A Dangerous Textbook?

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

Over the weekend I received an email from a concerned parent about the textbook that I am currently using in my AP course in American History.  As I mentioned before the textbook is Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!  The parent noted that Eric Foner has a reputation as a "neo-Marxist" and was worried that the textbook presented a radically biased interpretation.  Nowhere in the email did this person point out a specific shortcoming or bias.  In closing the parent expressed the hope that his child would be introduced to a range of interpretations and would not be penalized for adopting a view that challenged Foner. 

Let me start by saying that I have no problem with concerns of this type.  In fact, in my response I applauded this parent’s concern and interest in what his child is reading.  I wish more parents were this vigilant.  I indicated that my students will be reading a wide-range of both primary and secondary sources.  In the latter camp they read short articles by Howard Zinn, Paul Johnson, Gordon Wood, David Blight, Ed Ayers, and Alan Taylor, to name just a few.  I want my students to think for themselves and work on developing their own understanding of the American past to the best of their ability and based on everything they’ve read.  At their age they are in no position to dismiss out of hand any one view simply based on a political label.  We’ve seen very clearly the consequences of this on the evening news and on the various interview/entertainment shows on Fox and MSNBC. 

There are, however, a number of issues that are worth exploring in greater detail.  At this point I am going to simply raise the issues and come back later.  First, the degree to which history has become politicized over the past few years is troubling.  While Eric Foner’s politics and public statements clearly place him in the "liberal" camp I want my students to judge his interpretation on its own merits.  In other words, Foner’s interpretation should stand or fall based on his handling of the relevant evidence and in the context of competing interpretations.  My students should be able to separate out Foner’s politics from his scholarship if the issue is even raised.  Is this possible?  On the face of it there seems to be no reason that it is not.  That he is a liberal does not constitute a sufficient reason to dismiss him as a historian.  This is the fundamental mistake made by David Horowitz in his inclusion of Foner as one of the most dangerous professors on college campuses today.  Even if we assume that he is "dangerous" we have said nothing about any specific historical theory or interpretation.  Again, let the work speak for itself.  I pointed out in my response that Foner’s study of Reconstruction is considered by many to be the standard history of the subject; one would be hard pressed to conclude that his interpretation reflects a commitment to "radical" social or political views. I would not suggest for a minute that Foner should refrain from making certain statements, but he hopefully does or should understand the price he pays in the broader public discourse.

I use Foner’s book because it presents a sophisticated narrative of American history from multiple perspectives.  It forces students to look beyond the narrow interpretation that was taught in grade school and in its place appreciate the often contradictory ways in which different groups defined freedom and their place within the citizenry. 

4 thoughts on “A Dangerous Textbook?

  1. Tom Churchill

    When I attended The Citadel most of the professors were very conservative and this translated into the classroom and the lectures they gave. There was however one professor who was very liberal – imagine starting an “Amnesty International” chapter on the campus of a military college – and several adjuncts who did not fit into the traditional Citadel Professor mold. I enjoyed taking their classes, not because I agreed with them but because of the balance to my education that they gave.

    I probably learned more disagreeing with them than I ever did with the accepting everything else the other professors sought to teach me. When you agree with the general concept, you tend to just swallow without chewing – not even thinking about what you are “learning.”

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Hi Tom, — Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Isn’t it strange that the mere hint of bias sends some people screaming for the hills. It seems to me that the goal of a good teacher should be to teach students how to analyze any kind of argument regardless of its origin. Our temptation to give it the back of our hand with a label is simply a non-starter and a way to say nothing about the content of the argument/interpretation itself.

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  3. GreenmanTim

    It is interesting to note the tendency of groups representing all like-minded people to become more extreme in their views over time if all they have is contact with their own shared ideas. Yet when even a small number of those with different orientations and viewpoints are engaged in the dialogue, the tendency is toward a moderating of these extremes.

    I read recently that this plays out in our higher courts. Even one conservative or liberal justice in a group dominated by the those with a different orientation will have a moderating influence on the judicial philosophy of those members over time.

    This is precisely why it is important to engage with ideas on their merits and be exposed to thinkers of different political persuasions. What better place than the classroom to do this?

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