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.
Many of you know that I struggle with the moderation of comments on this site. On the one hand I hope to promote civil and intellectual discourse, which means that on occasion I have to edit or delete a comment entirely. At the same time many of these abusive/insulting comments reflect a wide range of perspectives concerning how Americans continue to remember the Civil War. I deleted this comment, but I thought it might be instructive to post it since it so beautifully captures the emotional aspect of the subject as well as the blurred boundary between past and present. This comment was offered in response to another reader:
i dont like what you have said the stone moutain carvings show great men from our past. men who fought and died for this great nation. the confederate states should be allowed to break free from the tyrants in D.C. all of the men who dont like our flag are traders or just dirty yanks. its heritage i proudly fly this flag. i would die for this flag. i live in georgia and i am not ashamed of it if anything im dam proud of it. i do not like any yankee talking bad about something he knows nothing about. it was a war of northern agressition. they didnt like the fact that we were trying to leave their union but yet they found it alright to do it to england. why do they have to treat us like cattle telling us we cant leave the grazing fields. i believe we should be free from the north. D.C. has done nothing but give us trouble and i think the southern men should march on D.C. with rifle and saber in hand and show them what they did to us. We refuse to be reconstructed and we dont give a damn what those yankee fucks say.
Thanks for taking the time to comment.
[Image: "Past in the Present" by Dallon August]
Debby Applegate The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Three Leaves, 2007).
Anne J. Bailey, Invisible Southerners: Ethnicity in the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2006).
George C. Bradley and Richard L. Dahlen, From Conquest to Conciliation: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin (University of Alabama Press, 2006).
Ronald Coddington, Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).
Wilma A. Dunaway, Slavery in the American Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
William Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, eds. Showdown In Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (University of Virginia Press, 2010).
Elizabeth-Fox Genovese and Eugene Genoves, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Rod Gragg, Covered With Glory: The 26th North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg (University of North Carolina Press, 2010 [originally published by Harper Collins in 2000]).
Jennifer R. Green, Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Gary R. Matthews, Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place (University of Kentucky Press, 2005).
Alexander Mendoza, Confederate Struggle For Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West (Texas A&M Press, 2007).
Susan E. O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Harvard University Press, 2007).
Ethan Rafuse, Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide (Bison Books, 2008).
Duane E. Shaffer, Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
A couple of years ago I had a parent contact me about the textbook I was using to teach my AP American History course. I had just switched from The American Pageant to Eric Foner’s new book, Give Me Liberty! The parent was concerned about the political bias of Foner as well as the overall narrative that his child would learn over the course of the year. I am a huge fan of parents who take an interest in their child’s education so I agreed to meet with him at his earliest convenience. We never met in person to discuss his concerns, but we did exchange a number of emails. The first thing I did was ask the parent to give me an idea of what exactly he found troubling. Shortly thereafter I received a response that focused on the amount of coverage on issues of race. I read the response carefully, but had difficulty pinpointing the exact problem so I followed up by asking for specific references. His response was interesting. The parent pointed to two sections, one on Reconstruction and the other on Jim Crow, which he believed constituted too much attention. In addition, he also made it a point to remind me that he was not asking me to swap Foner for a book by Rush Limbaugh. This last comment took me for a bit of a loop. It concerned me that Rush Limbaugh would actually be considered as an alternative to Foner or for that matter any trained historian. I thought about how to respond to this last comment as I did not want to offend the person, but I finally decided to assert myself since I was hired to teach the course and my school gives me complete freedom to choose appropriate texts for my students. I said that it was good to hear that he was not making such a suggestion since Rush Limbaugh is not a historian and Eric Foner is one of the most respected scholars in the field.
In addition I asked if the parent’s concern about Foner’s coverage of race extended beyond the number of pages. In other words, was there a problem with the interpretation itself. I went on to offer an explanation as to why I chose this particular book. In fact, one of the reasons I chose this particular text was the amount of coverage of racial issues, which I explained was important to understanding crucial aspects of American history, including the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and countless other subjects. As a historian, however, I understand that thoughtful people can and should disagree about the way in which information is presented and interpreted. Unfortunately, our conversation never addressed these issues. I should point out that this parent is well educated and a very successful lawyer. We eventually met a few weeks later during a parent-teacher night. We chatted for a bit, but the topic never came up. I encouraged the parent to contact me at any point regarding concerns about the textbook or any other materials covered in the course. That never happened and his son went on to score a 5 on the AP Test.
You can imagine my surprise when I returned from my trip to Shepherd University to find an email from Prof. Gregory Pfitzer of Skidmore College. Prof. Pfitzer is currently teaching an American Studies course that focuses on Civil War Memory and has been using this blog as a resource. Students are focusing specifically on a series of posts that I did on the Gary Casteel statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber that is currently located at Beauvoir. Prof. Pfitzer thought it might be a good idea for his students to engage me on one of the posts, which I was more than happy to do. You can follow the discussion here. I am quite impressed with their enthusiasm as well as their ideas. Check it out.