Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls

Like many of you I’ve been following the ongoing saga down in Texas concerning the recent proposed changes to the state’s social studies curriculum.  My response as a historian has been one of surprise and disappointment given the committee’s decisions regarding Thomas Jefferson as well as broader interpretive changes to the curriculum.  The committee members are clearly unqualified to make decisions about anything having to do with how to understand American history and how that material is taught in the classroom.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but think that the reaction to the committee’s work misses something fundamental about history education today and the place of the textbook within that process.  And we are missing it because the debate is being carried out, in large part, by people who are not history teachers.  Essentially, the public discourse is little more than an extension of the divide on the Texas Board.  Right wing commentators probably look on more favorably at the Board’s work while Left wing folks think it’s a complete disaster.  What just about everyone has missed is the fact that the textbook no longer occupies the same place in the history curriculum that it did just a few short years ago.  Before the Internet the textbook was the beginning and end of the study of history.  History was taught as a collection of facts contained in a cohesive narrative that functioned to connect individual students with the collective narrative of the United States.  In the Digital Age textbooks represent one among many avenues of exploration into this nation’s rich past.  In my own Advanced Placement classes the textbook is little more than an anchor with which to allow my students to investigate on their own.  They are taught not to see their book as the last word regarding any topic; in fact, I discuss with them the nature of textbook writing at the beginning of the course so they understand why it is important to consider multiple sources.

What troubles me about the reaction to the Texas Board is that the two sides fail to understand that the essential question is not about whether to include Jefferson or the NRA in the book, but the purpose of a history education itself.  Surely it involves more than what kind of sponge we hope to turn our kids into.  If you haven’t noticed the Internet has revolutionized the way history is and should be taught.  We have literally tens of thousands of websites at our fingertips that take us beyond the watered down and mind numbingly boring content found in most textbooks.  We need to be teaching our students how to navigate through this dense thicket of information, how to evaluate this information, and help them to construct their own understanding of America’s past.  It’s not easy and I admit to having a great deal of difficulty as I make this transition.

Not only can the piecing together of American history be much more dynamic and interesting than a textbook, but the development of Web2.0 technologies now allows students to contribute to that body of knowledge as well as the ongoing dialog concerning every aspect of American culture including its past.  They can blog, tweet, make videos, organize a wide range of activities and broadcast via live streaming, and the list goes on.  Again, it comes down to the question of whether our subject is essentially a collection of facts and stories that students absorb or is it about a way of thinking and understanding.  If it is essentially the latter than the textbook is probably much less important to you.  The Texas debate is essentially about controlling content, but what we need to understand is that it is impossible to control what our students learn.  The information is at their fingertips.  What we can do is function as guides through the study of the past, introduce them to the broad outline of American history and teach them how to gather and evaluate information.

The only class that I currently use a traditional textbook in is my AP course.  Our regular survey course now uses individual secondary texts that cover different periods in American history and a pilot program in American Studies that will be offered next year will be largely digital.  My electives rely almost entirely on digital sources.   As far as I am concerned traditional textbooks are on a straight path to extinction.

Finally, I have a feeling that the textbook companies enjoy this kind of controversy because it avoids some of the lingering problems such as the cost and size of these books.  I can’t tell you the pleasure I get when a publisher representative calls me at work and I get to say that we no longer use textbooks.  Textbook publishers can play a role in this digital age, but as long as we remain mired in political questions about textbook content nothing is going to change and we will continue to turn off students to the importance of the past.

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13 comments… add one
  • Mark Mar 16, 2010 @ 12:35

    I agree that this debate dodges the question of what history education is for. I hadn't been seeing it in terms of internet sources, though that is certainly an important angle. Behind that is the whole question of historical thinking. By making these changes, these people are only making the presentism of the textbooks worse than it already often is. In the process, seeing the past in context becomes even more difficult. This would be a problem whether one used a liberal or conservative viewpoint from the present.

  • Tom Thompson Mar 16, 2010 @ 4:14

    For forty years or more, textbook companies pushed books written to “The Texas Standard”. Manipulation of information was the accepted norm in publishing because Texas was big enough (and engaged in the process enough) to set the standards. The mischief they invoke spreads throughout the country – wherever the Texas Standard is acceptable.

    Of course there is a method to their madness, and it is not something that just happened with the most recent edits. They've been editing out all sorts of “unplesantness” for decades. Try to find an honest portrayal of the American Labor Movement in a Texas textbook. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword and the Texas bowdlerizers will bend history any way it suits them.

    I think the system where Kevin works is an exception. Most school systems are NOT going to allow so much deviation from a standard line. It takes hard work on his part to invoke the departures that he uses. Most schools buy the books and force feed them to the kids. That individual ray of enlightenment that pierces the darkness is usually accepted as precociousness or is dismissed as arrogant adventureism.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2010 @ 11:14


      Thanks for the comment. I would actually like to see the influence that Texas supposedly has on the textbook industry. I know it's repeated in just about every article you read on the subject, but has anyone actually done a study? I've been reading and evaluating history textbooks for the past 10 years and I can think of plenty of books that do not seem to be driven by the kind of partisanship that exists in Texas. As I stare over at one of my bookshelves in my office I can see “Inventing America”, “America's History”, “Out of Many”, “The American Promise”, “The American Pageant”, and “American Passages”. All of them are written by college professors and include up-to-date bibliographies and are continuously in revision. Many of the changes, especially in American Pageant” seem to correspond to changes in the historiography rather than politics. It should be remembered that I teach high school history so perhaps the kind of influence that Texas has is on books for grade school. I don't really know.

      Again, my point is whether we like it or not this debate is growing more and more irrelevant as teachers continue to embrace the possibilities of digital history. You seem to be upset that it is currently conservatives that are exercising control of curriculum standards, but I am suggesting that the liberal members of the Board are in the same position and engaged in the same kind of nonsense.

      • Leonard Lanier Mar 16, 2010 @ 15:02

        I likewise take all those claims about Texas' influence on national textbooks with a lot of skepticism. A few years ago, when California went through a comparable curriculum review, the media made similar assertions about California's importance to textbook publishers.

        As you stated earlier, this whole debate over textbooks misses the point. In today's environment, a high school student is more likely to answer his questions about American history through a Google search than a textbook index. The efforts of Texas religious conservatives to control the social studies curriculum ignore the fact that such guidelines have less and less meaning in a digital age. It's definitely a pyrrhic victory.

  • Becky Goetz Mar 15, 2010 @ 23:59

    I'll add this though–so many history teachers are also coaches in Texas public schools. That means they were hired primarily to coach football or softball or basketball–not to teach history. Many didn't even take history in college. Those are the classrooms in which a reasonable textbook is even more important.

    • margaretdblough Mar 16, 2010 @ 0:19

      My late mother didn't get to teach Civics, her real love (she was such a political junkie that she finally overcame her opposition to paying for something that she could get for free and got cable TV after she visited me and discovered C-Span) until the last few years of her career. In Western PA, history, civics, and health tended to be reserved for the coaches, who, pre-Title IX, were, of course, all male.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2010 @ 1:15

      Yes, the textbook question may be the least of Texas's concerns. Thanks Becky.

      • Becky Goetz Mar 16, 2010 @ 1:41

        Other bigger problems: the high school dropout rate (which approaches 50% in some cities), ,a testing mentality that ties teacher salaries, and even whether or not they keep their jobs, to standardized test scores, and finding sufficient courses for all students to cover the 4×4. Where is the SBOE on those issues? Um, nowhere, because it is too busy attempting to shoehorn Thomas Aquinas into the Anglophone Enlightenment. Good grief.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2010 @ 1:58

          I am definitely one spoiled teacher given where I work and I don't in any way want to downplay the problems that currently plague our nation's schools. At the same time it seems to me that many of these issues are much deeper than whether or not we use a traditional textbook.

  • Becky Goetz Mar 15, 2010 @ 23:53

    Well said, Kevin. I don't teach my survey class with a textbook either (although I put one on reserve in case a student wants to read one–every semester I reclaim my textbook and the librarians report no one checked it out).

  • Neil Schlager Mar 15, 2010 @ 23:03

    Beautifully said, Kevin. No matter how hard the cultural conservatives on the Texas Board try, they will not be able to ensure that Texas history students grow up to be good Republicans. Nor could the reverse ever be true. If the teachers are at all effective, and if the students learn anything about the study of history, they will be able to make up their own mind. I might also add that in a state where the dropout rate in the big cities is in the neighborhood of 50% (much higher in the poorest-performing schools here in Dallas), the exact makeup of specific textbooks is hardly the most important issue facing our students.

    • margaretdblough Mar 16, 2010 @ 0:21

      As rulers in the most totalitarian of nations have discovered, isolating a population from outside influences is a daunting, if not impossible, task in the age of the internet and world wide web.

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