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? 

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5 comments… add one

  • Matt Mar 20, 2007

    Your post inspired me. I was looking for something to write about myself, and as soon as I read this, I said to myself “I’ve got it.” A brief version of my post: I agree with what you said, and I think you should do it. I plan to (to some degree) when I begin teaching.

    With regard to the books you mentioned, I’m not sure how accessible Foner’s book is to high school students, but the others certainly are. For a book on the civil rights era in the South, I absolutely love Tim Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name.” It has a beautifully written, compelling narrative, and there’s plenty to discuss in terms of nonviolence v. violence, black power, religion, and “The Mind of the South” (to borrow from W.J. Cash).

    Others I also recommend: journalist David A. Price’s “Love and Hate in Jamestown,” which would be particularly relevant for you teaching in 2007; and J. Samuel Walker’s “Prompt and Utter Destruction,” which is a very brief but fairly thorough account of Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.

  • Bogusia Mar 22, 2007

    I am a math and science teacher in Montreal, not a history teacher, yet I understand what you are going through. I wrote a similar post on my blog last week: http://www.nucleuslearning.com/node/39 if you’re interested.

    I think textbooks have become extrememly useless in recent years. They are broad, trying to cover a lot of ground, and hardly dig in deeper (where it gets interesting). I also find them very bulky and expensive.

    You have a great idea to go in depth with the subject (history, math or science). Thus students can appreciate a topic, and not see it as simple trivia. They’ll start understanding history/math, start loving it.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2007

    Boqusia, — Thanks for the vote of confidence. I am surprised and pleased to receive via comments and personal emails so much support for this idea.

  • Kristen Mar 27, 2007

    I combine my textbook with primary and secondary sources, so my students get the basics in addition to a depth of knowledge in certain key areas. For instance, this week they are reading the textbook chapter on Jacksonian America, 3 short primary sources on Indian removal, and the article version of Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett. That way we will be able to hone in on Indian removal (something I always focus on) as well as masculinity and the growth of cities during the antebellum period. I use a textbook that might liven things up in your course; there are lots of pictures, excerpts of primary sources, etc… and the companion website is useful too. It is James Henretta, David Brody, and Lynn Dumenil, eds., America: A Concise History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006). I too am a big fan of concise textbooks!

  • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2007

    Your approach is pretty much what I do now. I have a two-volume set of documents that are perfect for classroom use. Primary sources will continue to occupy a central place in my curriculum. I am familiar with the America text, but find it rather boring like most of the other books out there. Thanks for the comment.

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