Official Portraits of Our Past

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American-history textbooks raise unique content problems since they are official portraits of our country's past, purchased by governments and assigned to the students who will one day participate in government by consent. To what degree textbooks affect how students see themselves, their nation, and the world cannot be easily reckoned, but their subtexts, interpretations, biases, and omissions do provide clues to how we regard ourselves as Americans--and how publishers sell textbooks. Their central place in the curriculum makes them especially interesting to philosophers, journalists, and intellectuals--as well as ideologues of many groups and causes.

A history text does more than convey information. It sets a tone through its choice of words, phrases, and sentences. Its content will sound a certain way through the selection of words, phrases, and sentence structure. The writing may be simple or complex, flat or evocative, utilitarian or stylish. American-history textbooks today, notably at the elementary and intermediate levels, strive for simple, inoffensive prose that often lacks the qualities of good literature and fine history. In some texts a Max Weber-like style that imitates social science at the expense of episodic history cannot help but puzzle a student. Textbooks may be effective reference materials, but they fail to draw in and excite young readers through vivid narrative and literary treatment.

Consider a passage from a 2nd-grade social-studies textbook, this part of the Harcourt Brace elementary series popular in schools during the 1990's, which employs the near-to-far approach favored by educators across the nation. It deals with the everyday experiences of the 7-year-old child:

Many workers help families. Families pay some of these workers for their services. The communities' government pays other workers for their services.

People everywhere pay money to the government. This money is called taxes. There are many kinds of taxes. You often pay taxes on things you buy.

Your family pays many taxes. The taxes go to pay for the services you need in your neighborhood. Your taxes help pay people for their work.

Or this passage from an American-history text, Exploring American History, an "easy reader'' aimed at high school classrooms for slow learners:

Pocahontas is reported to have saved John Smith's life twice. The English rewarded Pocahontas' kindness by kidnapping her. They held her as a hostage to prevent Native Americans from attacking Jamestown. A hostage is a person held prisoner until certain demands are met.

These passages illustrate the problems facing textbook reviewers today--and tomorrow. They are representative of the flat style and flawed content that children encounter in social-studies textbooks. Each of them demonstrates widely held stylistic and thematic approaches in today's textbooks. The first reflects the dominant social-studies view that children in the primary grades should study themselves and their immediate localities, no matter how familiar or boring. The second, from a high school book written for students with limited reading comprehension, combines a disagreeable prose style with an anti-European bias. It is a text that sells briskly in urban markets.

Matters of content, not style--especially ethnic, gender, and religious issues--dominate textbook controversies in the 1990's. State and local policies rarely address matters of style and textual quality. In coming years in social-studies books it is almost inevitable that multivalent arguments over content and interpretation will continue--and perhaps grow more fierce. Yet it is important for textbook reviewers to understand that some textbooks are better written than others, especially in secondary-level history, and some do a better job as instructional vehicles than their competitors. The cynics are wrong: All history textbooks are not the same.

Publishers design social-studies books to be sold in as many states and localities as possible. Field representatives, sales forces, market researchers, packagers, product managers, and editorial directors help determine the nature of a social-studies textbook. Sensitive to the current desires of teachers and curriculum directors, they are willing to make changes in accordance with any recent pedagogical or subject-based vogue, if popular enough to capture greater market share. In this respect textbooks are normative instruments that reflect the tastes of major curriculum committees and concerns of diverse textbook activists. Because history and social-studies curricula are controversial and public tastes are divergent, the cost of developing and selling history and social-studies texts is greater than in less polarizing subjects, such as algebra or spelling. For this reason, textbook publishers' reluctance to invest money in new social-studies products is likely to increase in the 1990's, resulting in a smaller field of standard books from which educators can choose.

The likelihood of mid-size, regional, or boutique publishers singlehandedly bringing serious new competition to the mass market is remote. Instead of developing social-studies texts--expensive and chancy to develop--smaller publishers interested in self-preservation will produce niche materials or leave the field. Even major publishers of social-studies texts may find themselves backing away from the area. The "one size fits all'' social-studies product is becoming ever harder to fit, as normative standards of culture and academic content rupture and content disputes escalate. Can publishers afford to develop and sell such social-studies products in the future? Will it be possible in the future to develop and market a single history textbook nationally? What is the future of the textbook, particularly in the era of much-heralded customized-publishing possibilities and CD-ROM? These are among the most provocative questions of the 1990's in the field of educational publishing.

The authors of mass-market history books who are advertised as such have minimal control over their product. They serve as editorial consultants and sometimes act as salespeople during the campaigns in which publishers' caravans and promo-tional teams comb "big'' adoption states, making presentations in cities and towns. The fastidious try to prevent inaccuracies and what they consider to be flawed interpretations through repeated readings and memoranda to editors and developers. Some textbook authors succeed in conserving some voice in their books.

Publishers seek eminent scholars as writers and consultants because these "names'' may lead teachers to purchase their texts. The truth is, however, eminence or style is rarely accompanied by interest. Writing school textbooks does not help historians in their careers. Finding good authors for textbooks is difficult. The major incentive for skilled children's writers or history professors to contribute to school texts is a financial one. What serious writer for children or adults would be willing to submit to readability formulas and other indignities beyond authorial control? The writing of core text, study reviews and questions, and annotated teachers' texts is completed by anonymous writers in development houses and production companies; these are subcontractors laboring under the direction of a text editor. These writers of textbooks are unfailingly earnest in their efforts to create finished and commendable products. But with rare exceptions, they bring to the task modest literary talent and scholarly background in history.

According to a Scott Foresman social-studies editor: "We editors understand, better than the authors, what background--or lack of it--students bring to the text. We rewrite to make concepts clearer, to make references more understandable. We take complex ideas and break them down to their component parts.'' It is true that complex ideas are broken down by textbook editors, but the text is not necessarily improved, and the decline of prose style in history textbooks is a frequent complaint of teachers, children's-book authors, and critics of educational materials.

Textbook reviewers inevitably turn their attention to subject-matter content. It is important for them to pay attention to three key aspects of any history textbook. Thus they should consider at the outset the way in which a text uses chronology ("dates'') to clarify and place events in time, that is, to organize content fundamental to historical understanding. They should consider how well the text highlights important events and people, and how they ("names'') act on more general political, economic, and social conditions in history. They should consider how well text and format link geography to history. But in matters of content, what curriculum specialists call "social considerations'' will undoubtedly be of unique interest to textbook-selection committees. The concept of multiculturalism--so elusive in definition--has become a theoretical matrix in social-studies during the last decade.

It must be admitted from the start that various groups and individuals in the United States today have little point of agreement on the history curriculum--or interest in trying to find one. An abundance of sensitive issues makes construction of a national and global past increasingly difficult. Content issues in U.S.-history textbooks radiate from different mindsets--affirmative and negative--about the development, historical leadership, and institutions of the United States. World-history textbooks must cover different governments, religions, and mores in virtually telegraphic form. The main issue is the degree to which they will emphasize the continent of Europe, which has "Westernized'' the world during the last 500 years with advantages and disadvantages for other regions of the world.

Since the 1970's, social-studies textbooks have been screened to eliminate bias and slights, especially against minority groups and women. The Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded in 1966 by editors, illustrators, teachers, and parents "committed to affecting basic change in books and other media,'' conducted crusades for content reform of children's trade books and textbooks. It acted as a high-profile pressure group on textbook publishers and state curriculum officials to "raise consciousness'' about racism and sexism in the books that children read. With federal support, the C.I.B.C. conducted "critical analyses of racist and sexist stereotypes prevalent in children's books and learning materials.''

In 1978, in a celebrated series of New Yorker magazine articles, Frances FitzGerald expressed surprise at the changes in American-history books, noting that the triumphalism that had once marked texts had ceded to new content and "inquiry approaches.'' Three years later, Houghton Mifflin published Eliminating Stereotypes, a handbook and position statement on sensitive subjects. Created for internal use and for distribution to textbook critics, it considered minority groups, the sexes, economic and environmental issues, and language. Like other publishers' guidelines, it was quite prescriptive. ("Show boys as well as girls interested in small furry animals and birds, planning meals, shopping for clothes.'') In 1988, the New York City board of education published guidelines that noted social-studies-curriculum problem areas such as "contextual invisibility,'' stereotyping, historical distortion and omission, language bias, and inaccurate or stereotypic visual images. ("Do illustrations and images portray women and men of all races, ages, physical abilities, and social classes interacting with each other; or are they predominantly white, nondisabled males?'') California and other states enacted general curriculum-compliance criteria that mandate review of educational materials for "inclusion'' and "diversity.''

Once historical content in textbooks changed merely to "include'' or accommodate one cause or crusade, it became more likely that historical content would be changed to "include'' and accommodate others. In some cases, these compromises resulted in overgeneralization, in misrepresentation of accepted facts and works of literature, and in textbooks which do not reflect the best thinking in the field. Publishers' efforts to address as many of the topics listed in dozens of curriculum guides have resulted in shallow attention to important topics. Attempting to avoid controversy over the content of books, publishers have responded to the most restrictive of compliance regulations and the most aggressive of state requirements, thereby changing books for all purchasers.

Interest in multiculturalism among educational publishers today is not hard to understand. An increasing number of U.S. schools, especially in metropolitan areas, have black, Hispanic, and Asian students. In a world linked by communications as never before, global awarenesss--superimposed upon local and national perspectives--makes any "monocultural'' curriculum or "Euro-American canon'' seem inherently provincial or narrow. "Revisionism'' has altered the interpretation of history and the humanities in research universities, schools of education, and, indirectly, in schools. Some multicultural educators look to non-Western cultures to provide educational alternatives that may correct what they consider to be a Eurocentric curriculum.

In language-arts textbooks, story selection now occurs almost exclusively on the basis of ethnic, gender, and other ascriptive coding by author and subject. In history, "inclusion'' of new groups and subjects is not so simple. American histories reflect varying degrees of "revisionist'' pressure to emphasize race, class, and gender in historical analysis. World histories cover the political and industrial revolutions of the modern world that radically affect the lives of Americans and people of the earth, and the evolving story of democracy and human rights. But pressure to compress "Western'' subject matter and political history can result in shallow coverage of seminal events that have shaped today's world.

Vol. 13, Issue 36, Pages 34-35

Published in Print: June 1, 1994, as Official Portraits of Our Past
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