Reporter’s Notebook

May 19, 2004 3 min read
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History Textbooks— U.S. and Foreign— Talk of Symposium

That question poked through much of the discussion at an international symposium on history texts held here last week. Like the infamous query “Are you still beating your wife?,” it assumes the crime, and a half-dozen speakers agreed at least that at some points, in some places, the books had been bad.

Beyond that, a rift opened. Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago expressed concern that textbooks had skewed too much away from political history and political understanding, contributing to citizen ignorance and a decline in civic participation.

Government scholar Hugh Heclo of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., decried the absence of religion from the books—though acknowledging improvement since 2000—and the preference for graphic elements over text.

Joseph Viteritti, a visiting professor in the politics department of Princeton University, characterized the textbooks as dull, unimaginative, and sanitized, while Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, seemed to find truth in all those criticisms.

On the other side, a publisher and a textbook author mildly defended the necessary evil of such books in schools. Casper Grathwohl, who recently established a school publishing division at Oxford University Press, said he had asked himself in recent research: What’s wrong with textbooks? And had concluded: Much less than you think.

“Of course it’s easy to beat up on textbooks; they are trying to do so much,” Mr. Grathwohl said, crediting the new ones with multiple viewpoints and different, intriguing ways of introducing material.

Donald Ritchie, an associate historian of the U.S. Senate who has written several U.S. history texts for high school students, told an invitation-only audience that included secondary history teachers, “Sometimes I think the strongest criticism comes from those who haven’t read one since high school.”

He attributed positive changes to publishers, editors, authors, and, not least, the critics.

“Textbooks,” Mr. Ritchie declared, “are a lot better than they used to be.”

The symposium, held May 12-13 at the Library of Congress by its John W. Kluge Center for scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, also took a look at two innovative textbook projects in Europe.

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord of the Netherlands described creating new materials for the classroom as the “favorite activity” of the group she directs, Euroclio. Named for Clio, the muse of history, the formal name of the organization is the European Standing Conference of History Teachers’ Associations.

The decade-old group seeks to enhance history education across national boundaries; it has worked on history texts for Russian and Ukrainian schools.

Ms. van der Leeuw-Roord said that among the formidable challenges the group faces as it works with textbook authors, history teachers, and education officials is getting beyond history that primarily serves as a “mirror of national pride and pain.”

It took some doing, for example, she said, to convince Russian authors that the greatest horrors of World War II extended to nations other than their own.

“They believed Russia had suffered the most in World War II,” she recalled. “We had an enormous fight, but Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Dresden did appear.”

It also is important to write about everyday life, said Ms. van der Leeuw-Roord, “not just politics and war history,” and to include multiple perspectives, so that youthful readers will be encouraged to stand in the shoes of others.

The Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig, Germany, has also had a hand in proposals for new textbooks, especially in countries that have been riven by political violence. Their projects typically bring together those on the opposite sides of a conflict to produce a joint history text.

In those cases, said Wolfgang Höpken, a specialist in the history of the Balkans and the director of the institute, the textbooks are seen as a tool to “rebuild society.”

But, he continued, “despite widespread activities in this field, we know very, very little about the role that textbooks play in the reconstruction of society.”

Mr. Höpken pointed to successful cooperation between French and German and German and Polish textbook authors after World War II, and between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland more recently. But efforts to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, or Japanese and Koreans, he said, have not gotten very far.

—Bess Keller

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook


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