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.
Continue reading →