Analysis Finds Shallowness In Latest History Textbooks

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The American-history textbooks that could be destined to dominate the curriculum throughout the next decade are packed with more glossy graphics and information than ever before, but the content is shallow and disconnected and continues to overemphasize multiculturalism, concludes a forthcoming evaluation by the American Textbook Council.

For More Information

The report will be available next month for $10 from the American Textbook Council at (212) 870-2760.

Moreover, without clear narrative strands, the textbooks do not require the kind of "close" reading that can enhance reading skills, the analysis says, and they fail to instill the strong civic knowledge that is crucial in a democracy.

"I suppose after a decade, I would like to see more progress," said Gilbert T. Sewall, who, as the director of the New York City-based council, has conducted periodic reviews of history and social studies textbooks since 1988. "I think we're going in the wrong direction, both in terms of design and content."

For this latest report, "History Textbooks at the New Century," Mr. Sewall and several outside reviewers studied texts that are now popular in the 5th, 8th, and 11th grades. They focused attention on the books adopted last year for use in California because of that state's influence over the selections that are sold nationwide.

Style Over Content

The report reiterates many of the previous criticisms of textbooks leveled by Mr. Sewall and some other observers. The texts, which many teachers rely on heavily to organize curricula and lesson plans, have been described as "dumbing down" history by providing few narrative details of key events and historical figures and for supplanting traditional "heroes" with notable minority figures and women.

Textbook publishers publish what their customers ask and demand of them, said Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers. "Multiculturalism is a required aspect for textbooks in California and other states ... and studies show that you need to have graphics and pictures and color and make the texts visually interesting in order to hold the interest of the students."

Mr. Sewall contends that the focus on design creates editorial confusion.

"Textbooks are vague about things that are interesting, and specific about events and people that no one needs to remember," the report says. "Too many topics are covered superficially. Textbooks have trouble building bridges from one subject to another. Language is often choppy, stilted, and impersonal. It is a difficult style to read, understand, or remember."

Though some sound history books are available, the report says, more unsatisfactory choices are on the market than ever before, it maintains. And while good teachers can search for other meaningful ways to present history to their students, it says, they are often hampered by an inadequate selection of materials.

California Policy

In examining California's list of approved textbooks, the textbook council found some that "are simply anti-educational."

The panelists who reviewed those texts for the California state school board found some deficiencies of their own in the books, but recommended most of them for adoption because they met most of the state's criteria. While they commended some of the texts for their quality and depth of content, the panel members understood there are no perfect textbooks, said Thomas Adams, a consultant to the curriculum-frameworks and instructional-resources division of the California education department.

"Gil Sewall comes at this with very honest and scholarly concerns," said Mr. Davis, who coordinated the state's textbook adoption for history and social science last year. "But there's a difference between that and [adhering] to state policy on these matters. It's not always a question of personal preference, but of policy guidelines that have to be met."

Under California's guidelines, each of the textbooks and series submitted for adoption must undergo a 25-page evaluation by a panel of dozens of teachers. The books must portray the historical experiences of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups, as well as meet the detailed content requirements outlined in the state's academic frameworks.

While discouraged by the current offerings, Mr. Sewall said teachers and parents will eventually push publishers to beef up their content. And, over the next year, he will be working to create his own sample textbook series for American and world history.

"The challenge," he said, "will be to convince a publisher to undertake such a venture."

Vol. 19, Issue 33, Page 6

Published in Print: April 26, 2000, as Analysis Finds Shallowness In Latest History Textbooks
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A quote was wrongly attributed to a Mr. Davis. The remark was made by Thomas Adams, who coordinated the adoption of history and social science textbooks for California last year.

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