By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
It took almost 10 years of teaching before I finally grasped the extent to which secondary American history textbooks fostered misunderstanding and confusion.
The depth of the problem became apparent following class discussions of a 12-page reading assignment on the “Origins of the Cold War.” When I made the assignment I warned the students that I would be asking questions and suggested they take notes to use in class. On the due date the majority had notes, but the discussions did not turn out well.
The assigned section began with a photograph of American and Soviet soldiers, at the end of World War II, meeting at the Elbe River in Germany. In terms of content, the first two paragraphs below are typical of the entire chapter. So, they should be enough to illustrate what I mean by “missing links.”
“Although the American and Soviet soldiers hoped for friendship between their countries, problems had been building between the Soviet Union and the United States before and during the war. The two countries’ economic and political systems were incompatible, and they had built-up resentments toward each other over previous events.
In the Soviet system of communism, the state controlled all property and economic activity while in the capitalistic American system, private citizens controlled almost all property and economic activity. In the American democratic system, the people elected a president and a Congress from competing political parties; in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party established a totalitarian government in which no opposing parties were allowed to exist. The Soviets were deeply resentful that the United States had not recognized their Communist government until 16 years after the revolution.”
I began by asking if the students could explain how the Cold War began. There were varied responses, but none of them went beyond repeating what they had found in the book. Students suggested: “We didn’t like each other.” “We had different economic systems.” “The Russians are Communists.”
Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!
I asked if countries (or governments) had to “like each other” to avoid conflict. That went nowhere. Perhaps the two countries had differing national interests? They asked what that meant. I asked if they could guess what those national interests might have been at the end of the war. Nothing.
A student wondered why the United States had not recognized the new Soviet government for 16 years. I asked if anyone knew when the revolution had ended? One student asked if I meant the American Revolution. Unfortunately, that question made sense.
After all, these students were reading an American history text in which there had been no discussion of the Russian Revolution. How would a class of 15- and 16-year-olds have known much, if anything, about Russian history?
Since the textbook left out virtually all information necessary for the students to begin to understand Cold War origins, they were, legitimately, confused. I had read the text before assigning the reading but I had a background in history and international relations that none of the students had. Without realizing it, while reading, I had filled in the blanks and ignored what I would normally question. That is a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Here is a sample of what should have been in those two short paragraphs if students were to develop any understanding.
- The Russian Revolution began in 1917, and the Communists (Bolsheviks) took power on November 7th of that year.
- Immediately afterwards, a civil war broke out, and the United States (along with other nations) participated in the attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks. The Americans fought the new Communist government until 1920. Notably, that war resulted in between 7 and 10 million dead, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians.
- President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the government of the Soviet Union in November 1933. That was also the same year Hitler took power in Germany and in which Japan continued its expansion in Asia. (No connections among these events were suggested in the text.)
The origins of the Cold War are complex, but ask yourself what was more important to student understanding: The fact that the United States did not recognize the new government in 1917 or the fact that the United States participated in the civil war on the side attempting to overthrow the revolution?
It should be apparent that the students’ confusion comes from the way American history texts are written. It turns out that leaving out whatever might create controversy makes it virtually impossible to connect the dots. And that becomes more significant when one considers that, for a majority of Americans, their high school course is their last encounter with American history. This has serious consequences.
I continued to teach courses in American history for an additional 25 years, and I never forgot to prepare by carefully reading the text as if I were a high school student, with no background in the area. In subsequent years, when missing links became apparent, I provided the students with primary source documents or other sources to fill in the blanks.
There have been a number of very good studies on precollegiate texts. In Frances FitzGerald’s “America Revised” analysis, she argues that these “History textbooks… are not like other kinds of histories. They serve a different function… they are written not to explore, but to instruct — to tell children what their elders want them to know about their country.”
The late sociology professor James Loewen also wrote effectively on problems with the textbooks. His observations, in a number of publications, helped me to better understand the problems I had faced and the problems all precollegiate teachers of history face.
In Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen looks at the question of why history is taught like it is. First, he suggests that, “Publishers produce textbooks with several audiences in mind… [and] conceptions of the general public enter into publishers’ thinking, since public opinion influences adoption committees and since parents represent a potential interest group that publishers seek not to arouse. Some of these groups have not been shy about what they want textbooks to do.”
What that means specifically is explored in an article written by New York Times correspondent, Dana Goldstein, in 2020. In “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories,” she compared different editions of American history textbooks, some used in California and some in Texas.
The books compared all had the same publisher and the same authors, but were “customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.” There were hundreds of differences in the way the same events and issues were described, but one example, on immigration and nativism, should be enough.
Both texts, published by McGraw-Hill after 2016, covered immigration and nativism. The California book includes a long excerpt from a Julia Alvarez novel, “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents,” which deals sympathetically with intergenerational tensions in a Dominican-American family.
In the Texas edition the same physical space features comments of a Border Patrol agent who says that although “the great majority of immigrants are decent people… if you open the border wide up, you’re going to invite political and social upheaval.”
Goldstein then reports that “in a written statement, McGraw-Hill said the full-page Border Patrol narrative was not included in the California edition because it would not fit beside the literary excerpt.”
In his book, Loewen concluded that, “Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism” adding that, “Even though the books bulge with detail, even though the courses are so busy they rarely reach 1960, our teachers and our textbooks still leave out most of what we need to know about the American past.”
Loewen’s characterization of the texts as “bulging” with detail seems as important to me as are the differences made in various editions. No one would deny that these textbooks are huge. And according to Loewen, they are like that because “no publisher wants to lose an adoption because a book has left out a detail of concern to a particular geographical area or a particular group.”
William Faulkner’s famously quoted line, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” has always seemed perceptive to me, but I’m beginning to fear it is an understatement. Increasingly the past has become a battleground with a variety of censorious groups and state governments doing all they can to bury what they consider truths inconvenient to a feel-good, even patriotic narrative.
Twisting or leaving out material that might offend is no way to teach or learn and the bland result is one reason students often rate history as their least favorite class and rate history texts as boring.
But in addition to leaving out details that some find objectionable, these texts make matters worse by continuing to present popular myths as fact. In other words, the textbooks contain material unacceptable to academic histories, the most common being that the United States has usually been innocent of aggressive intent in its dealings with other nations. Other clichés like American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny continue to be included as well.
I will deal with these issues in more detail in subsequent articles on textbook “missing links,” but right now, what is clear is that we all need to face the fact that American history, as taught in most precollegiate courses, requires that teachers continuously research what they are required to teach, correct what is misleading and diligently fill in what is left out.
What follows are a few sources for anyone hoping to understand about how textbooks result from compromises that distort the past.
America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century by Frances Fitzgerald 1979
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen 2018
There is also a “young readers” edition of this book: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition: Everything American History Textbooks Get Wrong by Rebecca Stefoff and James W. Loewen 2019
Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives on The Past) by Sam Wineburg 2001