Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways To Deal With ‘History Myths’ In The Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 12, 2013 10 min read
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Craig Perrier asked:

What history myths are being perpetuated by textbooks that you attempt to break down/challenge in your classroom? How do you do that?

My guests today do a great job at answering Craig’s question, and I don’t feel I can add much to their responses. However, I do have three resource collections that readers might find somewhat helpful:

The Best Teacher Resource Sites For Social Justice Issues

The Best Resources For Teaching “What If?” History Lessons

History materials I use in my International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class

Three talented and experienced educators are sharing their thoughts today on the topic -- Stephen Lazar, ReLeah Cossett Lent, and Bill Bigelow. I’m also including several comments from readers.

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar, a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, is co-founder of Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City where he teaches students Social Studies and English, is Assessment Coordinator, and Union Chapter Leader. Over the past two years, Lazar worked with Social Studies teachers across NYC and the nation to support to support inquiry-based instruction, project-based learning, and Common Core implementation. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network:

When I became a teacher a decade ago, I entered the classroom equipped with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me in one hand and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the other. I was convinced that the largest problem with history education was the absence of certain stories or perspectives from our textbooks. I saw myself as a myth-buster, ready to challenge students’ preconceived notions of Columbus as hero or John Brown as insane terrorist.

The longer I teach though, the more I realize these are not the most destructive myths that textbooks perpetuate. Rather, the most destructive myth is that “history is simple.” In an effort to be comprehensible, textbooks too often take complex causations and individuals and turn then into neatly identifiable causes and caricatures.

Let us take the example of Rosa Parks, as it captures both problems. The textbook version of Rosa Parks is that she was tired, didn’t give up her seat, and her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This myth is so powerful that even Mrs. Park often repeated it in interviews later in her life.

Many know that Rosa Parks wasn’t simply tired at the end of a long day, but rather that she had a long history of activism and was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP. Parks knew exactly what she was doing that day when she refused to give up her seat; it was an intentional act of civil disobedience. Fewer know that a couple months before this she attended a workshop at Myles Horton’s Highland Center that discussed direct action as a possible weapon against segregation. Or that Jo Ann Robinson’s Women’s Political Council had been organizing and threatening a boycott of the city buses for over a year and was ready to organize around Rosa Parks in advance. Or that the boycott almost happened nine months earlier when Claudette Colvin, a fifteen year old, was also arrested, only for the boycott to be called off when it was discovered Colvin was pregnant. Or that Martin Luther King became the boycott’s spokesperson largely because he was young and new to town, so therefore had the least to loose.

This story is complex, as is just about any story in history. Textbooks too often eliminate these complexities, perpetuating myths that world events can be understood through linear causations or binary positions.

My first step in combating this problem is simple: I don’t use a textbook. Rather, students read collections of primary documents that help them discover these very complexities. Students then read multiple secondary sources that offer competing narratives, so that they learn that different historians create different interpretations while they are also equipped with primary source information to create their own interpretations.

This is teaching history through inquiry, which I wrote about last year on this site. Teachers must do this to prepare students for the complex, nuanced, and ever changing world we live in, but also to be true to what really happened in history.

Response From ReLeah Cossett Lent

ReLeah Cossett Lent is an international literacy consultant and author of the ASCD book, Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning:

The greatest myth inherent in history textbooks is one that has deceived many educators for years, perpetrated not only by politics but by the vast textbook publishing machine. This grand myth is that just one book can accurately, comprehensively, and impartially provide students with information about people and events in history. The very nature of history requires that students read as skeptics, question the motivations of the writer, dig into primary documents, compare perspectives, and come to understand that history is a mirror that reflects many different faces.

Who can know all of the inaccuracies that history textbooks may contain? Experts in one historical area or another often are dismayed at the simplistic, sometimes misleading information presented in textbooks. Simple narratives that distill complex events into a nice story, lists of facts devoid of any emotional underpinning, or unintended bias resulting from the selection of, say, one photograph over another can skew readers’ understanding of historical events, perhaps for a lifetime.

History teachers dispel this myth by engaging students in multiple texts of various genres and formats as they encourage thoughtful reading and active discussion. Such teachers help students develop the questioning stance of historians instead of the robotic “read to find the answer” habits many students have perfected.

In short, teachers can knock down each myth as it appears in history textbooks or they can use the text as one of many resources to help students explore the complexities, nuances, and mysteries that make up a subject that is anything but black and white.

Response From Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-directs the online Zinn Education Project, which provides free curriculum materials to help teachers “teach outside the textbook.”

What’s Wrong with Textbooks

There are countless things wrong with having textbooks play a major role in the school curriculum: they seek to avoid controversy; they embed a worldview consistent with that of the giant for-profit corporations that produce them; they hand students conclusions rather than dilemmas, supposed facts rather than choices; they make social change appear to be the product of Great Individuals rather than social movements; and through their silence about so many important issues, textbooks inure students to the crises that influence the kind of lives they will lead.

To pick one textbook silence that has been on my mind: coal.

I spent big hunks of last week attending hearings in Oregon and Washington on the proposed coal export terminals. If approved, the Columbia River Gorge will become a virtual coal chute, with tens of millions of tons of coal traveling by rail and barge each year to export terminals that will ship it to Asia, to be burned in plants that power the factories that make our TVs, toasters, and T-shirts.

Burning coal for energy is one of the world’s biggest problems. According to the International Energy Agency, burning coal is the single greatest contributor to greenhouse gases--more than burning oil. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and arguably the world’s foremost climatologist, has called coal, “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet.” Hansen dubs trains that haul coal, “death trains.”

And, as Bill McKibben pointed out recently in a remarkable article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” from a mathematical standpoint, it is demonstrably impossible to prevent the climate from spinning out of control with unimaginably horrible consequences, if we burn the fossil fuels, including coal, that energy corporations are in the process of exploiting and selling.

Given coal’s enormous role in the most significant challenge facing humanity--the climate crisis--you’d think that coal would occupy a similarly central place in our textbooks. You’d be wrong.

No, what textbooks do instead is to leave students with the impression that coal is something we should consider a 19th century phenomenon. Take the widely used Modern World History, published by McDougal Littell, owned by giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The text devotes three sentences to coal mining in the 1840s, telling students: “The most dangerous conditions of all were to be found in coal mines.” And that, “Many women and children were employed in the mining industry because they were the cheapest source of labor.” Three hundred pages later, a single, brief mention of coal in one sentence on non-renewable sources of energy, underscores the book’s subtext: coal was a problem in the 19th century, but today it’s no big deal.

In environmentally conscious Portland, where I live, the sole adopted high school U.S. history textbook, History Alive!, similarly dumps coal in a distant and polluted past. History Alive! manages simultaneously to ignore the contemporary role of coal as well as to adhere to the Great Man Makes History script: "[President Theodore] Roosevelt helped improve working conditions for coal miners. In 1902, he pressured coal mine owners and the striking United Mine Workers to submit to arbitration, a legal process in which a neutral outside party helps to resolve a dispute.” One would think that the union might earn some credit for organizing workers to challenge the rich and ruthless mine owners, but instead Teddy Roosevelt appears in this passage as the agent of progress.

The more significant point is that yet another textbook fails to alert students to “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet.”

Of course, complaining about omission and bias in textbooks is akin to complaining about rain in Oregon. It just comes with the territory. Textbook companies have no stake in a curriculum of critical questions about wealth and power.

When it comes to teaching about what matters in the world, teachers should not rely on textbooks published by enormous corporations that profit from--and in many cases, create--our most dire environmental and social crises. We need to work together through our unions, professional associations, school communities, and activist organizations to build a curriculum of conscience, one that addresses the most significant challenges facing humanity. As June Jordan wrote in her “Poem for South African Women,” “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Reader Responses

Jonathan Byrne:

Open, honest discussions where everyone’s voice gets heard. Uncomfortable at times but necessary.

Anne-Marie Mason:

We should look for evidence and then ask what is the purpose of the myth.


Focus on historiography, using text excerpts and primary resources from different texts and from different time periods. The kids will be the historians, using the methods of the historian in examine the writing of history rather than the content.

Quite a few people left responses to this question on The Zinn Education Project’s Facebook page. Here are a few of them:

Max Castillo:

That indigenous, Mesoamerican, aboriginal civilizations became civilized through the conquering and interactions with European civilizations. We need to teach our students to value our indigenous cultures and heritage as early as possible.

Dennis Shaffner:

Ask students to question the bias in any textbook: easy in art history if woman artists are omitted.

Thanks to Stephan, ReLeah, Bill and readers for contributing their responses.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.