Are History Textbooks On Their Way Out?

Over the past two years I’ve made the sharpest transitions in the way I approach the teaching of history.  In my survey courses I’ve dispensed with the traditional textbook in place of individual secondary sources.  I’ve also begun experimenting with Social Media applications as a way to broaden both the way my students communicate with one another as well as the audience for their projects.  The place of the textbook in the survey course raises a host of questions about the purpose of the course and the skills that we, as teachers, hope to impart to our students.  In a recent post, David Bill argues as to why textbooks ought to be permanently shelved in light of the advantages the Internet offers.  On the face of it I agree with Bill.  Not only are they much too expensive, they are also environmentally and economically unfriendly.  The crux of his argument is as follows:

No matter how you slice it, a textbook cannot provide the same richness, depth, and perspective as the Internet.  A textbook limits a student, it prevents inquiry and further investigation.  As educators, if we are attempting to develop critical thinkers and challenge our students to ask thoughtful questions, they need to have access to multiple points of view and should be able to investigate on their own.  A textbook cannot provide that, the Internet does.

To help make his point, Bill also includes a funny little satirical video made by a couple of high school students and their teacher which shares the limits of their history textbook.  I love the fact that they use my AP textbook to make their point.

Yes, there is something cute about the video, but what in the end is the point?  On the face of it there seems to be nothing mutually exclusive between the textbook and the Internet.  My guess is that Joe has a laptop within arms reach and if he wants to access more information about Frederick Douglass or check out a map to be saved for future reference he can do so.   Joe’s frustration is easy to identify and his point is well taken.  If we are to keep the discussion on the level of the ease with which information can be accessed than this is a non-issue: Internet 1, textbook, 0.  It seems to me, however, that the transition to a digital classroom is much more complex and involves questions that go beyond the ease with which students can navigate through dense amounts of information.

The tipping point in the Internet v. Textbook debate has much more to do with the way in which we conceive of the idea of the history survey as opposed to simply a question of information access.  As I mentioned in a recent post, the history textbook fits neatly into a traditional course whose overarching goal is to communicate a foundational narrative that can be absorbed and regurgitated in one form or another.  Within this framework instructors can introduce historical concepts such as perspective, causation, narrative, etc., but the textbook functions as the bedrock.  It serves as a reminder (even if not intentional) that there is a standard narrative that can be known and consumed for purposes such as the cultivation of good citizenship and polite conversation.  I should also mention that there is something very comforting about textbooks.  They may be overpriced and boring as hell, but they do provide a bit of comfort to students who need something tangible at an arm’s reach.  Even with my move away from textbooks to individual secondary sources I’ve had students inform me that they miss the textbook for these very reasons.  Of course, I freely admit that this probably has more to do with how they’ve been conditioned to think of as the study of history from an early age as opposed to anything innate. Our student friend, Joe, may in fact be more of an exception than the rule.  Some of our students, like Joe, who’ve embraced the Web2.0 Revolution have no doubt moved beyond this entirely and have embraced the potential of the digital classroom.  For these students, the value of information is measured in relationship to the number and quality of hyperlinks extending to other sites as well as their ability to utilize it for their own purposes.  In short, textbooks are static while the Internet is dynamic.

It’s become almost a truism that our students are much more technically savvy than the rest of us, but I’ve come to a different conclusion.  Yes, they spend a great deal of time on the Internet, but this does not necessarily translate into an ability to navigate and manage its content and tools successfully and in a way that deepens their understanding of the past.  The comfort level may be one thing, however, there are skills that still need to be taught.  The move away from textbooks will only happen once teachers are trained to think of the Internet as a tool to help students think historically and as historians in their own right.  It’s not just about being able to double-click for more information about Douglass or saving a map for future use.   My point is that the usefulness of textbooks hinges not simply on the ease with which students can access information, but on how instructors conceive of their classrooms.  In abandoning the textbook for the richness of the Internet, including Social Media tools as well as the vast array of primary sources, we are engaging our students to think about the process and presentation of history through the sifting of vast amounts of information.  I suspect that this is the main reason why textbooks will not be abandoned in the near future; their role remains deeply embedded within the history curriculum and they function as an anchor in a vast sea of information.  What we need is something more like a gestalt shift in our fundamental goals as history teachers.  The rethinking of the history classroom must happen on the K-12 levels, but especially in our undergraduate and graduate schools of education.  A few questions come to mind:

1. Is the study of history a set of facts to be memorized or a process to be experimented with and shaped into various forms?

2. Should we be emphasizing the complexity of fewer historic events over a cursory understanding of a more inclusive narrative?

3. To what extent are we comfortable as teachers with allowing students to draw their own conclusions about the past?

4. Are our classes designed to encourage students to think about history beyond the confines of our classrooms?

5. To what extent are we using our classes to encourage students to think about and weigh information?

Thanks for reading!

April 9, 1865

grant_from_west_point_to_appomattoxToday is the 144th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Appomattox Court House, Virginia and the end of a 4-year long rebellion.

In the News

I‘ve been following the first two stories on the blog. First, Alabama lawmakers passed a resolution to honor the state’s first black lawmakers during Reconstruction. Plaques will be placed throughout the capitol grounds.  This second story on a proposed change to the Maryland state song stirred up a great deal of discussion on the blog.  While no changes will be made, it looks like a number of state legislatures are willing to revisit the issue in a future session.  Finally, check out this Washington Post article on the battle of New Market Heights and the participation of black Union soldiers.  This is one of the battlefields currently on the CWPT’s “Most Endangered Battlefields” list.

Fox News Protects Us From Dangerous Liberal Professors

I guess this is now what passes for investigative journalism.  I am willing to wager that you can find mistakes, oversights, inaccuracies, etc. in any large textbook, especially when it comes to more recent history.  Part of the problem is that the publisher may not be able to issue new editions of a particular textbook in response to new information.  The bigger problem, however, is our understanding of the history textbook itself.  Our tendency is to think of it as somehow capturing an objective or neutral historical narrative.  It does not exist.  Good instructors teach their students how to read primary and secondary sources with a critical eye.

My bigger issue with the harassment of Columbia University professor, Alan Brinkley, by Fox News’s Griff Jenkins is the way he went about it.  Jenkins follows Brinkley for several blocks while criticizing the book’s treatment of the War on Terror. Apparently Brinkley wrote that only one terror suspect detained at Gitmo was ever charged, while Fox claims that the number today is over one hundred.  The problem is that Fox did not have data for 2006, when the book was published. On the positive side Jenkins looked quite spiffy and the Fox logo prominently displayed.

If Jenkins was really interested in sitting down with Alan Brinkley than why not request an interview instead of this shameful display?  Could it be that as a producer of one of Fox’s shows that Jenkins wasn’t interested in a mature conversation to begin with?  Could it be that what he was really interested in is the kind of television “shock and awe” that translates into ratings?  I’ve used Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation before in my AP classes and the majority of my students scored 4s and 5s on the test.  From what I can tell it did not turn them into screaming liberal fanatics who call for the downfall of this nation.  On p. 549 of his book you will find the following in response to the tragedy of 9-11: “Americans responded to the tragedies with acts of courage and generosity, large and small, and with a sense of national unity and commitment that seemed, at least for a time, like the unity and commitment at the start of World War II.”  Yep, this is definitely someone you want to stalk in the name of patriotic journalism.

So, in the end what have we learned.  Well, if you are a fan of Fox News you probably had your assumptions about academics confirmed and you see Jenkins as some kind of moral crusader.  And if you dislike Fox News you are probably feeling sympathetic for Brinkley.  What is lost in all of this, however, is a conversation about the book and its content.  Congratulations Mr. Jenkins – looks like you had a good day.

“The Robert E. Lee Memorial: A Conflict of Interpretation”

The following is an abstract for an essay that I am contributing to an edited collection on tourism in the American South, which is being edited by Karen Cox.  Your feedback and questions are strongly encouraged.

In recent years Civil War landscapes (especially battlefields) have come under increasing pressure from various interest groups to broaden their site interpretations beyond a traditional narrative of national reconciliation and the heroism of the Civil War soldier. The evolution of Civil War historiography over the past few decades as well as the changing racial and gender profile of public and private institutions has led to calls for increased attention, among other things, to slavery and race along with the roles that women and civilians played in the war.  As the custodian of some of the most prominent and sacred Civil War sites, the National Park Service has been on the front lines in working to manage the tension between and within groups who continue to struggle for control over this nation’s collective memory. Overlooking Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery, surrounding the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which is also known as Arlington House, serves as a repository for the U.S. military dead while the home functions as a shrine to the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Like other Civil War sites, the problem of how to meaningfully interpret slave life has proven to be the most vexing for National Park Service staff in recent years.  Specifically, a 2004 report on the subject highlighted just how little information is being shared with the general public as well as a certain amount of resistance from visitors who question whether slave life is even relevant to understanding Robert E. Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding grounds.

The challenge for the NPS in bringing their interpretation of Lee’s home more in line with recent scholarship and in integrating competing narratives long ignored has much in common with other related landscapes.  When in 1925 the NPS took over Arlington House, it concentrated on Lee himself by restoring the home to the period just before the Civil War, thus providing the proper context in which to emphasize his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and eventually align himself with the Confederacy.  In doing so, the NPS presented the general public with a heroic story of Lee that highlighted his ascendancy to the pantheon of American heroes.  As late as 1962, the NPS maintained Arlington House as a “national monument to one of America’s greatest men.”  Absent, however, was the presence of a large slave population that worked the grounds as well as a Freedmen’s Village at the end of the war.  The challenge of presenting slavery at Arlington House within this “Lost Cause” paradigm is, of course, not unique to this particular site.

What makes the ongoing debate about how to interpret the history of Arlington House worth examining, however, is its location within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  Specifically, the use of the grounds as a final resting place for fallen U.S. soldiers adds another layer of meaning to the landscape and one that the NPS has struggled to effectively integrate. It is here at Arlington House that visitors arrive after having walked by the “Eternal Flame”, the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, and row upon row of marble headstones – all of which are symbols of national pride and sacrifice.  Such a situation presents NPS interpreters with a set of unique challenges. First, the NPS must bring their site interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically because we cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life at Arlington. Secondly, they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to contemplate these controversial topics: slavery and race versus the solemn landscape of fallen heroes. One speaks to what binds us together as Americans while the other reminds us of what once divided us and continues to prove difficult to understand.

The Power of Hollywood

3412585481_cf3245787aThe highlight of my trip to Richmond this past weekend was the tour of Virginia’ State Capitol.  Although I’ve walked by it many times, for one reason or another I never had the time to actually walk through it.  Michaela and I decided to tag along with one of their tour guides.  We had a nice elderly woman guide us.  I have to admit that I anticipated the standard tour that barely scratches the surface of the place, but I was pleasantly surprised within a few minutes of the tour.

Our guide did an excellent job of interpreting the Jean-Antoine Houdon statue of George Washington which sits at the very center of the Rotunda, but it was her knowledge of Rudulph Evans’s famous Robert E. Lee statue in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates that really impressed me. The statue is located at the spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861.  I inquired into the choice of uniform that Evans utilized.  In an attempt to impress our guide I noted that Lee would not have been wearing his Confederate uniform at this time since he was only accepting command of Virginia state forces.  First, our guide informed me that the likeness was based on a wartime photograph of Matthew Brady, which makes sense after looking at it, but then she asked if I knew what he was, in fact, wearing on that day.  With little delay and an apparent knack for putting my own foot in my mouth I said that he would have been wearing his blue U.S. army uniform.  How did I know this?  I clearly remember the scene in Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals.  Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is wearing a uniform.  Well, it turns out that Lee wasn’t wearing a uniform at all.  He was wearing civilian clothing.

Innocent mistake, no doubt, but it does reflect the influence of popular culture on our understanding of the past.  What’s funny is that I’ve criticized this movie over and over and I still went to it as a reliable source on this issue.  I should know by now that the only reason to reference it is in the context of Civil War memory/mythology and bad film making.  Here is the scene:

[Have you ever wanted to embed a YouTube video at some point in the middle?  Click here.]

A Word of Advice

3412596379_eef3ac5919Before driving 60 miles for what you believe to be a scheduled event double-check the date.  That’s right, Michaela and I drove to Richmond today for a walking tour of Lincoln’s visit to the city in April 1865 only to discover that it is actually scheduled for tomorrow.  I guess I just assumed that a walking tour would take place on Saturday.  Well, we made the best of it.  In fact, we had a great time in Richmond.  Although it was a bit windy the temperature was perfect and the downtown area was very quiet.  We walked Lincoln’s route from the area around Rockett’s Landing to the Capitol grounds.  Luckily, I had my copy of Nelson Lankford’s Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, which made it easy for us to imagine the throngs of Richmonders who came out to welcome Lincoln to the city.  Along the way we had a chance to stop at the Reconciliation Monument as well as the new Civil Rights Monument.  We also toured the capitol building for about an hour with a wonderful guide.  On the way back we walked along the canal and grabbed a bite to eat at Bookbinders.

Additional photographs can be found at my flickr site.

Capital of the Confederacy Remembers Lincoln’s Visit

lincoln-richmond01One hundred and forty-four years ago this weekend, Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond for the first time.  A large crowd of Richmonders welcomed the president in the wake of the Confederate government’s abandonment of the city.  To mark the occasion, the Valentine Museum, Library of Virginia, and American Civil War Museum at Tredegar have scheduled a series of events to mark the occasion.  Choose between talks on Lincoln and emancipation as well as another on Lincoln and the fall of the Confederacy, a photography collection of Richmond in 1865, and a Lincoln walk titled “Step Toward Freedom”.  Click here for information on the weekend’s events.  Don’t expect to see Brag Bowling at any of these events.

Update: The wife and I decided to check out the Lincoln walk. You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day to submerge yourself in Richmond’s heritage. Check back later for photographs.