Follow Up to Post on History Textbooks

Matt over at Southern Pasts applauds the idea of emphasizing individual works of history rather than the standard textbook.  He rightly connects the possibility of such a move with the spirit of the recent report, "The Next Generation of History Teachers."  [I commented on this report a few weeks back.]  Matt gets to the heart of the matter here:

History, in my opinion, is about understanding the complexity of human events—the intersections of people and places and things and ideas. Rather than attempting to draw a set of guidelines for the future, students should be pushed to question the past on its own terms. Why did certain people make certain decisions? What impact did the actions of this group have on that group? Do we see changes? Continuity? How does our understanding of the past directly impact the way we make decisions today? Does history really matter?

Too often, textbooks fail to encourage these kinds of questions. Instead, they tend to provide a fairly simplistic “master narrative” of history, one which places an overwhelming emphasis on political history, often to the detriment of other approaches.

I do think it is important to acknowledge that textbooks can serve an important function, especially for students who need a foundation structured around a master narrative broken down into discrete sections.  And there are indeed textbooks that do just this and present history in all of its richness and complexity.  There is an excellent online textbook over at Steven Mintz’s Digital History site, which could be assigned for background reading as we move through the various texts.  Keep in mind that this idea is for my regular American history survey courses and not for the AP classes.  I simply do not see how the class could dispense with the textbook approach given the AP curriculum and its emphasis on content.  That said, there are aspects of the curriculum, namely the DBQ essay, that forces students to think deeply about the American past. 

I am working with one of my teaching colleagues on a list of books that could be used in such a course.  As I mentioned in that previous post I’ve been thinking about such a move for the past few years but for one reason or another failed to make the move.  Teaching can be like any other job where you grow sufficiently comfortable with a certain process and resist change. I believe it is absolutely essential for teachers to keep their end of the classroom fresh and challenging for their own well-being.

2 comments… add one

  • Rob Wick Mar 21, 2007

    Kevin,
    Meant to post on your earlier comments when you mentioned Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy’s text. Several years ago when I was in college, it was my text for the survey history class I was in. At the time, the book I remember was very interesting and informative. Now I realize that a lot can happen in 26 years, but has the quality of the book gone down that much? When I was student teaching, I actually used it instead of the bore that the school district had adopted, and the bulk of my students that cared thought it was a better text.

    Best
    Rob

  • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2007

    Rob, — Good question, but I am not sure I can answer given that I am not familiar with earlier editions. Clearly, Bailey’s narrative has been improved by the contributions of the additional authors. There is more social history and a wider range of voices. The big problem is that we are using an annotated version and this means the narrative is a bit choppier. As basic source it might be useful, but I am convinced that it is not a way to excite students about the American past.

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