Social Studies

U.S. History Textbooks’ Omissions

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 22, 2009 2 min read

Because of what is missing from U.S. history textbooks, history teachers should ensure that their students understand their textbook’s interpretation of events is only one possible perspective on what happened, concludes Michael H. Romanowski in a study of how those texts present the topics of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror.

Romanowski is an associate professor in the college of education at Qatar University in Doha, Qatar. He conducted a content analysis of nine U.S. history textbooks by major U.S. publishers, including Pearson/Prentice Hall and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Most textbooks that Romanowski studied did not provide clear information that would enable students to understand the complexities of the attacks of 9/11, according to his analysis.

He found, for instance, that only two of the nine textbooks provided a comprehensive explanation of why 9/11 might have happened, which he writes, “encourages teachers to raise questions that enable students to grasp not only 9/11 but also how American values, lifestyles, and policies are viewed by those outside Western culture.”

Likewise, Romanowski found that most of the textbooks avoided providing a space for students to critique the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He writes that they simply stated “facts,” or presented controversies as resolved.

He said that the key reason given for the invasion was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, though none was found. Here’s an excerpt from Romanowski’s study:

For several textbooks, the 'answer' to the lack of WMDs was that Bush overcame these criticisms to be re-elected, implying that the issue had been resolved or must be irrelevant.

In the conclusion of his textbook study, Romanowski writes:

History textbooks are imperfect educational tools that are still the dominant sources used to teach American history. However, textbooks should not be the final word because they are not written to present the 'truth,' but rather to put forth a politically acceptable position in order to gain approval from government agencies.

So what’s a history teacher to do?

Romanowski urges teachers to support students in critiquing their textbooks and exploring perspectives beyond that of the texts. Teachers can ask their students, for example, to answer this question: “Whose viewpoint is presented, whose omitted, and whose interests are served?” Teachers can have them explore reactions of various Americans to a historical event, such as the attacks of 9/11, including that of the U.S. president, a member of Congress, a relative of a victim, and an Arab-American. Lastly, Romanowski recommends, teachers can use writing assignments to develop students’ critical thinking.

It seems to me that these recommendations could apply to any lesson that teachers give using textbooks as a resource.

I read this study, by the way, in the spring edition of the American Secondary Education journal, which I found this week while cleaning off my desk.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.