Education Opinion

Rewriting History

By Todd Gitlin — November 01, 1995 48 min read

Columbus Day of 1992 should have been the perfect occasion for teaching schoolchildren about American Indians or, as the city of Oakland, Calif., officially calls them, Native Americans. Oakland, with an African-American plurality and a white minority in its population and on its City Council, was no partisan of the conquering ex-hero from Imperial Spain, who was now frequently held an author of genocide. Indeed, the Oakland Board of Education had resolved that schools should “focus the October 12th curriculum of every year on Native American culture, contributions, and history.’'

Moreover, after much travail, the state of California had just adopted a new kindergarten-through-8th-grade history-social science textbook series published by Houghton Mifflin, offering little comfort to traditionalist partisans of Columbus or, indeed, to anyone inclined to see American history as the unbroken progress of benign Europeans across a savage and underutilized continent. Of the pages devoted to historical narrative in Houghton Mifflin’s 4th grade book, Oh California!, 15 percent went to sympathetic accounts of several California Indian nations. In the 8th grade text, A More Perfect Union, an insert in chapter 3 titled “Understanding Eurocentrism’’ cautioned against regarding American history simply as the saga of triumphant European “discovery.’' The text declared: “Although their names and discoveries live on in romantic stories, most of the conquistadors acted ruthlessly in their search for riches and power. They treated the native inhabitants of America cruelly, enslaving them and often killing them. The conquistadors left a trail of slaughter as they searched for lost cities of gold.’'

The politics of textbook adoption in California, as in a number of other states, are intricate. The process could be called messy and political, or it could be called democratic. To be adopted by California schools, textbooks have to pass through several filters. Roughly every seven years, the state chooses a list of acceptable textbooks. The texts must be written in accordance with a “framework’’ approved by the state board of education. After public hearings, they must be cleared by the board’s curriculum commission, then certified by the board itself. Once certified as eligible for adoption, they are referred to local school boards for further open hearings. All these hurdles have to be passed before textbooks are voted on by local school boards.

In the summer of 1990, when the Houghton Mifflin series came up for certification by the state’s curriculum commission in Sacramento, one might have expected Christian fundamentalists, long dismayed by what they saw as a dangerous undermining of American verities, to rise in righteous indignation against so “politically correct’’ a dismantling of the “we came, we saw, we conquered’’ version of American history. After all, attacks from the cultural Right have long been a staple of textbook adoption proceedings. But on this occasion, although one Christian fundamentalist, wielding the psychological jargon that has become routine on these occasions, did maintain that the new textbooks “could be very damaging to the self-esteem of a fundamentalist Christian child’’ because they implied that fundamentalists are “emotional and hysterical,’' the complaint was easily addressed, was not followed up, and had no great effect.

Rather, the focus in Sacramento and in the media was on the groups of the cultural Left. To great media fanfare, a number of group representatives testified passionately that the books were “racist,’' religiously discriminatory, and otherwise demeaning. Muslims, Jews, Chinese Americans, gays, and, most vigorously, African Americans objected. A group calling itself Communities United against Racism in Education (CURE) offered 85 single-spaced pages of objections to the kindergarten through 5th grade books alone, charging that they contained “stereotypes, omissions, distortions, exaggerations, and outright lies about peoples of color’'; that they were “unidimensional’’ and “Eurocentric,’' taking “the side of colonialism and exploitation,’' “uncritically extol[ling] the white supremacist concept of Manifest Destiny,’' and “anthropologiz[ing] indigenous peoples’'; that they “justif[ied] and trivialize[d] . . . some of the most vicious social practices in our history’’ and “marginalize[d] the lives and struggles of women, working and poor people, people with disabilities, and gay and lesbian people.’' In CURE’s view, Houghton Mifflin “places the white establishment at the center of the universe and all the rest of us as their ‘burden.’ The insidious message is: In order for some children to be proud of their histories, other children must be made ashamed of theirs.’'

CURE pointed to some genuine instances of establishment bias and to a number of places where the books were uncritical in a Dick-and-Janeish way, even arguably jingoistic in a traditional civics-book manner. They did find occasional passages in the books that could reasonably be read as subtle or not-so-subtle disparagements of foreign and minority culture--for example, a European’s jocular account of lengthy Chinese names. They rightly objected to a traditional account of Thanksgiving for failing to mention that Puritans and other colonists killed Indians. They chastised the 3rd grade book for calling John Wesley Powell “one of the first people to explore the Grand Canyon’’ when, of course, he was one of the first white people to do so. They pointed to a literature excerpt that contained the line: “She had blue eyes and white skin, like an angel.’' Where a teacher’s edition referred to helpful police, CURE wrote: “In many communities, specifically communities of color, police officers are regarded not as helpers, but as people to fear.’'

But CURE and other critics did themselves no favors by interspersing valid criticisms among scores of indiscriminate ones. The majority of CURE’s charges were trivial and hypersensitive. They were so eager to find ethnocentrism in these texts that they seemed to quarrel with the notion that there was or is a dominant American culture. They objected to the profusion of American flags in the texts’ pages. They objected that in the kindergarten book’s illustrations, people of color looked “just like whites, except for being tinted or colored in’’ and that when photographs of children of color appeared, “there was no discussion of their respective ethnic identities and specific contributions.’'

When the books singled out minorities’ customs, CURE saw disapproval; when the books didn’t single them out, they saw neglect. They saw cultural bias against Cambodia when the 2nd grade book mentioned that a Cambodian child living in Boston plays in the snow when he couldn’t have done so in Cambodia, since it “never snows there.’' They again cried bias when the 2nd grade book traced an African-American family back one generation less than a family of German descent and chastised this book, written for 7-year-olds, when it failed to discuss the details of sharecropping. They denounced a passage on the baseball player Roberto Clemente for not mentioning that Jackie Robinson opened the way for him and objected to a list of inventions because all were invented by white men. They criticized an exercise inviting students to write a personal story from a slave’s point of view, on the grounds that it is impossible “to imagine being enslaved.’'

In Sacramento, however, CURE’s and related objections grabbed the mighty attention of the media. So did flamboyant statements like that of an African-American woman calling the books “Eurocentric pap--slanted, racist, and wrong’’ and maintaining that they contributed to a “mental holocaust’’ of “self-esteem problems’’ for black children. Such claims were supported by the Black Caucus of the state assembly. So were Chinese Americans’ complaints that the books trivialized the exploitation of the Chinese laborers imported to build the transcontinental railroads. There were Muslim objections to a description of Mohammed--strictly forbidden in Islam--as well as to a suggestion in a teacher’s edition that a student play the part of Mohammed in a skit. Another strong objection was that in the world history volume, a diagram of a camel and its trappings was used to illustrate the “Moment in Time’’ capsule contained in the chapter on “The Roots of Islam’'--the only animal used for such a purpose.

Nowadays, people of color have no monopoly on hypersensitivity. The California Jewish Community Relations Council brought its own list of offenses against the 6th grade book, A Message of Ancient Days. They argued that the text presented Judaism as a passing prologue to Christianity. They objected to capitalizing the Christian “God’’ while the Jewish “god’’ was lowercase. They objected to treating the Jews as a people of laws and rituals, invidiously compared to Christians with their belief in kindness and love. They objected to the phrase “Old Testament,’' wishing it changed to “Hebrew Bible’'; they deplored one lesson title “An Age of Transition’’ and a reference to “His [Jesus’] Resurrection.’' They objected to the book’s version of the story of the Good Samaritan, on the grounds that the bad neighbors were identified as Jews. Unremarked, however, on the same page, the source of this parable was referred to as “a popular Jewish teacher named Jesus.’'

The protesters were unimpressed by the fact that the 7th grade world history volume included 53 pages on sub-Saharan Africa (10.6 percent of the entire narrative), 56 pages on Islam (11.2 percent), 30 pages on China (6 percent), and 34 pages on Japan (6.8 percent). As a memo from California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig later pointed out, where a previously adopted world history text had devoted only one of its 40 chapters to African history and ancient American Indian cultures combined, one-eighth of the new 7th grade book was devoted to the Indians, or Native Americans, alone--an increase by a factor of 10. Nor did the critics seem to care that the textbooks frequently represented a radical departure from the history taught in earlier decades. The same 7th grade book that offended some Muslims with the camel picture also noted that “Christian and Muslim sources portrayed the crusaders differently’’ and declared: “Traditionally, we learn history from the point of view of the winners.’'

For their part, the authors plausibly defended the accuracy of their text on the great majority of points but agreed to a list of corrections on others--John Wesley Powell as the first white man to travel down the Grand Canyon, the Central Pacific railroad hiring “thousands,’' not “hundreds,’' of Chinese, and so on. The pictures of Mohammed were deleted, and the suggestion that a student play the role of the prophet replaced by the suggestion that a student interview a Muslim scholar.

Gary Nash, the UCLA historian who was one of the authors of the series, later acknowledged to me that the offending camel was “a mistake. We thought it would be neat to show how an animal could be a means of diffusion of culture. Our mistake was that it’s the only capsule that shows an animal. From the orthodox Moslem point of view, it plays on the stereotype of the Arab as a ‘camel jockey.’ The camel will go as soon as we revise the 7th grade book.’' One sentence disliked by the Christian Right was revised. As for the Jewish objections, “Old Testament’’ became “Hebrew Bible,’' “An Age of Transition’’ became “Religious Developments,’' and an insert was added on developments in Judaism after Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan was modified to note that the man beaten by robbers was also a Jew. But some corrections were inconsistent. Many of the references to the Israelites’ “god’’ were shifted to the uppercase, but many--at times on the same page--were not. (Christianity’s God was now consigned to the lowercase only once.)

With the disputatious hearings completed, the state curriculum commission recommended adoption of the Houghton Mifflin books, subject to corrections. In October 1990, the state board of education approved the revised Houghton Mifflin books at every grade level, along with an 8th grade text published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Local school boards were free to choose whichever they preferred for the 8th grade. At other grade levels, local boards would have to accept the Houghton Mifflin books or seek a state waiver to use funds that would otherwise be spent on textbooks to acquire their own materials, pending state approval.

Opponents now turned to the local adoption proceedings. Over the next few months, Los Angeles and San Francisco school boards, among many others, held their own contentious hearings and ended up approving the Houghton Mifflin series. The opponents’ only victory in a big city came in Oakland, the sixth-largest school district in the state. One consequence was that when Columbus Day rolled around in 1992, Oakland’s 4th, 5th, and 7th grade teachers had no textbooks at all to help them teach about California’s Indians or, indeed, about anyone else.

The textbook battles took place in circumstances that were primed for rancor and inauspicious for education. Years of fiscal crisis had taken their toll on resources available for public services in California. A tax revolt kindled with the passing of the 1978 citizens’ initiative called Proposition 13 had accelerated with the passing of several sequels. The result had been the slashing of the revenues available to local governments, and state funds had failed to make up the shortfalls. In addition, a downturn in California’s economy not only worsened the social conditions that demoralize children but also cut state school funds, gutted art, music, and other academic programs, closed libraries, and crowded the classrooms. In Oakland, for example, teachers were routinely responsible for more than 30 students at a time. Between 1969 and 1994, California slid in per-pupil school allocations from among the top 10 states to 41st.

Still, the state had allocated money for new textbooks. Moreover, Bill Honig, the energetic reformer who was then the state’s top school official, was committed to a curriculum that would take account of the multiple cultures of America. Long before the time came to purchase new textbooks, Honig had established a commission to draw up a new “framework’'--a slate of specifications that publishers would have to meet by 1990 to qualify for statewide approval.

That framework, approved in 1987, was a brave attempt to square the pedagogical circle. It required that grade school history be taught with an emphasis on the multiplicity of historical experiences while stressing the “centrality of Western civilization.’' At the same time, it insisted that history be integrated with social studies and literature and told as a coherent story. It required that the K-8 curriculum include three full years of world history--one of which was to cover the ancient world--along with three years of American history and one of California history. It insisted that the study of religion be integrated into the historical curriculum. (Perhaps it was this provision that placated the right wing.)

Though California accounts for 11 percent of America’s textbook sales and offers a market of more than $50 million, the $20 million cost of a new series was such that the only publisher willing to meet the deadline with an entire line of new books was Houghton Mifflin, which lacked a history series of its own. Houghton Mifflin linked up with a group of textbook entrepreneurs called Ligature Inc. Ligature’s education experts wanted to break with one of the hoariest

of textbook traditions, namely, stodginess. Their designers, trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, specialized in dazzling wake-up devices--overlapping illustrations, questions stuffed into the margins, colored inserts alternating with black-and-white segments, visuals dripping down and across the pages, full-page drawings encapsulating “Moments in Time.’' When they showed a prototype segment to focus groups of California teachers, the teachers approved.

For two years, Gary Nash told me, “we just went hell-for-leather.’' Given the elaborate back-and-forth process of outlines and drafts, comments from experts and teachers, and redrafts, Nash agreed that two years was just not enough time to compile 10 books (kindergarten through 8th grade, in addition to an alternative 4th grade book for possible use outside California). “Each of the four authors was supposed to read everything,’' Nash said, “though it was impossible.’' Nash himself was teaching a full load at UCLA and trying to finish two other books. His co-authors, Beverly Armento, director of the Center for Business and Economic Education at Georgia State University, Christopher Salter, chairman of the geography department at the University of Missouri, and Karen Wixson, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, were not historians. Nash played his main role in the earlier stage--setting up extensive outlines and trying to ensure that the books would, in fact, be multicultural. Much of the carelessness of the texts, he said, the lines attacked for racism and bad faith, came from the rush job.

In any event, with the books accepted at the state level, Gary Nash thought the worst was over. He had not anticipated much flak in the first place. He was, after all, well-known as a multiculturalist, as well as one of the most prolific American social historians of a cohort trained in the 1960s and devoted to reconstructing American history, in the words of an early revisionist slogan, “from the bottom up.’' Nash’s books included Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America, which, in the words of his introduction, “proceed[ed] from the belief that to cure the historical amnesia that has blotted out so much of our past we must reexamine American history as the interaction of many peoples from a wide range of cultural backgrounds over a period of many centuries.’' In 1970, when (under Governor Ronald Reagan) the regents of the University of California fired the activist Angela Davis from her philosophy post at UCLA, Nash headed her defense committee, which raised enough money to pay her salary. That same year, he helped redesign the introductory course in American history at UCLA, turning it into the history of an interaction of peoples. He had already written a popular textbook for 11th grade American history that many districts, including Oakland’s, had adopted unopposed.

At 59, the sandy-haired, neatly bearded Nash was wearing a work shirt and stonewashed jeans when I spoke to him at his comfortable Pacific Palisades home. The art on the wall was Mexican, the lunch was burritos. Nash was now president-elect of the Organization of American Historians--with the support of colleagues of all colors--and was being considered for the position of head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. During a four-hour period, his phone rang five times for conversations about other textbooks he was working on.

Nash has the easy, welcoming manner California has made famous, although he grew up in Philadelphia. During the interview, he spoke deliberately, in an unruffled tone, until one of two subjects came up. The first: the downgrading of ordinary people in the old-fashioned version of history. Then he accelerated. “What does it tell our kids, to say that only great men make history?’' He swept passionately into an example of a person he wanted to write about when the Houghton Mifflin books were first being outlined: Fred Korematsu, an ex-welder and high school graduate who had tried to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II and who, when the authorities came to intern him along with his Japanese-American compatriots, refused to comply, was arrested, tried, convicted, and appealed his internment all the way up to the Supreme Court. “Or take the 6th grade book, A Message of Ancient Days, on world religions,’' Nash went on. “In the course of the school year, you don’t even get to Europe until February. Just by doing it this way, we broke the mold.’'

The second subject that aroused Nash’s ire was the attack on his textbooks as “racist.’' Like many another--especially many another white--who identifies with the universalist tradition of the Left, he was stunned. He did not fully grasp how his ecumenical position could have come under such intense, downright unheeding fire. In his incomprehension, Nash was, and is, in good company. In the heat of the battle, it is hard to grasp why people who care about justice strike so venomously against those who, whatever their differences, stand closest to them. During recent years, many men and women of goodwill have had trouble understanding why they, of all people, have been singled out as enemies. They are rationalists. Confronted with unbalanced, ungenerous, sometimes downright bizarre accusations, they go on trying to meet them with straightforward arguments: Jews did not dominate the slave trade; melanin in skin pigment does not increase intelligence. But this was not the project white leftists were supposed to have signed up for! They were supposed to be teaching about conquest and slavery, struggles for freedom, and how history goes on from there. Nash, like many another man and woman of the Left, didn’t know what hit him.

Nowhere was the outcome more shocking than in Oakland. With an elected school board composed of four African Americans, two Chinese Americans, and one white leftist; a school superintendent of African-American and Latino descent; and a teaching staff almost half nonwhite (and largely left-of-center in disposition) responsible for teaching a student body that in 1990 was 46.9 percent black, 24 percent white, 18.8 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 15.2 percent Hispanic, Oakland might have been the very model for what is called these days multicultural education. Moreover, school administrators had decided that, for the first time, teachers at the various grade levels would make their own text recommendations, and for the most part, the teachers liked the new books. So Nash was not prepared for the eruption that greeted him when, on March 18, 1991, he flew to Oakland to address an open meeting sponsored by the Berkeley and Oakland school boards at Claremont Middle School in a middle-class, largely white section of Oakland just below the Berkeley city line. (The Oakland and Berkeley school boards were debating the books simultaneously.)

All the seats were taken long before the meeting began, and the room was overflowing with more than a hundred people. Some were parents, but at least as many, by various accounts, were ethnic studies students, mainly black, from San Francisco State University across the bay. The hall was festooned with placards bearing slogans like “STOP POISONING YOUNG MINDS!’' Mary Hoover, a professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State (now a dean at Howard University), was Nash’s principal antagonist, accusing the books of “sheer Eurocentric arrogance.’' Hoover focused on a passage in A Message of Ancient Days in which an early “naked dark-skinned’’ human on the east African plains carries a “bloody bone’’ that “oozes . . . red marrow.’' Hoover maintained that there was an implication that these early Africans were cannibals.

“She misrepresented the books,’' says Steven Weinberg, an 8th grade history teacher who, when I spoke to him, had spent 24 years at Claremont Middle School and supported the adoption of the Houghton Mifflin books. “I said, They’re not talking about cannibalism. They’re carnivorous.’' (By the time the books were published, the “bloody marrow bone’’ had become, simply, “a bone’’ containing, incidentally, marrow, and the naked persons were no longer specified as “dark-skinned.’') “The way she distorted these books,’' Weinberg says, “they were like something out of the eugenics movement. It was as if they were worse than Goebbels. There was cheering and yelling. It was really ugly. The attacks on Gary Nash were ridiculous and ad hominem. He was trying to establish his credentials, and he said he had been on the Angela Davis defense committee. Someone got up and said, ‘We have to remember that there were plenty of people on that who did not have Angela Davis’ best interests at heart.’ ''

“It was an auto-da-fe, a one-sided battle,’' maintained Harry Chotiner, a former professor of American history at the University of California at Santa Cruz and member of the editorial board of Socialist Review who now teaches at the private College Preparatory School in Oakland. Chotiner had accompanied a friend, an Oakland curriculum official, to the meeting because, he told me, “Gary Nash had been a hero of mine. When I was a graduate student in history, I had a lot of respect for what he’d written about Native Americans and blacks, the new social history. It was a pilgrimage for me.’'

Chotiner was shocked, therefore, to find that “not one speaker was willing to give him or the editors the benefit of the doubt. No one said, ‘I like this about the book, but on the other hand I don’t like that.’ Instead, the objections ranged from the thoughtful to the silly to the scurrilous.’' The point about the camel, Chotiner agreed, was thoughtful. An example of the silly was the objection that a section on black history in one volume didn’t focus on Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X; this particular volume stopped at the year 1900. An example of the scurrilous was the contemptuous charge from an African-American student that the use of the term Afro-American at one point in the series was “clear evidence of deep-seated racism, and so he as a white man and a racist had no business trying to teach her.’'

Chotiner estimated that there were 20 or 30 of the silly and scurrilous types of attacks. “In most cases, bad motives were assumed, and Gary and the editors were the enemy. People would have spoken in the same tone if the authors had been George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Bull Conner. There were no attempts to bridge gaps, to find common ground. I was really stunned by the anger. It wasn’t even an anger of betrayal--'How dare you do this when we share something in common?’ The anger was, ‘This is just what we expected.’ I was completely intimidated by their anger. I thought, this is outrageous, but I couldn’t get up and talk. My legs would not support me, my arm would not go up into the air. If you asked me, Why not? Were they going to beat me up? No. Were they going to slash my tires? No. Throw a rock through my window? No. I think I would have been heckled, and I don’t think my comments would have made a difference.’'

“I wasn’t expecting a dispute in which the critics declaim but they don’t point to evidence,’' Nash said later. There was, for example, the charge that the books “trivialized’’ slavery. The 7th grade book includes, among other descriptions of the horrors of slavery and the endurance of slaves, a graphic two-page passage from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. “Just 15 years ago,’' Nash says, “the textbooks were full of happy slaves grateful to have been lifted up out of barbarian Africa. Getting an accurate account of slavery into the textbooks is the whole point of my career.’' He was, moreover, incredulous when a Japanese-American woman stood up to charge that the books trivialized the suffering of her people during World War II internment, saying: “We want our history written by our people.’' In truth, the 7th grade book does sweep through its discussion of the relocation camps in a few lines. But these lines call the camps “prison-like’’ and point out that the internees were forcibly dispossessed (in a section titled “The Ongoing Struggle for Justice’’). In the 4th grade book on California history, lesson 1 of the chapter “California in Wartime’’ begins with two pages on the internments--almost half the entire lesson.

Nash acknowledges that some criticisms were legitimate, in particular the accusation by some Chinese-American parents that not many pages were devoted to their ancestors in the California history volume. Still, he defended his choices. “My response was, you can’t produce a book that is all-inclusive. You can’t emphasize the Chinese in San Francisco and the Armenians in Fresno and the Portuguese in San Pablo and the Italians in North Beach and the Koreans in L.A. You can’t write the history of every ethnic group in California. You certainly can’t do it for the entire country.’' Arguably, the experience of the Chinese in America was more significant than the others. In any event, Nash’s point is not likely to be persuasive to some minority parents convinced that their children, systematically humiliated by their exclusion from public imagery, need to find exemplars who look like them in history books.

Despite the criticism that they are not inclusive enough, the books as they stand already strain at the seams to enfold two contradictory stories. The master contours of American history are the traditional ones. “In fact,’' Nash affirms, “the way the story is told does follow the Europeans, [for] that is the story of how power worked.’' Here, shifting the ground of his argument, Nash subscribes to a conventional historical sequencing and choice of topics. History should be neither a feel-good exercise nor a census of the experiences of preferred peoples. It should not be simply an inventory of “contributions,’' as if the historian’s mission were to distribute party favors. Its purpose is not to make anyone “proud’’ of any group’s historical record. Whether one likes the status quo or not, history should be, in important part, the record of what power has done. A student who does not know how the powerful acted--indeed, often over the objections of the weak and oppressed--cannot begin to understand why the world has become what it is. Like it or not, the decisions that shaped America’s political, legal, and economic institutions were largely made by Europeans and their descendants.

Nash’s texts, on the other hand, do try to make their peace with history from below. They frequently interrupt their master narrative for snippets of social history. They indicate what women were doing. They pause to tell stories about the people who were not movers and shakers, people rolled over by “progress,’' people who had to fight for their places in the American sun. History from above rolls forward with seeming relentlessness. History from below is always stopping, retracing its steps, moving sideways, shifting back and forth, pausing to say “meanwhile’’ and “despite.’'

The disjointedness of the books, their occasional self-contradiction, their jumpiness as they juxtapose one historical account with another--all this is a direct consequence of working in both keys at once for fear of being dismissive. Disjointedness is built into their nature as the product of two rival traditions. In this, they are typical of the textbooks that followed the 1960s. Starting in the 1970s, as Frances FitzGerald observed in America Revised, textbook writers frequently slapped revisionist views of the European conquest, of slavery and capitalism, onto the old triumphalist upward-and-westward story. The Houghton Mifflin books illustrate her point that the result is riddled with inconsistencies.

Thus, in Houghton Mifflin’s 8th grade book, lesson 1 speaks of the “discovery of the new world,’' says that “America was different promises to different people,’' and declares that the conquistadors “subdued whole civilizations of native peoples.’' In lesson 2, the reader is invited to identify with a Spaniard on his ship; in lesson 3, with an Indian. (“Europeans were not the first to discover the ‘new’ world.’') Downright inconsistencies passed through the revision net. When I mentioned to Nash that, despite the argument against the discovery myth, a reference to “the discovery of the New World’’ appeared on page four, he was surprised to see it. The books total, after all, more than 3,000 pages, and they were hurried into shape to meet a bureaucratic deadline. Any scrupulous or--depending on your point of view--nit-picking reader could find grist for his or her sense of injury. Activists took offense--they chose to take offense--at what seemed to them a casual quality to some of the books’ reminders that American history has long been marked by contempt and discrimination directed at people of color.

The books’ thematic disjointedness is embodied in, and intensified by, their format, which gives them the look of a scrapbook. Even Sheila Jordan, an Oakland teacher formerly on the city school board (and later elected to the Oakland City Council) who voted for adoption and used the Houghton Mifflin books in the lower grades, acknowledged to me that “they’re fragmented. There are too many color patches, too many little synopses and boxes. They don’t flow easily. The layout gets in the way in an attempt to be hip, multimedia, and all that. The books don’t put the fragments together.’'

Indeed, to anyone raised on linear texts, these books bear a disconcerting resemblance to MTV. The master text is frequently broken up by tinted paragraphs of quotations. Even teachers who thought the series an advance on what had come before didn’t like everything about them. The “narrative’’ that starts each lesson runs no longer than two paragraphs--for example: “Thunderclouds rise like mountains off to the east. The once calm ocean has suddenly grown restless, loudly thumping the ship’s prow. You’re crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the mid-1500s . . .’'--before the generalizations kick in. Although many teachers and students found the books useful, others demurred. One bright 11-year-old of my acquaintance found the 6th grade book lacking “enough of a story.’' Nash accepted some of this criticism. “There were so many ‘features,’ they interfered with the story. I objected, but I almost always lost.’'

However, incoherence was not the charge leveled against the Houghton Mifflin textbooks when the dispute surfaced in Oakland. The charge was, in fact, coherence--coherent racism by inclusion, exclusion, and, at times, intention. Frequently, this was joined to a charge that most teachers deferred to the texts, that they used them as crutches, even that they were downright lazy; they should have been out writing or rustling up their own materials--as, in fact, some of the most conscientious teachers did.

I spoke with one of these, Carol Chinn, a 4th grade teacher at Malcolm X School in neighboring Berkeley, who supplemented textbook lessons by assigning literature on Indians and other groups and leading field trips to missions and museums as a way of satisfying the framework’s demands. To present a unified history, Chinn would focus on a single period and come at it from various angles at once so that, for example, while teaching the Gold Rush, she was also asking what was happening to women, to Chinese miners, to Indians, rather than having ethnic groups pop up here and there and then vanish for long stretches. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,’' she told me. “I feel strongly that these children have to live in the year 2010, when a majority of California will be nonwhite. I wasn’t willing to accept bias at all.’'

Oakland’s teachers, who had never before been so involved in selecting school textbooks, were not uncritical of the Houghton Mifflin series. Even a supporter like curriculum official Shelley Weintraub noted that the 4th grade California history book lost interest in the California Indians after the Gold Rush and gave scant attention to Americans of Asian origin. Many teachers found the 8th grade book too difficult, as well as confusing at times. On such grounds, and in the belief that there were better alternatives at hand, Oakland teachers opposed adoption of the Houghton Mifflin books for kindergarten through 3rd grades and for the 8th grade. They endorsed the others--the 7th grade teachers by more than 90 percent, the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teachers narrowly. The Oakland school superintendent, Richard (“Pete’’) Mesa, supported the teachers.

When opponents proposed to devise their own substitute materials--a decision the school board eventually endorsed--the teachers’ reaction was, according to Steven Weinberg, “Who are they kidding?’' There was no time, they thought, to do a serious job of assembling comprehensive equivalents. But many teachers held a more relaxed view of what textbooks were for in the first place. They knew that textbooks were intrinsically limited. Still, they wanted to get them into the students’ hands--at least as the source of homework assignments. As Weinberg said, “A textbook is not a course. Just because a textbook leaves something out doesn’t mean that the course has to leave it out.’' The Oakland school board could have adopted the books as flawed but useful tools--so that, at the very least, teachers had them in place for background--and at the same time promoted the use of supplements. In the end, this is what the Los Angeles school board did. In the course of the debate there, Nash agreed to edit a set of primary source materials by Americans of indigenous, African, Hispanic, and Asian origin, 172 pages’ worth, which Houghton Mifflin included with the textbooks at no extra charge. By law, this very same supplement had to be available to every school district in the state. When I interviewed her a year after the fight, Toni Cook, of the Oakland school board, called this “a responsible compromise.’'

But when push came to shove in Oakland, the opponents were not in the market for “a responsible compromise.’' They wanted all or nothing. The debate was not about actual textbooks to be used as practical instruments of schooling but about symbols, overloaded with emotional meaning, totems of moral conviction. For many people--administrators, teachers, and parents--textbooks are symbols to start with: signs that some larger community exists. The community exists, so the assumption goes, insofar as it shares collective knowledge. The textbook is therefore a carrier of the publicness of the public schools. It suggests the possibility--indeed, the actuality--of a shared collective identity. This is why textbooks are revised, why they are defended and fought over.

When the Oakland teachers endorsed most of the Houghton Mifflin books, some of the early critics changed their positions. Thus, school board member Sheila Jordan, who had shared in a unanimous board decision calling on the state to reject the books when they had first come under attack by CURE, had become a vociferous defender and, for her pains, was falsely accused of taking Houghton Mifflin money for her successful City Council election campaign. Jan Malvin, a Jewish psychologist and parent who had brought the issue of the depiction of Judaism to the Oakland board’s attention in the first place, was swayed by the teachers’ vote. Since the teachers had endorsed the books as amended, she was willing to defer to their judgment.

But despite such accommodations, when the Oakland school board met to make a decision in June 1991, the atmosphere was acrimonious--not much different from the atmosphere at the Claremont Middle School meeting three months earlier. One school board member was heard to say beforehand, “We’re going to mau-mau Gary Nash.’' An Oakland Tribune op-ed article by two leading opponents of the texts, San Francisco State University’s Mary Hoover and Kitty Kelly Epstein, an associate professor of education at Oakland’s Holy Names College, sounded off, though they offered only two specific criticisms of the books. The 5th grade book, Hoover and Epstein wrote, referred to the frontier as “unexplored’'--a case, they charged, of ethnocentric wording.

The other example, however, was something else. “The essence of the books’ portrayal of American history,’' Hoover and Epstein wrote, “is captured in the title of the 5th grade text, The U.S., A Nation of Immigrants, . . . [which] does not capture the experience of a huge part of the American population. Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans were not lucky immigrants but victims of some of the worst murder and pillage in human history.’' When junior high school history teacher Steven Weinberg rose at the school board meeting to say that the claim was false, that the 5th grade book was not, in fact, titled The U.S., A Nation of Immigrants, that it was, in fact, titled America Will Be, from a Langston Hughes poem, the crowd booed him down, Weinberg recalls, “with shouts of ‘Put on a swastika’ and ‘You’re quoting out of context.’ How can you quote a title out of context?’' A white teacher defending the books was told, “Shut up, white bitch.’' “What do you mean, ‘white bitch’?’' she said. “Well, you are white,’' was the reply.

Everything about Steven Weinberg is trim--his beard, his V-neck sweater, his gold-rimmed glasses, his manner of speaking--but for his frayed white collar. “The Muslims are usually faceless hordes,’' Weinberg says. “Not in this book. This book, in fact, teaches that the Muslims were more tolerant than the Christians. This was the first time you had any reference to important people in Muslim history. The Muslim kids in school can see references to the people they’re named after. In the 8th grade book, Mexican soldiers are called ‘brave,’ while the Americans are given no adjective. I was surprised, in fact, that there was no right-wing attack on these books. I said to myself, Be happy for small favors.’' Weinberg describes himself as a moderate Democrat and “a pluralist in almost all dimensions.’' A year before the debate, he had used his own money to buy his students copies of Dragonwings, a novel by Lawrence Yep about a Chinese-American aviator. “I really believe in having many voices in the curriculum. I don’t feel myself naturally allied with people who say that we should teach traditional American history. I don’t like being lumped with them.’'

When I interviewed Weinberg, the walls of his classroom at Claremont Middle School were festooned with questions scrawled in childish lettering on signed white sheets of paper: “What group of Indians were the first ones to live in America?’' “Why are blacks treated so poorly?’' “Why are people so obsessed with money and power?’' “Why doesn’t the U.S. have women as President?’' “Why did the U.S. take over Mexico’s land?’' “Who makes rules for America?’' The children, Weinberg explained, chose the questions they wanted to see answered by the end of the school year.

I asked Weinberg how he taught Columbus. He showed me one of his assignments: Write a paragraph saying whether we ought to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day or Columbus Day. The next week, he gives his students two statements to refute. The first says: “The American Indians were uncivilized barbarians. They had no religion. They had no art. They were disorganized, with no laws or governments. They were half-naked and lived in flimsy huts. They created nothing of value.’' The second: “All Native Americans lived in harmony with nature and in peace with each other before the European invasion began in 1492.’'

“It’s very hard to do this right,’' Weinberg added. “What makes sense to a student from Cambodia? I have a boy from Ethiopia in my class. We have people from South America. It constantly forces me to rethink, because I don’t want simply to teach what I was taught. I spent a lot of time trying to teach the Alamo accurately. The traditional view minimizes slavery in Texas. I found something that speaks to interracial harmony: the Anglo and Hispanic Texans who were long-term Texans were the ones trying to avoid the war in the first place.’'

On June 5, 1991, the Oakland school board voted against adopting the Houghton Mifflin books that the teachers had wanted for grades 4 through 7. For kindergarten through 3rd grade and for the 8th grade, they selected other books. At the 6th grade level, the board voted in favor of an older book published by Scholastic, a book that they did not consider in detail, that they chose largely because it was not from Houghton Mifflin, and that one white teacher involved in curriculum matters considers “far more racist than Houghton Mifflin.’'

“I haven’t heard of any teacher who likes’’ the 6th grade Scholastic book, Renee Swayne, a 3rd grade teacher in Oakland who supported the Houghton Mifflin books, told me. “The board needed to be clear what they were voting on,’' she said. “If they were opposed to a racist text, some of the previously adopted materials that they were instructing us to continue to use were even more racist.’'

Swayne, an African American and a 20-year veteran of the Oakland schools, resented the opponents’ attitude. “They presuppose that there is only one black ideology, and, if you spoke against it, you were hissed, harassed, and humiliated. I don’t like that kind of intimidation. I don’t like that overzealous quality. I consider myself to be liberal, but I don’t toe the line. It put me in a funny position to be aligned with the quote unquote ‘establishment.’ But I tried to come up with a decision that was in the best interests of the children. There’s no safe, single, easy solution.’'

Just beneath the surface of such disputes lies the wound in all American dreams, the question of race. To the most vigorous opponents, the deep issue was simple: The schools ill-serve African-American youth. One leading anti-Houghton Mifflin activist, Fred Ellis, a husky, affable African American who has been teaching hard-to-teach children for 30 years, says: “Textbooks are one reason why kids have dropped out of school. If you don’t believe me, listen to rap artists. Some of what they say is vulgar, but they’re sometimes relevant. Public Enemy came out and said young people should be the teachers. I’ve worked with kids who are dropouts. You can’t use material that is irrelevant. These kids sleep on the street, they’re abandoned, they have experiences I haven’t had.’'

Another activist, Kitty Kelly Epstein, was the particular bane of textbook supporters. A slender, intense woman in her 40s, Epstein was a veteran of the Marxist Left and had worked with Sheila Jordan to democratize the American Federation of Teachers and in a campaign against school vouchers. But in recent years, she has been fired by the conviction that “progressivism doesn’t mean anything.’' Attacks on the Oakland school--there had been corruption charges--were, in her eyes, covers for racism. The fact that a majority of Oakland’s teachers wanted the Houghton Mifflin textbooks did not cut much ice with Epstein: She dismissed textbooks as “crutches,’' adding that many teachers don’t even use them anymore. Epstein said scornfully: “There are teachers who say, ‘Oh, my God, what shall we do for these poor kids?’ We don’t think about them that way. We don’t pity them. They’re smart. We’re excited about these kids. We don’t think these are poor little kids the way a lot of the teachers do. I’ve talked to these kids. These are the most intellectually exciting conversations I’ve had in my life.’'

Still, I asked, wouldn’t it have been better to have the Houghton Mifflin books available for classroom use as references, sources of homework assignments, baselines for class discussion? But the books, Epstein and Ellis insisted, lacked “positive materials.’' They assumed that the self-esteem of children is at risk unless they can be taught history peopled by exemplary figures who look like themselves. Renee Swayne, on the other hand, thought the books did well enough at that and applauded them for being true to a terrible history: “I don’t think slavery is anything to be unproud about. Some people don’t want to teach slavery. But we are survivors! We should be appalled by slavery, but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.’'

I asked Steven Weinberg to respond to the argument that “irrelevant’’ textbooks are one reason why black students drop out of school. “I think that may be true of some kids at the high school grade levels,’' he said. “Very few at 8th grade. I think this image is extrapolated from high school and college, when they’ve seen enough of the world to feel alienated.’'

Accused of offering no alternatives to the Houghton Mifflin textbooks, the opponents took the position that they could develop their own home-grown substitute curriculum in a hurry. For this purpose, they would use the state money that the school board would save by not adopting state-sanctioned textbooks--$l8 to $30 per child, depending on the grade level. “It’s very easy to develop a new curriculum,’' Epstein told me. The Oakland school board thought so too and agreed to let Ellis and Epstein recruit teachers and others to write new materials to compensate for the missing textbooks. During the summer of 1991, Ellis, Epstein, and their allies did work up parts of a surrogate curriculum. But many were less history than contemporary polemics. Even the NAACP, which had supported the original protest, objected to a caricature of Clarence Thomas that appeared in one curriculum segment.

In the 10th and 11th straight years of Republican rule in Washington and the ninth of Republican rule in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, why did committed people devote so much energy to mobilizing against the most pluralist textbooks ever brought before the state of California? Why were they able to command so much of the public debate on educational subjects overall? How could one gay activist have accused the books of “extermination’’ for failing to take note of Americans who had loved people of the same sex? Why so vehement? Even allowing the books’ flaws, why the urge to demonize them?

The bitterness of the attack on the textbooks in Oakland was, by any stretch of the imagination, out of all proportion to the real stakes. In this, it was typical of many (not all) of the recent multicultural donnybrooks. In the background, whether noted directly or not, were intractable facts: a stupefying degree of inequality in American society and, in particular, of poverty among African Americans. Wealth in the United States has sometimes trickled, sometimes cascaded upward for a quarter of a century so that, to put the matter in raw statistical terms, in 1989, the wealthiest 1 percent of American households owned 39 percent of total household wealth and 48 percent of the sum of all bank accounts, stocks, and bonds. The median nonwhite household, which in 1983 owned 9 percent of what the median white household owned, owned only 5 percent in 1989. In 1989, 35 percent of nonwhite and Hispanic families had zero or negative net worth, compared with 12 percent of whites. In 1993, 46 percent of black children were living below the poverty line. Between 1984 and 1989, the life expectancy gap between white and black males widened from 6.3 years to 8.2 years; according to the most recent data available, males in Bangladesh have a better chance of living past age 40 than males in Harlem.

While most Americans deplore these facts, and at least outside (admittedly, growing) white supremacist and Social Darwinist circles it is generally bad form to insist that they are in the natural order of things, there is no political consensus about what to do and no vigorous political movements welling up from those populations most affected. Those who suffer most are often most quiescent. Instead of moving to organize against rock-bottom class inequalities and racial discrimination, many activists choose to fight real and imagined symbols of insult. They do not know what else to do, and they are not trying to find out. Their critics do not offer a convincing means to heal America’s wounds, either.

Dedicated people like Fred Ellis and Kitty Epstein resort to a deeply censorious assumption: In the beginning and in the end is the Word. They assume that school is omnipotent, that pride develops from talk of pride, that guilt is the engine of political change. The assumption of the textbook opponents is that more “relevant’’ textbooks make alienated youth less alienated, keep them in school, thus help them succeed. They agree with textbook advocates, in fact, that better textbooks--whatever they mean by “better’'--will make a significant difference in keeping up the morale of Oakland’s students and thereby equip them to fare better in a future economy that will have less need of the less skilled. But genuflections are made toward these arguments in the absence of strong evidence.

Or against the evidence. John Ogbu, a professor of anthropology at Berkeley, and his colleagues concluded after much research that neither the ideal of a common curriculum defended by conservatives nor the ideal of multiculturalism defended by liberals “is likely to enhance appreciably the academic achievement of those minority groups who have not traditionally done well in school.’' The disturbing possibility raised by this research is that poor students are put off less by the tilt of the textbooks than by the fear that their peers will define any academic success as “acting white.’'

There is also the disconcerting question of how much academic success the American economy could actually abide. If all African-American youth in Oakland graduated from high school with a B average or better, would there be jobs for them anywhere but McDonald’s? For that matter, would there be places for them to continue their education? One thing was certain: With community college fees rising by 290 percent between 1990-91 and 1994-95, student fees in the 19-campus California State University system rising by 103 percent, and in the nine-campus University of California system by 134 percent, with experienced professors being seduced into early retirement and courses being eliminated accordingly to cut costs, there wouldn’t be room for most of these high school graduates in the moldering halls of California’s college system. During years of tax revolt, declining revenues, state budget crisis, and educational cutbacks, much of the popular energy and commitment it would have taken to fight for the preservation--let alone the improvement--of public education was channeled into acrimony among potential allies. Oakland’s school fight was a shadow play at the edge of the precipice.

“It was a symbolic fight,’' said Sheila Jordan, who was the only educator on the school board. “They won a symbolic victory but they lost a piece of the struggle. If we had gotten these textbooks, they could have used any supplementary materials they wanted. I’m not against a certain Afrocentricity; I’m not against distributing political material--let the kids have anything that could help. There had never been such a wide representation of teachers in the selection process. Previously, a much smaller group of teachers had made recommendations, and they were being lobbied by the publishers. I think most parents wanted the books. But the issue became so politicized. If you were for the Houghton Mifflin books, you were called ‘racist.’ ''

Shelley Weintraub put it this way: “I thought the textbook debate was totally misplaced. You pick false symbols, you call each other names, you stifle real debate. There’s virtually no connection between the rage that the opponents are feeling and the object of their attack. They can’t affect the federal government, they can’t affect the state government, so they’re going to trash the local school board.’'

Weintraub is herself a Berkeley veteran of the antiwar and women’s movements. “I regard myself as a multiculturalist,’' she said, “and I think this is the prevailing view among teachers. To give an accurate understanding of American history, you have to give an accurate picture of the Chinese working on the railroad, and a lot of other groups doing a lot of other things. But I’m not a big one for basing the curriculum on self-esteem. It’s hippie-dippy. My sense of my students is that they gain self-esteem when they develop skills and feel their power, and not because they had someone to look up to. I’m not against role models and heroes, but I think it’s ahistorical to base a curriculum on that. My kid came home from kindergarten with a badge that said, I FEEL SPECIAL. I think there are other ways.’'

I asked Steven Weinberg what he thought was driving the protest. “The important thing,’' he said, “is that most of the testimony wasn’t about the textbooks, actually. People were recounting experiences of racism: Their children were beaten up, called names. The testimony was real heartfelt. A lot of people took a leap of faith that there was some connection between this and the textbooks.’' This is the leap of faith that makes for the wrong fight on the wrong grounds. Weinberg continued: “Something else happened. I said, ‘If we don’t have textbooks, it’s going to be harder to keep our best teachers.’ This year, we have all new faces teaching the 7th grade. Anyone who could, went to the 8th grade, where we had a textbook, or went to another subject. Or retired early. This is hard work. You don’t have time to develop a curriculum. You need all the help you can get.’' He pointed to an inch-thick stack of papers he had to grade over the weekend.

“Two things anger me,’' Weinberg added. “There are all the untruths that were told about the books. And all of that made the job harder for some awfully good teachers, and in that way the protest hurt the education of the kids.’'

Two years after the Columbus quincentenary, Oakland’s 4th, 5th, and 7th grade classes still had no history textbooks.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Rewriting History