Commentary | Education

Lessons—Books Often Give History a Facelift

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Books often give history a facelift

By Richard Rothstein

The Texas Board of Education will decide in November which history textbooks may be used in the state. Activists on the left and right are lobbying the board, to influence its choices.

One text has already been withdrawn because it referred to prostitution in frontier towns. A board member felt this was inappropriate for high school students to read.

A group called the Texas Public Policy Foundation has attacked the simplistic glorification of minority groups that is now conventional in American education.

The foundation wants texts modified to tell how African chieftains, not Europeans, captured slaves for sale in America. It wants to emphasize the role of white Europeans in ending slavery. It objects to portrayals of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as civil rights supporters, noting that the brothers refused to support the movement at crucial times.

The group also wants texts to say that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to own guns and that the wealthy pay a disproportionate share of income taxes.

American publishers sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of social studies texts each year. Texas is the second-largest buyer in that market, after California. Because issuing separate editions for each state is expensive, changes required by Texas will affect texts everywhere.

There is nothing new about this. As Frances FitzGerald noted in her 1979 book, “America Revised,” since the 1950’s “New England children, whose ancestors heartily disapproved of the Mexican War, have grown up with heroic tales of Davy Crockett and Sam Houston” — not because historians felt the war was justified but to appease Texans who decided which books were acceptable.

Nor is Texas the only place where schoolbooks have been pawns in adult political fights.

A new book by Jonathan Zimmerman, “Whose America?” (Harvard University Press, 2002), develops Ms. FitzGerald’s themes. Dr. Zimmerman shows how early 20th-century texts described the American Revolution as a complex event, including class conflict between propertied and poor colonists. Antagonism of colonists toward England was played down, and support for independence by some Englishmen was highlighted.

Dr. Zimmerman says this treatment partly resulted from growing numbers of immigrants in schools at the time. Educators aimed to get children “Americanized,” defined as adopting Anglo-Saxon culture and identity. Demonization of King George III would have undermined this goal.

The perspective was reversed in the 1920’s as newly powerful Irish immigrant leaders demanded a more anti-British stance. William H. Thompson, Chicago’s Irish-American mayor, had the city’s school superintendent dismissed for using “treasonous” pro-British texts.

The country’s most popular history textbook was then revised to remove descriptions of protesters against the Stamp Act as a “mob” and of Boston Massacre victims as “ruffians.” In New York City, politicians demanded that books portray the Revolution as a crusade of other nationalities against the British. Minor revolutionary figures like the Poles Thaddeus Kosciusko and Casimir Pulaski, the Jew Haym Solomon, the Frenchman the Marquis de Lafayette and the German Friedrich von Steuben became heroes in the revised curriculum.

This multicultural fable remains a staple of history texts.

Today’s books, and standardized tests issued by the same publishers, not only portray each minority as heroic, but every group (and each sex) is airbrushed to eliminate the possibility of stereotyping.

Portrayals of African-Americans as maids or athletes (except for Jackie Robinson), of women as housewives, of Mexicans as farm laborers or of Jews as businessmen are not permitted. This ensures that books and tests pass muster without objection from officials in Texas and other states that also allow schools to buy only approved texts.

Are books now more bland and mythical than before? Perhaps not, but they may be more dangerous. In the past, some states, districts and schools could dissent and use books with different slants from the one in fashion. Teachers who had historical sophistication could add their own materials or ignore the texts altogether.

But today, curriculums are more standardized, especially as we measure all students with similar tests. On the one hand, policy makers want teachers to have more knowledge in the subjects they teach and more skill in deciding how to teach them. On the other, teachers have less freedom to design their lessons.

It is unclear which tendency will prevail. But if standardization wins out, political fights like the one in Texas will become ever more influential in determining how the myths and realities of our history will be told.

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