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.