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…

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