Finally, a Decent Textbook

The toughest challenge as a high school teacher is finding an appropriate textbook for the survey course in American history. I teach both the survey course and Advanced Placement courses. Most textbooks are dull and seem to be written by people who have absolutely no concern in attracting people to the study of history. The biggest problem is that many of these books are written by a team of professional scholars. There is little evidence of collaboration; the upshot is a book that has no overarching theme that ties together events over time. Not too long ago historian James Loewen analyzed the lingering problem of not addressing controversial issues such as slavery and racism head-on in his book, Lies My Teachers Told Me. It seems that the problem today is historians are too focused on packing in the latest interpretations in their texts, but at the cost of ignoring the importance of narrative. Most of these books are written for introductory level college courses, but even on this level one wonders whether they are effective in attracting students to the subject.

I finally found a textbook that meets all of my demands for a high school AP course. It is titled, Give Me Liberty: An American History by Eric Foner. Foner is best known for his seminal study, Reconstruction. His textbook is beautifully written around the theme of the expanding and often contradictory ideas of freedom that have evolved over time. The maps are also beautifully done and compliment the text well. What is most impressive is that Foner’s narrative does not ignore interpretation; in fact, the book does just as good a job of including the latest historical interpretations as any other text that I’ve seen. My class is now studying antebellum slavery, and is analyzing the concept of paternalism and how it shaped the relationship between the master class and the slave community. Whereas many chapters on antebellum slavery simply present a survey of slave life and the abolitionist response, Foner introduces readers to ideas developed by Eugene Genovese. Two companion volumes of primary sources are also available. The best part is that my students actually enjoy reading the text, and I suspect this is the case because it does not feel as if you are reading a text. Thank you Eric Foner.


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