Liberal Lies About America

I know that FOX News and Sean Hannity are usually “fair and balanced” but it seems to me that this report about corrupt liberal elite academics and their biased textbooks is missing some important elements of investigative journalism – specifically, the investigative part.  I’ve never heard of Prof. Larry Schweikart or his new book about how liberals are destroying all that is good about American history.  I’m sure it’s filled with all kinds of examples, but what I find curious is that there is no attempt to confirm anything in this FOX report.  It should come as no surprise that I came across this video over at Richard Williams’s site.  It should also come as no surprise that Mr. Williams fails to include any commentary concerning the claims made in this video.  One must assume he believes the report to be an accurate reflection of the most popular history textbooks that are currently being used across America.  It certainly conforms to his own assumptions about higher education.

At one point Schweikart claims that most college textbooks claim that President Roosevelt and the federal government knew that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, but failed to act on that information.  Since the report fails to include one textbook reference it is impossible to connect the individual claims to a specific textbook.  I will start with my own left leaning textbook authored by Eric Foner.  We all know that Eric Foner is one of the most popular of the liberal academics out there so his book should be helpful.

To this day, conspiracy theories abound suggesting that FDR knew of the attack and did nothing to prevent it so as to bring the United States into the war.  No credible evidence supports this charge.  Indeed, with the country drawing ever closer to intervention in Europe, Roosevelt hoped to keep the peace in the Pacific. (p. 850 in Give Me Liberty!)

Perhaps such a claim can be found in Out Of Many: A History of the American People, which was banned in Texas because of its left wing bias:

Confrontation with Japan now looked likely.  U.S. intelligence had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, and the president knew that Japan was preparing for war against the western powers.  Roosevelt’s advisers expected an attack in the southern Pacific or British Malaya sometime after November: General Douglas MacArthur alerted his command in the Philippines. (p. 755)

How about a textbook that includes that other left leaning nut, Gary Nash?

Roosevelt had an advantage in the negotiations with Japan, for the United States had broken the Japanese secret diplomatic code.  But Japanese intentions were hard to decipher from the intercepted messages.  The American leaders knew that Japan planned to attack, but they didn’t know where.  In September 1941, the Japanese decided to strike sometime after November unless the United States offered real concessions.  The strike came not in the Philippines but at Pearl Harbor, the main American Pacific naval base, in Hawaii. (p. 810)

And finally, let’s consider what is arguably the most popular college-prep textbook of the past few decades:

Officials in Washington, having “cracked” the top-secret code of the Japanese, knew that Tokyo’s decision was for war.  But the United States, as a democracy committed to public debate and action by Congress, could not shoot first.  Roosevelt, misled by Japanese ship movements in the Far East, evidently expected the blow to fall on British Malaya or on the Philippines.  No one in high authority in Washington seems to have believed that the Japanese were either strong enough or foolhardy enough to strike Hawaii. (p. 871)

I have five additional textbooks on my shelf that fall into line with what I’ve already referenced.  Perhaps tomorrow I will check out one or two additional claims made by this individual.  Click here for a review of Schweikart’s own texbook.

Use “War Between the States”

Today I received a letter for an essay contest sponsored by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy here in Charlottesville.  I have to say that I got a kick out of it.  The contest offers students in three different grade levels the opportunity to compete for a prize of $50.  Students in grades 4-6 must write a 1,000 word essay on Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury; students in grades 7-9 will write about the life of Judah P. Benjamin; and high school students in grades 10-12 get to explore the important contributions of Stand Waite.  Your guess is as good as mine as to why Stand Waite was chosen.

The guidelines are quite telling.  My favorite is the following:

Use “War Between the States” rather than “Civil War” unless quoting directly from a source.

The UDC also offers the following observation concerning sources:

The internet plays  such an important role in education today that books are no longer being used.  Please encourage students to use at least one book as a source for their information.

Guess what ladies, you can actually find books on this thing called the internet.

[Image: Mrs. Homer S. (Jane) Durden III, President General, 2008–2010]

If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism…

do I also need to test for it as well?  In other words, do I need to test my students to ensure that they leave my class understanding that the United States is an exceptional nation?  Would I need to fail a student who vehemently disagrees and arrives at her own conclusions? What do I do with students who arrive at opposing ideas of what is exceptional about American history?  Do I need to continue?

The more I listen to members of the Texas Board and other proponents of this nutty view the more disgusted I become.  Do we really think so little of our students to believe that they need to be told what to think?  What exactly is the point of education if we don’t even trust them to think through difficult questions about their own history?  Perhaps I am missing something fundamental, but the thought that as a teacher I should intentionally work to steer my students to believe a set agenda is morally repugnant to me.  This is called indoctrination, not education.

Honestly, I don’t care at all what my students believe about the broad sweep of American history.  I am as indifferent to a student who believes that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world as I am with a student who believes the exact opposite.  What I care about is whether they can articulate reasons for their preferred view.  I care about whether they can utilize the tools of a historian that I do my best to teach year after year.

I can’t help but think that this agenda reflects a deep-seated insecurity on the part of those who believe that this is a history teacher’s responsibility.  It stems from an inability to accept that free thinking people can, should, and must arrive at different conclusions about complex historical questions.

That feels better. 😀

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.

Does Your Dentist Teach History?

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.

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