Opinion
Curriculum Commentary

Opening Up the Textbook

By Sam Wineburg — June 05, 2007 7 min read

I am the author of a high school world history textbook and yes, I stand to gain financially if you buy it.

With that little bit of information out of the way, let me explain how someone who has spent a career suggesting that the oil crisis might be eased by burning textbooks ended up writing one.

—Nip Rogers

BRIC ARCHIVE

History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of “How to Read Me,” and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad.

Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day.

I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks.

I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there.

So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called “Textbooks Are Your Friends.” True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written.

The main problem is their very existence.

History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But “history” has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history.

Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called “Reading Like a Historian” for their new high school series. “Well,” I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, “to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.” Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students “how historians read” can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment).

My hosts nodded. “That’s why we want you to write it.” I nearly choked on my ciabatta.

Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these “Reading Like a Historian” essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook, I drew on 20 years’ experience as a researcher of historical cognition, in which I have spent approximately 1.2 gazillion hours interviewing, probing, taping, transcribing, coding, analyzing, writing about, and generally hanging out with people who call themselves historians. All of this in an attempt to identify something common and generative to how historians—rather than, say, literary critics, electrical engineers, or horse whisperers—read.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny.

Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers.

In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book “know” what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille?

Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable “contingency theory” (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional “brilliance of the West” theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress.

What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first “fact.”

In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: “Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.” Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative?

Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair.

In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “Indochina should not go back to France,” a colonizer that had “milked it for one hundred years”; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for “full cooperation with the United States”; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story.

The goal of “Reading Like a Historian” is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny.

Listen, I have no illusions about the little feature I have written. But I took on this assignment because I believed in its basic idea. Including at least one other voice in the same book—a printed court jester who pokes at readers, reminding them to slow down, to listen to words, to notice how the text spins them, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-like, in a given direction—is more than another frill in today’s frilly world of textbook publishing. When students hear a second voice questioning the first, they learn that maybe their job is not to memorize after all. Maybe their job is to find their own voice.

We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Opening Up the Textbook

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