I was reading an issue of the Camp Chase Gazette: Where the Civil War Comes Alive, June 2007, Volume XXXIV-No. 7, and found an article entitled “Historical Preservation versus school textbooks?” that reminded me of a problem many teachers have complained about, especially history teachers, that history textbooks are written by revisionists, the textbooks are full of oversimplifications and are a distortion of America’s true history.
The article pointed out that teachers today are not given the resources needed to adequately and accurately teach students about America’s War Between the States. The editor argues that students need field trips to museums, battlefields, and hands-on programs in order to fully understand history. The article argues, based on testimony of Gilbert T. Sewall of the American Textbook Council before the U.S. Sentate Health, Education Committee that textbook quality has steadily declined over the last 25 years. I had thought that in light of scholarship and the increase of information available, textbooks should be better than ever, but that is not the case.
And why this declining quality of student textbooks? Sewall says, “Many history textbooks reflect lowered sights for general question . . . Publishers are adjusting to short attention spans and non-readers. Too many children cannot or do not want to read history, which contains concrete facts and complicated concepts, reading that requires some facility with language. . . ”
Sewall said that compliance with detailed state guidelines and multicultural social/political sensitivity (which give “pressure groups a chance to vent and bully”) are why textbooks are of such poor style and textual quality. Sewall says, “publishers cater to pressure groupsfor whom history textbook content is an extension of a broader political or cultural cause . . . books whose content is meant to suit the sentivities of groups and causes more interested in self-promotion than in historical fact, scholarly appraisal, or balance. . . Determining what history children will learn, who will be heroes and villains, what themes will dominate, and what message will be sent are crucial subtexts in civic education.”
After reading and thinking about this article I concluded:
1) These current trends in education explain why my and others’ Civil War programs have been so well-received by schools.
2) It confirmed my belief that libraries and librarians (with their books and data bases) will be the saviors of history and our culture.
3) Current history textbooks are basically useless and should be abandoned. Their efforts to avoid anything that might be interpreted as “racist, sexist, ethnocentric, and jingo (excessive patriotism) are destructive to student scholarship. Too much is left out and too much misinformation is in them. We can’t avoid teaching facts of history just because the facts are complex or inconvenient.