Glimmer of History Standards Shows Up in Latest Textbooks
While a hailstorm of debate was raging around newly released national standards in U.S. and world history three years ago, the newest of the history textbooks were still on the drawing board.
The proponents' greatest hope--and critics' greatest fear--was that the voluntary standards would be used as the blueprint for those new texts, the United States' de facto national curriculum in the politically sensitive subject.
As the new generation of history and social studies texts hits the classrooms this school year, the reviews are mixed about whether the national standards are beginning to inspire major improvements, are continuing to promote a "dumbed down" or biased version of the subject, or are even reflected at all in the new books.
"Textbook writers and standards writers all look to the same body of knowledge," said Gary B. Nash, who was a co-director of the national history-standards project. The texts and the standards "might look quite similar, but probably the texts wouldn't look much different if the national standards never came out. Gradually, I think the standards are having an influence, though they are incremental," said Mr. Nash, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where the standards project was based.
Big States' Influence
The U.S. and world history standards were used as a resource in creating the latest editions of the books, but they were not a dominant influence on the finished products, most experts say. In fact, publishers assert that states' standards or curriculum frameworks, especially those in the big textbook-adoption states of California and Texas, are more likely to shape the content of their history texts.
"Our new textbooks were somewhat correlated to the national standards, but more important is that they were correlated to the individual state standards," Roger R. Rogalin, a senior vice president with the New York City-based Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, said of the Adventures in Time and Place K-6 series, the best-selling social studies textbooks in the country this year.
The national history standards--as well as those crafted in social studies, geography, civics, and even math and science--did play a significant role in the development of a new textbook series by Houghton Mifflin Publishing Co., one of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill's closest competitors, according to Michael Hartoonian, an author of the Boston-based company's We the People K-6 series.
"When confronted with writing texts, you are also confronted with what to put in and what to leave out ... what knowledge is of most worth," said Mr. Hartoonian, a former president of the National Council on the Social Studies. He headed the task force created to write that Washington-based organization's content standards, which were also released in 1994. "Using the standards as a criterion to answer that question makes good sense."
But the largest textbook-adoption states--where state boards pull together a list of approved books--hold the greatest marketing potential. Their curriculum needs still dictate the content of books throughout the country, said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the independent American Textbook Council in New York City.
"Like it or not, educational publishers pay enormous attention to the frameworks developed by the big states," Mr. Sewall said.
Prominent in both the national history standards and textbooks are a greater emphasis on women and minorities, a more global view of world history that incorporates Eastern and African cultures and philosophies, and a more critical look at certain historical events and people.
The very first lesson of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill's U.S. history text for 5th graders, for instance, is about diversity. Another early chapter is devoted in part to ancient Asian and African history.
Those features have drawn the strongest rebukes from critics who say the books have fallen prey to political correctness, paying more attention to obscure figures from formerly disenfranchised groups than to the nation's founding fathers and key events in history--the same arguments lodged against the national standards.
One new high school text in American history has incurred considerable wrath. In the Course of Human Events, published this year by the West Group in Minneapolis, gives short shrift to early American history in favor of more recent topics such as homelessness and the Internet, the critics claim.
"A textbook that presumes to explain the history of the United States while ignoring Lockean individualism, disparaging George Washington, and devoting as much space to the Internet as to America's religious and philosophical heritage is a fraud," Walter A. McDougall, a professor of international relations and history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the January-February issue of The Textbook Letter, a bimonthly critique of textbooks out of Sausalito, Calif.
Several other critics of the book argue that the text closely models the national history standards, thereby reflecting flaws inherent in the documents.
"There is more often an emphasis on impersonal social forces in history rather than on great individuals and ideas," John D. Fonte, an associate scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, and one of the chief detractors of the history standards, said.
Matthew T. Downey, one of the book's authors, said such attacks against the text are an attempt to label the standards themselves as extreme. He defends the extra emphasis on diversity and social history as an attempt to supply teachers with information that is more difficult to come by.
"We appreciate the role of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the founding fathers, and so forth. Teachers are saying they have such materials," said Mr. Downey, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. "You have to go the extra mile to pay attention to the institutions that are not so obvious."
Most of the newest texts are for grades K-8, with new editions for high school expected in the next couple of years. Adventures in Time gained 21 percent of the $46 million social studies market this year, Educational Marketer, a Stamford, Conn.-based newsletter covering educational publishing, reported in August. The series cornered 60 percent of the K-6 market in Texas, and sold well in Florida, Indiana, and Virginia. California and North Carolina are expected to adopt new social studies texts next year.
Both the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and the Houghton Mifflin elementary series lean strongly toward the more interdisciplinary social studies, with their heavy integration of geography--gleaned from the voluntary national geography standards.
Codifying the Field
The transition in textbooks was not prompted by any national standards, argues Robert Lerner, a co-author of the 1995 book Molding the Good Citizen: The Politics of High School History Texts, a review of American-history books from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Beginning in the 1960s, as public sentiment was changing because of the civil rights movement and other social and political forces, texts began to give more space to groups that had been marginalized throughout history, Mr. Lerner said. They started downplaying the role of whites and portraying them as marauders while holding up American Indians and other minorities as "noble savages" and victims, he said.
"The texts became politicized and began to take an ideological view without anyone realizing it," said Mr. Lerner, a Rockville, Md.-based consultant.
Creating national history standards, Mr. Lerner said, was an attempt to codify what has been happening in the field for decades.
The process of writing the standards, however, came under intense scrutiny. Critics charged that the document strayed too far from the influences of Western culture in the developing nation. The first release of the documents was denounced by the U.S. Senate and some historians. Rewritten versions won over many opponents.
One of the great challenges of producing a textbook that satisfies everyone, publishers say, is fitting all the material into a manageable volume.
"We have to cover the important major events, but we also have to cover the diversity of America," said Abigail Jungreis, the executive editor of social studies for Houghton Mifflin. "And we have to do it without making the book 5,000 pages long."
Frank C. Huyette, who spent 30 years teaching 7th and 8th grade social studies before retiring from the Auburn Union Elementary School District near Sacramento, Calif., has noticed the books getting larger in recent years.
"They are thicker and bigger and not necessarily better," said Mr. Huyette, who is the chairman of the NCSS special-interest group in teaching history. "They are trying to satisfy so many things that they tend to be rather bland. Most of our textbooks are weak on critical-thinking skills," he said. And "they are disjointed."
The full impact of the new standards on textbooks and other instructional materials will not be felt for several years, when the national standards and those in the bigger states have had more time to take hold, Mr. Sewall believes. "In the next few years, we will have some very interesting developments in social studies and much better proof positive of the influence of the UCLA standards."