Out With the Standard History Textbook and In With…
A few weeks back Rebecca Goetz shared her frustration after learning that her entire department received a copy of Bedford/St. Martin’s American History (6th ed.). Her post was written more in frustration with the high costs of these book, but towards the end Rebecca hinted that she might drop the textbook altogether next year. I’ve been thinking along these lines for a few years now. My survey classes use The Brief American Pageant by Kennedy, Bailey, Cohen, and Valparaiso. I use it because it is brief compared with other textbooks currently on the market. While it is brief it is an absolutely boring read and my students are at their wits ends. I haven’t read the book in about a year; however, a few days ago I read the chapter on WWI and was appalled. Keep in mind that I am not attacking the scholarship of the authors, in fact I am a big fan of Kennedy’s work. The text is difficulty to follow and it seems to me that it doesn’t have to be. It’s as if the writers of these books intentionally write in a way that will alienate or bore their readers. Why can’t I use books that are informative and entertaining to read? For the interdisciplinary seminar that I am currently team teaching on the Civil Rights Movement we are reading Harvard Sitkoff’s book and the students are fascinated. We asked them to have the first three chapters finished before the seminar started last Monday and at least half had already read the entire book.
What I plan on doing for next year is ordering a certain number of books that cover different stages of American history. The books must be accessible for high school students with a varying range of abilities. Of course, I am sacrificing breadth of knowledge, but I am hoping to push a deeper more meaningful understanding of the historical method as well as content. The history texts would be supplemented with primary sources of every kind. At this point it is completely up in the air in terms of book choices. Perhaps Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers would be an attractive read for the Revolutionary generation, David McCullough’s Johnstown Flood and Eric Foner’s Short History of Reconstruction. English courses read works of literature, poetry, etc, so why don’t we do the same in an introductory history course? I can easily imagine a course where students are able to think about different kinds of historical writing such as gender history or the differences between social and political history.
I would love to hear some of your ideas. What would you have me use in the classroom and why?