Opinion
Curriculum Commentary

History 2000

By Gilbert T. Sewall — May 31, 2000 11 min read

History textbooks should be accurate and interesting. They should record what actually happened, and do so with some drama, conveying rich details, making an effort at objectivity, and making clear to children why a person, event, or geographical detail was of significance and importance. They should explain, not indoctrinate.

An increasing number of teachers may be under the erroneous impression that the revamped formats and dropped text in the new generation of text books are advances in pedagogy.

These basic ambitions are unevenly met among the nation’s history textbooks. Both in writing and content, the greatest deficiencies occur at the elementary level, a judgment that should disturb anyone who believes that language arts and civic education are critical elements in primary education. New textbooks on the market confirm previous warnings and trend signals from the American Textbook Council. Some textbook critics and social studies specialists are concerned, in fact, that many teachers, even the most capable and original, have reduced expectations for history textbooks. An increasing number of them may be reprogrammed into thinking that the new format and dropped text in the new generation of history textbooks are advances in curriculum and pedagogy. They are not.

Here are three areas of concern that emerged from our review of history texts for grades 5-12:

• Gutted textbooks and the passing of close reading as a central learning activity pose profound challenges to literacy and habits of thought.

There is no substitute for exacting language. Language provides clear definitions and concrete accounts, contrasts and parallels, cause and effect. While text should be age-appropriate, the clarity and directness of language should combine with the “seamless thread” of narrative to advance understanding. Unfortunately, state and local textbook-adoption procedures rarely, if ever, address matters of style and textual quality.

Many history textbooks seem to reflect lowered sights for general education, coupled with the conviction—widely held among editors and educators—that a snappy, scattered format with few words and many classroom activities will alleviate student boredom with history and reading and writing. They raise basic questions about sustaining literacy and civic understanding in a democratic polity and culture. Public affairs require general and civic knowledge. They require precision of thought, especially critical thought, skills that in a democracy cannot be isolated among an opinion-making elite but must be widely dispersed, if not universal, through the population.

Pictures are not always worth a thousand words. Precision of thought depends on clear, fluent language. Effective learning demands that students have the ability to collaborate with the text and be able to grasp through language (comprehend) why an individual, event, or institution is notable. Graphics can enrich text, but only if they complement or extend concepts and episodes that are centered in the text. Maps, tables, graphs, and lists especially can help to illuminate historical subjects. But many illustrations and sidebars serve no such instructional purpose.

Pictures are not always worth a thousand words. Precision of thought depends on clear, fluent language.

Fears for the future of language may well increase as electronic media force a revolution in information management and distribution inside and outside of schools. Electronic publishing’s educational opportunities begin with its ability to narrowcast and broadcast vast amounts of useful information cheaply and efficiently. All publishers are committed to electronic distribution in the future. World Wide Web-based lessons and learning have growing teacher appeal. Some educators versed in instructional trends fear the day may come when, if information cannot be downloaded, it won’t be used. High-quality data archives, lesson plans, and other instructional resources on the Web are already available to teachers and students. There are too few of them. They are not easily located, well catalogued, or carefully reviewed.

The challenge for electronic publishing and teaching materials will be to achieve the standard associated with the best printed reference books and to integrate these electronic resources with traditional look-it-up library methods.

• Editorial confusion reigns in the subject of history. Content is thinner and thinner, and what there is, increasingly deformed by identity politics and group pieties.

Publishers cater to pressure groups for whom textbook content is an extension of a broader political or cultural cause. They make books whose content is meant to suit the sensitivities of groups and causes more interested in self-promotion than in fact, scholarly appraisal, or balance. For many educators, “inclusion” is more than a watchword. It is the thematic center of curriculum reform. At the same time, these publishers wish to offend no one and nobody. Editors search earnestly for historical figures who will obtain the perfect identity rainbow, who will provide role models for the largest number of groups, who are gatekeepers’ favorites, or who fight valiantly in one way or another against the sins of the forefathers.

But diversity stitched into lesson after lesson impairs the integrity of the entire product. The multicultural imagination does not result in better history or, to use the cliché, history, warts and all. Instead, the changes tend to give students a selective, puzzling, and fishy view of the nation and world. Blandness is the descriptive word that experts regularly apply to textbook prose. The exception: when history textbooks encounter certain kinds of injustice at the hands of Western Civilization or the American Regime. In such passages textbooks come to life. The tone may change to pleading and crusading. The Fight Continues.

Multiculturalism’s universal appeal at the beginning of the 1990s lay in its pledge to broaden the nation’s understanding of the past, calling attention to minority groups that had been neglected and improving the balance of old and new history. But 10 years later, the “triumphalism” of the old American history—establishment of responsible government, development of a national economy, extension of democracy to blacks and women, influence in world affairs, a rising standard of living for most if not all—seems the main casualty of the multicultural idea. As embodied in the national standards, multiculturalism emphasizes the story of outcast groups and their resistance to established order.

Diversity stitched into lesson after lesson impairs the integrity of the entire product.

On account of changes in American- and world-history textbooks, children today may envision their country and its Anglo-European heritage not with a sense of achievement or pride but with a degree of mourning or indignation. Heroes who have long introduced children to history and the nation’s past are becoming problematic: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Houston; the pioneers on the Great Plains and in California; the builders of railroads and cities. New heroes in leading textbooks—Mansa Masu, Anne Hutchinson, Carrie Chapman Catt, Rigoberta Menchu, Chico Mendez, and Anita Hill—serve to advance a civic agenda that highlights and ennobles people of color, peace advocates, anti-colonialists, environmentalists, and wronged women. Victimhood carries with it special privilege and status.

In the new generation of U.S. history textbooks, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, Gettysburg and Promontory Point do not exactly vanish, but they are not much savored either. In world history, old-time historical giants like Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, Copernicus and Magellan, Voltaire and Rousseau, Napoleon, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud play supporting roles, if any. They are no longer considered central figures in general education. The result is bad history and an incomplete understanding of the origins of the nation and world today.

•Publishers should be producing cheaper books that are more text- centered, simpler in design, and more honest in content.

A growing number of educators and parents recognize the benefits of history textbooks that are fluent and detailed, that students can read and outline, that do not “jump around.” They observe the scattered ambitions and stripped-down prose that make history textbooks depressing to read. They reject the multifoliate editorial apparatus that renders these books unreadable and unfocused. They are seeking textbooks that are compact, clear, and trustworthy. Demands for such textbooks are likely to increase. How can publishers reconcile this demand with design and editorial pressures moving in opposite directions?

Young people enjoy stories and events that concretize political intrigue, technical and creative achievement, benevolence and evil, love and hatred.

General readers of all ages are evidently partial to narrative history. This large and enthusiastic public audience wants history to tell a story. Why should students and young people feel any different about the subject? Young people enjoy stories and events that concretize political intrigue, technical and creative achievement, benevolence and evil, love and hatred. Few history textbooks accomplish this. History is full of drama that really happened, and the epic stories behind the present stand on their own when well told and written. Biography in particular provides universals in particulars, records human anxieties and triumphs, reveals sorrows and hopes, and gives children some idea of how heroes and villains steered their own lives. Readability is the greatest virtue of the Oxford History of US series.

Teaching materials have certain responsibilities. History cannot be one long, captivating soap opera, and indeed, educators should see the field as the great organizing discipline by which the many strands of politics, economics, and culture cast and recast themselves in dynamic ways. These are strands with specific traits and characteristics, that move forward in chronology, that can be checked against documents and reference materials.

Students and teachers need concise, clear instructional materials and coursebooks. A growing number of concerned parents want primers that are easy to read and understand, that tell a story, that are compact, legible, and accurate. Primary materials and other learning activities can supplement these basic coursebooks, which themselves should be just a few hundred pages, half the weight and size of standard history textbooks. Coursebooks should be text-centered, with strong illustrations, supporting tables, graphs, and maps, and minimal editorial apparatus.

Great opportunities exist for the development of new history textbooks that state and local educators will embrace on account of sharp writing, clear subject focus, and balance of sensitivities. If the cost is low enough, public schools might try to distribute or sell to students individual books to keep as their own, as is the custom in private schools and colleges.

A final conclusion from our American Textbook Council study is this: Schools and textbook-adoption committees should consider the purchase of history textbooks still available with older copyrights.”

Educators should not rule out purchasing “backlisted” textbooks with slightly dated copyrights.

When looking for improved history textbooks, educators and textbook committees should remember that current copyrights are no proof of quality or improved teaching materials. Educators should not rule out purchasing “backlisted” textbooks with slightly dated copyrights. Publishers often discount the textbooks that remain in stock from previous years. Educators can thus buy these books more cheaply than featured new entries that have yet to earn revenues, even though publishers’ sales representatives do their utmost to convince teachers that “new is better.”

These older books sometimes have more detailed, trustworthy narratives than new social studies offerings. A few history textbooks that sustained their past editorial content, notably Daniel Boorstin’s A History of the United States, published by Prentice Hall, retain an appreciative audience and at least one major state adoption. John A. Garraty’s The Story of America, offered by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, is still available to educators. The Thomas V. DiBacco History of the United States (Houghton Mifflin) textbook, adopted by Texas in 1992, is an estimable reference book.

History textbooks in print that some critics once declared to be “dull” now seem impressive and worth reappraisal, as they retain qualities (authorial voice and narrative, clarity and simplicity) abandoned by newer textbooks. One example is Henry Drewry’s America Is, a middle-level U.S. history textbook published by Glencoe, in print with relatively minor changes for 20 years but updated in the early 1990s.

Gilbert T. Sewall is the director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. He is the editor of The Eighties (Perseus, 1998) and a co-author of The U.S.A. Since 1945 (1993). This essay is adapted with permission of the American Textbook Council from its recent publication History Textbooks at the New Century. The council can be reached by e-mail at atc@columbia.edu.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as History 2000

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