U.S. History Textbooks Show Anti-Labor Bias, Report Says

By Erik W. Robelen — September 08, 2011 3 min read
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It’s not hard to find complaints about textbooks today, especially in the social studies. They get criticized all the time. But these days the attacks tend to come mainly from those with a conservative political bent.

Not so with a report released yesterday, however. The study—by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank named for the former head of the American Federation of Teachers—argues that several popular U.S. history textbooks often present labor in an unfairly negative light.

“In the high school history textbooks our children read, too often we find that labor’s role in American history—and labor’s important accomplishments, which changed American life forever—are misrepresented, downplayed, or ignored,” the report concludes. It also says the textbooks “often implicitly (and at times explicitly) represent labor organizing and labor disputes as inherently violent.”

The analysis is based on a review of four books published in 2009 or 2010 that the institute says represent a “significant percentage” of the market share. The publishers were Harcourt/Holt, Houghton Mifflin/McDougal, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, and Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Randi Weingarten, the president of both the AFT and the Shanker Institute, did not mince words in her statement on the analysis.

“This report explains why so few Americans know much about labor’s history and contributions,” she said in apress release. “It paints a devastating picture of distortion and omission.”

Jay Diskey, the executive director of the schools division at the Association of American Publishers, said he has not read the particular textbooks examined in the study. But even as he had some qualms with the report, he said he found it “almost refreshing to see a critique from the [political] left.”

“Social studies textbooks are often caught in the crosshairs of dozens if not hundreds of different social and political debates,” Diskey wrote in an email. “It has reached the point where it is nearly impossible to publish a social studies text and not have a critic, pundit, or faction step forward with criticism of some sort. In recent years, many of the harshest critiques of the U.S. social studies texts have come from critics on the right side of the political spectrum.”

Each of the four textbooks reviewed “presents a modicum of important information, including facts about organizations such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO),” the report says.

But all in all, the reviewers were not impressed.

In the introduction, the report outlines some of the “most significant examples” of problems. It says the books:

• “Virtually ignore the vital role of organized labor in winning broad social protections, such as child-labor laws, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and the Environmental Protection Agency";

• “Ignore the important role that organized labor played in the civil rights movement"; and

• “Pay scant attention to unionism after the 1950s, thus completely ignoring the rise of public-sector unionization, which brought generations of Americans into the middle class and gave new rights to public employees.”

Diskey notes that the report reviews only four history textbooks “even though there are hundreds of social studies titles available.” He also said that even though the books reviewed “have significant market share, teachers may well have augmented their lessons with supplemental materials in print or digital formats.”

He added: “Keep in mind that textbooks are usually only one of many tools used in the classroom.”

The primary authors for the Shanker Institute report were Paul Cole, the founder and director of the American Labor Studies Center; Lori Megivern, a Fulbright Fellow and American Councils for International Education Teacher of Excellence; and Jeff Hilgert, a Ph.D. candidate in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

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