Rand Kenan Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Leon F. Litwack, Morrison Professor of American History, University of California at Berkeley; Mr. McNeill, Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor of History Emeritus, University of Chicago.
Diane Ravitch, professor of history and education, Teachers College, Columbia University; Charles Shotland, history teacher, Blind Brook High School, Rye Brook, N.Y.; Mr. Woodward, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University.