Revised History Textbooks Creating 'New Myths' About Minorities

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Including ethnic groups in American-history textbooks may correct one bias, but a new study suggests that, as ethnicity is commonly covered, it creates the danger of perpetuating others.

In their analysis of six widely used secondary American-history textbooks, Nathan Glazer of Harvard University and Reed Ueda of Tufts University argue that, however honorable the intentions of authors who sought to make up for years of neglect and misrepresentation in the treatment of the saga of ethnic groups in America, they are now erring in the opposite direction.

"The old myths of racism, which were prominent in American texts of the 20's and 30's, are now replaced by new myths proclaiming the superior moral qualities of minorities," they write, "and we find a Mani-chaean inversion in which whites are malevolent and blacks, Indians, Asians, and Hispanics are tragic victims."

The study, entitled "Ethnic Groups in History Textbooks," was published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a nonprofit Washington research and education group founded by Ernest W. Lefever. The study focused on one question about the textbooks: "How do they handle ethnic and minority issues in American history?" Because they studied only a small number of books, the authors acknowledge, their findings represent only a "partial answer."

That caveat notwithstanding, the researchers draw wide-ranging conclusions from their analysis. After looking at both the quantitative and qualitative handling of information about ethnic and minority groups in textbooks, Mr. Glazer and Mr. Ueda suggest that the textbooks' authors misrepresent the development of American society in ways that deny students the chance to gain a broad perspective on history.

Mr. Glazer, a professor of sociology and education, and Mr. Ueda, a professor of history, do not fault the texts for the amount of space accorded these groups, which ranged from 5.4 to 11.6 percent of the text. This, they write, does not represent "undue attention to racial and ethnic groups."

The authors point out also that the addition of ethnic history has not coincided with the disappearance of the usual material found in American-history textbooks. George Washington is still there; wars are described; presidential elections covered.

They are critical, however, of the tone adopted by textbook authors in discussing ethnic groups, and of the texts' analyses of the relationship between various groups and the dominant white culture. "The texts stress the frequency of 'victimization' of ethnic minorities in American history," they write.

Although this side of American history--that of "oppressed and oppressor"--must be told, it is only one part of a vastly more complex picture, Mr. Glazer and Mr. Ueda argue.

'Crude Dualism'

To treat the history of ethnic groups as simplistically as do the texts analyzed, they note, is only a reversal of the "crude dualism"--that of the "savage Indians and the brave settlers," for example--that prevailed in earlier texts.

The texts emphasize different themes for different groups, the authors point out. "For Indians, it is their native culture and their warfare with whites; for blacks, slavery and its aftermath, continuing prejudice and discrimination, the efforts of reformers to improve the condition of blacks and the resultant creation of reform institutions and movements, and the recent adoption of new antidiscriminatory national policies ..."

European immigrants, many of whom also belonged to ethnic minorities, are generally described in terms of their role in urban and industrial development, the authors say.

All of the texts, however, pay only superficial attention to the ways in which the various groups were integrated into the American social system and "the crucial historical question of how well American society functioned, in actuality as well as in myth, as a land of opportunity for specific ethnic groups."

"Perhaps," they write, "they fear that analysis would be tedious or would result in invidious group comparisons. Instead, they tend to fur-nish biographical vignettes of the 'rags to riches' variety, of individual successes meant to represent an ethnic group."

This treatment of ethnic groups is not wholly without merit, the authors note; one of the "modest virtues" of such an approach is that it increases students' sensitivity to racism and seeks to engage their social consciences.

But as an effort to add to the "new and important direction in the interpreting of American history"--the inclusion of minority groups--the approach seems "overzealous and unsteady," according to the authors.

"... [I]f the concern of 1970 was whether minorities and ethnic groups were receiving fair and adequate treatment, the concern of the 1980's ... is whether the growing sophistication of publishers in accommodating to every possible pressure group will lead to a Balkanization of American history, in which every group may get a 'proper' share, but in which the central story, one in which all groups participate, is simply left aside to be assembled as well as possible by the student and teacher," they write.

One way to provide students with a more balanced picture, the authors suggest, would be to pay greater attention to the European ethnic groups--not as a means of giving "equal time," but "of presenting a more complex, and truer, picture of American diversity, and of the problems and successes of the American political system in dealing with it."

Including such material would also offer students a "bridge of experience" that would indicate the possible paths that other minority groups might follow, the authors argue.

The history of these ethnic groups "indicate to students where they might fit into the story of the American people--something that a radical disjunction between racist whites and victimized nonwhite minorities does not easily permit."

Vol. 02, Issue 34

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