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The Betrayal of History

A History of US

by Joy Hakim
Oxford University Press, 10 volumes pp., $10.95 each (paper)

Build Our Nation

Houghton Mifflin, 704 pp., $38.34

America’s Story

Harcourt Brace, 718 pp., $36.96

Our United States

Silver Burdett Ginn, 656 pp., $39.00

United States: Adventures in Time and Space

Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, 765 pp., $51.96

1.

Columbia University Professor Jack Garraty was surprised to open the latest edition of the eighth-grade textbook he had written in 1982 and learn that a Spanish explorer named Bartolomeo Gomez, and not the Englishman Henry Hudson, was credited with being the first European to discover the Hudson River. Garraty, who had taught history for thirty years, had never heard of Bartolomeo Gomez. After some research, he learned that Gomez was in fact Portuguese and not Spanish and that his claim to have discovered the Hudson River was based on extremely slender evidence: he had sailed along the Atlantic Coast and made a map that described three rivers, one of which might, or might not, be the Hudson.

The map didn’t even include Long Island,” Garraty said. “He certainly didn’t sail into the river.” But the publisher of the book, Holt, Rinehart, anxious to create a new multicultural hero and to cater to the substantial Hispanic populations of Texas and California—the largest markets in the nation for textbooks—had elevated this obscure Portuguese explorer into the Spanish discoverer of the Hudson and inserted him in Garraty’s book without his permission.

The American history taught in schools has been rewritten and transformed in recent decades by a handful of large publishers who are much concerned to meet the demands of both the multicultural left and the conservative religious right. In 1994, when Texas announced that it wanted to purchase new social studies textbooks for fifth-grade students, major publishers competed to produce history textbooks that would not be offensive to political and cultural pressure groups in the state. Four textbooks by different publishers were formally adopted as suitable for Texas last year; and children throughout the country will be reading one or another of them during the next five to ten years.

They will be doing so because the states of Texas and California taken together account for 20 percent of the textbooks sold in America. They are the biggest of some twenty-two states that review and choose textbooks on a state-wide basis, and their choices therefore have disproportionate influence among the fifty states. Approval of a textbook series in Texas or California guarantees millions of dollars in sales, while rejection will almost certainly mean financial failure. Textbook publishers spend much time answering angry letters from Christian fundamentalists and counting the illustrations in their books to make sure that they have the requisite number of women and minorities. “We would sometimes joke that we should just leave some of the presidents out of the book so that we could make our fifty-fifty male-female quota,” I was told by a woman who worked as an editor of one textbook.

To satisfy the religious right, many textbooks have largely banished the words “imagine” and “feel.” According to an editor at McGraw-Hill, who did not want to be identified, “We were told to try to avoid using the word ‘imagine’ because the people in Texas felt it was too close to the word ‘magic’ and therefore might be considered anti-Christian. Instead of saying ‘Imagine you were sailing across the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus,’ we were encouraged to write ‘Suppose you were…”’ Some editors told me that they had taken out most references to Halloween (even in music textbooks, Halloween songs were removed) because these could be construed as encouraging belief in witches and hobgoblins and lead to satanic practices.

Spokesmen for the religious right and other conservative groups vigilantly criticize any critical references to America’s traditional heroes; they equally oppose harsh accounts of slavery and positive descriptions of the “socialistic” policies of the New Deal or the charter of the United Nations. At one of the Texas hearings, a representative of the Daughters of the American Revolution congratulated the four principal textbook publishers for including the Pledge of Allegiance in their books but then took them to task for failing to capitalize the word “nation” in the phrase “One Nation under God.” “You publishers know who you are and shame on you.” On noticing a poem and photograph of Langston Hughes in one book, she asked: “What is a known Communist doing in a Texas third-grade textbook pertaining to heritage and culture? Did he ever come to Texas?… Black is not always beautiful.”

Over the years, such constant pressures have had an effect. “I can definitely see improvements in some areas,” says Mel Gabler, who for some thirty-five years has led the campaign to make the Christian conservative point of view prevail in textbook adoptions. “Our state has a law that the students must be taught the benefits of free enterprise. They have tended to take a collectivist or statist view of things…. The books now do teach the benefits of free enterprise.”

On the other hand, to forestall criticism from the multicultural left, publishers have drawn up new lists of taboos. The words “tribe” and “Indian” are out, in favor of “group” and “Native American,” even though many Native Americans use and prefer the former terms. The word “slave” has been banished, replaced by “enslaved person,” on the grounds that slavery was a temporary condition that was imposed upon people, not part of their essence as human beings. But “slave” is a far more stark and powerful word, expressing much more accurately the horror of the owning, buying, and selling of human beings. The term “enslaved persons” sounds like a bureaucrat’s euphemism.

Even “African-American,” until recently the most politically correct of the current labels, has come in for criticism: some activists have insisted that the word should not be used to apply to the period before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, since only then did blacks become American citizens. “This is ludicrous,” says one editor who worked on one of the current social studies texts. “It’s one thing to refer to a man who has just stepped off a slave ship in the seventeenth century as an African, but it’s absurd to refer to someone living in 1860, whose parents and even grandparents may have been born in this country, as Africans.”

The Harcourt Brace history book, America’s Story, goes a step farther, referring to the black troops fighting in the Civil War simply as “Africans,” even though they enlisted after the Emancipation Proclamation. This robs the men, for a second time, of the right they were fighting for: to be recognized as full American citizens.

In trying to avoid anything that might be offensive to either the left or the right, we were reduced to producing totally bland, middle-of-the-road pabulum,” says one Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill editor who, unsurprisingly, was not eager to be identified.

Before submitting their books to state adoption committees, publishers try to anticipate possible objections by privately soliciting the views of various pressure groups. “Before, we used to send the books out to scholars,” a senior editor explained. “Now we also send them to one reader for the Islamic point of view, to a feminist, an African-American, an Asian-American, a Native American, and a Christian fundamentalist so that they are carefully screened.”

Many of the changes urged by this or that pressure group can be justified and defended, but the overall result is what has been aptly called a “conspiracy of good intentions”; the need to please or not offend every possible constituency has paralyzed textbook writers. Each paragraph is a carefully negotiated compromise, making it virtually impossible for a textbook to have a distinctive voice, not to mention humor, moral outrage, or evocative prose.

It is a process that is destined to produce a dumbed-down product,” says Byron Hollinshead, the head of American Historical Publications, and formerly president of American Heritage and Oxford University Press. “The Harvard Education Letter,” he told me, “once compared textbooks to pet food. Pet food is not really concocted for pets, it’s meant to appeal to pet owners. Textbooks are not written for children, they are written for textbook committees who flip through them to make sure they have the right ethnic balance and the proper buzz words.”

2.

Hollinshead recently entered the children’s textbook field by editing a maverick series of American history texts called A History of US, published by Oxford. The books, written by Joy Hakim, an independent writer and grandmother from Virginia, are a refreshing exception in the otherwise bleak textbook scene. A former schoolteacher and journalist, Hakim was appalled by the dullness of the textbooks she saw and decided she could do a better job herself. As she began writing her first book, she tested it on children at a local Virginia elementary school and she paid them to comment on her manuscript, marking passages that were interesting, dull, or unclear.

Even though she was only circulating computer printouts, other classes that were using regular textbooks began asking to use her book. While virtually all the other textbooks are written by committees in as neutral a tone as possible, and do little more than present a series of events, dates, and people, Hakim tried to make story-telling central to her work. Her books have a distinctive personal voice and are enjoyable to read. They have been praised by, among many others, cultural conservatives such as Lynne Cheney, back-to-basics educators such as Diane Ravitch, liberal teachers in inner-city schools, and prominent professional historians. (“I was impressed by the accuracy and the depth of her research,” said James McPherson, a professor of American history at Princeton University.) And while Hakim’s books contain more of the traditional subjects of American history than others, they also include more about women and minorities. In this respect, McPherson told me, “I thought her book did a good job of inclusiveness without being obtrusive.”

It is not politics, however, that sets A History of US apart, it is its prose. Hakim believes in the value of narrative history for children. She was impressed by a study showing that children retained far more of what they read when the texts were written by professional writers rather than education specialists. Three pairs of writers—composition instructors, linguists, and Time-Life journalists—were all asked to rewrite the same passages from a widely used history textbook. The texts by the education specialists produced no improvement in students’ comprehension, while students retained 40 percent more from the passages written by the two professional journalists.1

Whether or not standard textbook publishers have heard of this study, its lesson has been sadly ignored. Perhaps more disturbing than the new politically correct orthodoxy is the astonishing decline in the literary quality of textbooks: their skimpy, superficial treatment of events, the increasing proliferation of pictures and graphics, and the use of oversimple language. Indeed, the most striking difference between the current textbooks and their predecessors is visual. The older textbooks are mainly composed of text—with engravings or photographs appearing from time to time. During the last few decades, illustrations have become more frequent and elaborate. The most recent textbooks appear to be designed on the debatable premise that they must compete with Nintendo video games and MTV. The books bombard the reader with images, maps, charts, broken-out quotes, and a rainbow of colors and typefaces, as if the average ten- or eleven-year-old child suffered from an attention disorder. There are sometimes twelve or thirteen pages of illustrations and filler between chapters, while the chapters themselves—dealing with long periods of American history—have been reduced to four or five short and heavily illustrated pages. Although recent textbooks have gotten bigger and bigger—generally about 700 large-format pages, weighing a few pounds each—the historical text itself has shrunk.

  1. 1

    Could Textbooks Be Better Written and Would It Make a Difference?” American Educator, Spring 1986.

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