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Playing Hooky

America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century

by Frances FitzGerald
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 240 pp., $9.95

Apart from obscenities, the most deprecatory adjective in the vocabulary of youth in 1969 was the word “irrelevant.” In that year a study of a hundred representative secondary schools showed that of the twenty-one subjects in their curriculum on which they were questioned, the students regarded American history as the “most irrelevant.” What they meant was that they found it the dullest or the most boring. The planners of their curriculums and selectors of their textbooks would seem to have shared the aversion of the students, since the time and attention given American history have diminished and the texts have not improved.

Why this should be true—and there is persuasive evidence in addition to the study mentioned above (not cited in the work under review) that it is true—is the question addressed by America Revised. Frances FitzGerald, author of Fire in the Lake, a book on Vietnam, has published nearly all of the present work in The New Yorker. She is not given to easy answers or glib solutions. The dullness is “neither simple nor self-explanatory.” To explain it by reference to mindless pedantry or fear of offending group sensibilities is inadequate, and she rejects out of hand the notion that dullness is inherent in the subject matter. “American-history texts are not, in other words, by their nature dull. They had achieved dullness…a fairly consistent level of dullness ever since the nineteen-thirties.”

As this suggests, the main source of evidence and the chief subjects of investigation are the textbooks, hundreds of them, surveyed cursorily back through the nineteenth century and more thoroughly on down through the intensely competitive proliferations and multiple editions to the present. FitzGerald also gives some attention to the publishers and the authors of the texts, though little to the teachers. She takes shrewd measure of the politics, pressure groups, and the pedagogical, psychological, and sociological theories that have influenced the writing and adoption of texts, and casts a few glances at the culture responsible for these phenomena. But the focus of attention throughout is that endless shelf of textbooks.

Given the fortitude required by the task assumed, it is perhaps unfair to ask for more. I do think, however, that a more fundamental level of explanation has been neglected. More of that later. First is due some adequate acknowledgment of the debt of appreciation for what the author has been able to do within the limits of her sources and subjects of investigation. Her major contribution has been to shed much new light on the reasons why generation after generation of Americans have been deprived of their birthright and of any real sense of history or their place or the place of their country in history; why they do not see that the past has any influence over the future and assume “that today peels away from yesterday like a decal.” FitzGerald’s reading of the dreary textbooks provides many of the reasons. Her reactions are certainly not without wit, but they usually avoid flippancy, and considering the provocations involved, her indignation and rage are remarkably well controlled.

Some companies have gone out of business trying to keep up,” a textbook publisher told the author. He was speaking of the constant revisions necessary to keep up with the zigzag trends of the mid-Sixties and later—the fine-tooth combings to remove every mention of “black market” or “father-land,” to substitute “native Americans” for “American Indians” and “the founders” for “the founding fathers.” “We won’t use the term Hispanic-Americans, unless, of course, that becomes the way to go,” said one editor. Publishers see themselves as beleaguered people and their textbooks as “the lightning rods of American society.” The business, according to the head of a leading firm, is “shockingly political” and the scurrying to comply sometimes craven. The texts of today “are written backward…beginning with public demand and ending with the historian.”

Flurries of revision come in cycles, but there was never a full suspension of it. The rewriting proceeded unceasingly with attempts to comply with pedagogical fads, the conventional wisdom of foreign policy, fashionable causes and ideologies, and lately with social science “concepts.” Textbook affinity with social scientists has proceeded to the point in many books of according them “a higher status than American Presidents.” The presidents, on the other hand, became increasingly indistinguishable and all save a few are pictured as having done about as well as could be expected, given the difficulties they faced. American citizens, in the meantime, once uniform in creed and color, have become a patchwork of “ethnics” with no uniformity at all. “Progress” has become “change,” and the past, instead of a path to the present, has turned into a conglomeration of issues and problems. “These ‘problem areas’ resemble a landscape after a neutron bomb has hit, for there are no human agencies left—only abstractions and passive verbs.” In all areas such human agencies as move, and have their being, behave but do not act—they are acted upon, usually by “forces.”

For all the changes brought about by revision of texts—changes that sometimes render the history read by one generation virtually unrecognizable to another—the revisionists of each period, according to the author, have worked toward “a kind of lowest common denominator of common American tastes.” They generally compete for the center of the market, “not to please anyone in particular but to be acceptable to as many as possible.” They abhor controversy, and proceed on the principle that “nasty information constitutes bias even if the information is true.” This is a harsh judgment, and the author admits there are exceptions—though they are not all of the sort that prove the rule. Some textbooks are written on the assumption that children of different social classes or colors should be educated differently.

Historians may attempt to plead innocence of responsibility for these offenses against their cherished canons because of their rather minimal involvement in textbook making for the huge primary and secondary school market. This plea is not wholly persuasive. The names of one or more reputable and established academic historians usually appear on the covers of the books and sometimes several others on the title page as “consultants.” But what the names mean about responsibility for the contents is questionable. The “textbook prose” bears little relation to the way they write, and editions continue to appear after they die, containing accounts of events they did not live to see. Even during their lifetime various editions contain interpretations that are irreconcilable with each other and inconsistent with the views the nominal authors hold. It is obvious the professors have had some help. In fact the textbooks are no longer so much written as they are “developed” or “packaged,” and in the process numerous people are involved. These may include teachers and administrators and panels of “consultants” of repute whose names are displayed. But unnamed editors in the publishing house may have had a larger hand in the “developing” of the text.

It should come as no surprise to any reader of Tocqueville on the tyranny of public opinion in America that textbook history under these circumstances turns out to be “not a matter of fact but a matter of opinion of unnamed, uncounted, and perhaps uninformed citizens”—history as public opinion. Opinions change with regard to the past as well as the present, and it is the present opinion of the past that prevails as soon as the text developers can catch up with it. Theodore Roosevelt changes from hero of San Juan Hill, to perpetrator of imperialism, to champion environmentalist. Thaddeus Stevens is stripped over-night of his guise of insufferable villainy and fitted with a halo. Intrepid cold war texts with anticommunist obsessions become revisionists about the origins of the Second World War. When opinion wavers, so do the texts. For a long time they were neither hawkish nor dovish about the war on Vietnam, but simply evasive. They adhered to what FitzGerald called “the crabgrass theory.” The war just kept on growing until it became “full-fledged,” and many Americans were “deeply troubled” by it.

American foreign policy or, for that matter, the rest of the world took up little space in the history texts until after the Second World War. “The idea that the United States was a pure, highminded nation and a model of virtue among sinners went back to the early nineteenth century, and even further—to the Protestant notion of an elected people.” That much was taken for granted by all save those who quarreled with manifest destiny, imperialistic adventures, and intervention in the First World War. In the Fifties, however, smugness turned into naïve chauvinism and militant self-righteousness. Aside from the crusade against communist powers, “the United States had been a kind of Salvation Army to the rest of the world: throughout history, it had done little but dispense benefits to poor, ignorant, and diseased countries,” and after a brief period of isolationism busied itself with “saving Europe and Asia from militarism, Fascism, and Communism.” Innocent of the burdens of history, uncorrupted by wealth and power, the United States apparently had no economic interests abroad, and acted only in a disinterested fashion from the highest motives. After the waning of the cold war, former enemies, allies, and welfare clients turned into a globe full of “trouble spots” and “problem areas,” irritants that plagued with “crises” a United States that was still essentially alone in the world.

How the sensitive textbook developers will eventually respond to the current mood of collective guilt and self-flagellation our deponent saith not. It is probably a wise restraint. For one thing this temper may so far be too circumscribed to qualify as public opinion. With an incumbent president making speeches about a “national malaise,” however, the mood may yet qualify. If so it will be difficult to fit in to any of the categories of accommodation in the present survey. Here the flatness and conformism of style in all periods are described as “a kind of American Socialist realism.” But conformity to non-conformity and self-denigration would confront conformists with dilemmas of unimaginable complexity—a chinoiserie of socialist realism, perhaps, without a Gang of Four.

FitzGerald divides the reformers who have contributed to the reductive view of history and to the dullness and ahistorical character of so many history texts into three groups—progressives, fundamentalists, and mandarins. All share responsibility for the outcome, but the heaviest burden is placed upon the progressives. They are held responsible for the anti-intellectual bent of American education and hostility to the academic disciplines and the idea of intellectual development. Students were not only to be liberated from the dominion of the past, but from organized knowledge of it. Progressives are accused of substituting for a dictatorship of the past a dictatorship of the present, of converting history into civics and civics into propaganda for their conception of the social good—history as catechism. In spite of all the water that has gone under the bridge since the progressive creed was formulated, FitzGerald finds that “the ten best-selling American history texts are still very much in the old progressive civics-as-history mold.” The fury of college students in the Sixties came in part, she thinks, from their sense that not only their government but “their textbooks and their teachers had concealed from them the truth about American politics and history.”

Influencing the application of progressive doctrine was the conviction of the professional educationist “that children can and should be manipulated in certain ways.” Teachers and texts should mold the character rather than the minds of children. In fact, schools were saddled with responsibilities traditionally assigned family and church and other adult institutions as well. And adults sometimes shifted to children burdens which they themselves were unwilling to assume. When the young later encounter their own experience of conflict and suffering, they are apt to feel it is unique in history if not un-American, and certainly not “a utopia of the eternal present” as suggested by some of their old textbooks.

If Frances FitzGerald has scored her points somewhat forcefully, she also leaves her target riddled with direct hits. No serious explanation of the stunted and abused plight of historical teaching and learning in American schools can afford to overlook the insights of her America Revised. She has used her sources with telling effect and left us the wiser for her efforts.

A deeper and fuller explanation of the phenomena she explores however, would have had to take account of more basic traits and quirks of the American mind that are far older and more deeply rooted than the texts and schools and pedagogical fads that preempt attention in this book. They go back beyond the Jeffersonians, some of whom declared the past both misleading and irrelevant. Jefferson himself, though he showed respect for history at times, could say that the present was as independent of the past as the United States from England and had no more authority over it. He thought of “each generation as a distinct nation,” with comparable independence.

Tocqueville picked up the theme unerringly: “the tie that unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken,” he wrote, “every man there [in the United States] loses all trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no heed of them,” and “society seems to live from hand to mouth like an army in the field.” America was not merely twice born but repeatedly reborn. As the Democratic Review put it in 1839, “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history…which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.” It was a land of the present and the future, not the past. After he had “lived some thirty years on this planet,” Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had “yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors”—anyone over thirty. And Ralph Waldo Emerson could declare that “all inquiry into antiquity…is the desire to do away with this…preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”

Those who follow the calling of historian in the country of the Here and the Now and the Future may well feel at times as if they were a beleaguered order of clergy assigned for duty in an anticlerical nation full of skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. Some of the clerics even join the heretics or compromise fatally with their heresies. Under the circumstances what could be expected of the textbook developers, school boards, and pedagogues? They are the children of their fathers, whether they are wise enough to know their fathers or not.

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