History Textbooks 101

History Textbooks 101

BY JAMES E. McWILLIAMS History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U. S. History By Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward The New Press 400 pages, $26.95 ith his career as a weaver of women’s underwear behind him, Thomas Paine left England for America in 1774 to weave dreams of liberation. A relative nobody back home, Paine the British American quickly capitalized on early America’s most distinguishing feature: the fact that one could—by dint of merit, maleness, and white skin—become an influential member of society. His well-timed treatise, Common Sense, sold hundreds of thousands of copies while condemning the habit of granting Europe “more than it deserves” and extolling America as a “blank slate” upon which its inhabitants could write a more hopeful script. It was a place, he insisted, that was exceptional. Many of Paine’s European contemporaries agreed. Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, who would later became Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, gushed over Americans as “heroes [who] put their oppressors to flight, a simple People, as yet untouched by corruption, wise, upright, enjoying excellent laws, the fruits of the liberty they had purchased with their blood.” For insecure Americans who undertook the Revolution reluctantly, these words were welcome departures from the traditional continental assessment that they were a posse of woolly bumpkins hovering on the Empire’s most distant periphery. Never a nation to take a compliment with humility, the United States has braided these accolades into our national identity. The positive sentiments buffeting Revolutionary rhetoric—exceptionalism, purity of purpose, liberty, anti-tyranny, and pragmatic wisdom—have been revived by succeeding generations to define America’s master narrative as a lone example of freedom in a world of tyranny. This instinctual stress on our exceptional nature is partly attributable to the fact that, as Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward write in History Lessons, “Americans… seem to know relatively little about other countries and cultures.” Nowhere has our myopic master narrative been more on display than in our high school textbooks, which, according to the authors, “model the national identity in a very profound and unique way.” Which is to say: profoundly narrow and uniquely self-absorbed. Based on the general premise of American smugness, Lindaman and Ward offer a broader perspective on our history through foreign textbooks that cover conventional topics of U.S. history. Their explicit motive is innocuous (and bland) enough: “If we wish to move beyond judgment and toward understanding, we must honestly consider other perspectives.” Their implicit motive in placing U.S history textbooks in a global context, however, is charged with an ideological current. With the vice president’s wife Lynne Cheney (for one) spending her days writing children’s books with titles like America: A Patriotic Primer, painting the North American past as an isolationist Eden, the authors’ global perspective promises to temper the exceptionalism that Paine articulated and our textbooks have institutionalized. In pushing this quieter and more important agenda, however, Lindaman and Ward raise the critical issue of American egotism without exploring it. Although they have dutifully compiled and translated almost 400 pages of foreign text, their book desperately lacks the analytical rigor needed to make sense of that massive compilation. They’ve essentially dumped a pile of evidence on us, assuming that we’ll know what to make of it. More often than not, I hadn’t a clue. rom the outset, the authors seem confused about the core subject of their book: the U.S. history textbook. They note in the introduction that, “the simple fact that U.S. history textbooks contain a master narrative of more than 1,000 pages encased in a cover often emblazoned with a patriotic title is significant. It means something.” So far so good. The implication here is that it means textbooks are unduly celebratory. Not only do they stress American isolationism, they do so with sweeping, proud narration. We have no way of knowing if that’s really the interpretation the authors have in mind. They further confuse the issue by claiming that “textbook publishers [in the United States] have become averse to bold historical narratives” as “they are doing away with what is most interesting about history: perspective… bias… and controversy.” Moreover, we then learn, astonishingly, that there’s not a single example of a U.S. history textbook quoted in the entire book. Instead, the authors suggest that we go out and get our own for the sake of comparison. The suggestion borders on being rude. More to the point, though, my own experience in evaluating textbooks during Texas’ textbook adoption process (see “History 101: Ignorance as Power,” August 30, 2002) confirms that, should I follow the authors’ suggestion, it would matter a great deal which book I chose. However narrowly, textbooks in the United States do span an ideological spectrum. Some lean left, others dodge right, some admirably walk a tightrope above the pit of cultural warfare. This diversity—granting that Texas, California, and New York wield inordinate power over what textbook publishers print—should not come as a surprise. The authors, however, ignore the possibility that not only America, but other nations as well, might publish textbooks reflecting a modest range of interpretive angles. They present evidence from a single nation’s text as if it were reflective of that nation’s unified vision. For example, the entire French view of the American Revolution—an event that the French embraced with caution and for a variety of motivations—comes from one source (published in 1991), by one author who happens to stress the role of French political theory on American resistance. Do other textbooks see the matter of the philosophes differently? Do American textbooks downplay this emphasis on the French intellectuals? And if they do, why? What does that mean? The authors’ failure to address these assumptions and ambiguities weakens their overall credibility. Their failure to explore the underlying reasons and meanings behind foreign interpretations also demonstrates their lack of insight into how textbook writers work. Lindaman and Ward present textbooks as repositories of national identity rather than syntheses of scholarly monographs and articles. While the case is surely different in nations with strong monarchical or theocratic traditions, western nations enjoy the kind of scholarly freedom that encourages textbook writers to base narratives on readily available work written by scholars throughout the world. The information accessed by textbook writers frequently originates in scholarly work done in another country, a point that critically undermines the premise that a foreign textbook reflects an unadulterated foreign view of the United States. For example, the authors present “the nature of imperial authority” during the colonial American period from the “English perspective,” providing an excerpt from a single English text that suggests English history spends more time on the transatlantic context of colonial political development. What the authors either do not know or fail to reveal, however, is that the interpretation comes directly from Bernard Bailyn, an American who has taught history at Harvard for over 50 years. This case of cross-fertilization—an American providing the information for a British textbook—is surely not an anomaly (I only knew it because my academic specialty is British America). At the least, it points to the need for a more aggressive interrogation of the sources themselves, not to mention some documentation regarding what sources they used. More often than not, examples that do not raise troubling interpretive or methodological questions reiterate the fairly obvious lesson that nations write histories that suit their own cultural needs. Is it so surprising that the Canadian textbook explored the American Revolution through “its effect on the British in Canada as well as the Loyalists in the 13 colonies?” Or that the Japanese textbook goes into greater detail about Japan’s “position and motives prior to Pearl Harbor?” Or that the Mexican textbook referred to the United States’ pattern of land acquisition as “imperialism” rather than “annexation?” Of course not. Rather than shedding light on the myopia of U.S. history textbooks, these self-evident foreign perspectives (at least as the authors present them) more often than not confirm an apparently universal tendency to stress the most culturally palatable interpretation. How this pervasive quality is supposed to diminish the exceptionalism inherent in U.S. history textbooks goes unexplored. I have a hunch that at the core of this well-conceived but poorly executed book is a remarkable possibility that Lindaman and Ward never contemplated: that Paine might have been right. Before I proceed with this conclusion let me say that I’m the last person to protect U.S. history from the critical lashings it well deserves. An honest assessment of our nation’s past demands—yes, demands—that Americans come to terms with morally tragic paradoxes and profound injustices that coexisted with and in many cases supported the values that we hold so dear—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. These values are at our nation’s vital center, and they’ve all been sullied by the decisions we’ve made. The Lynne Cheneys of this world, touting their puffed up versions of the past, should be ashamed for pretending otherwise. Even so, there’s Paine. His persistent reiteration that this new nation embodied notions of liberty unlike any the world had ever seen—a sentiment echoed by successors such as William Lloyd Garrison, Abe Lincoln, Lincoln Steffens, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama—cannot be dismissed with the sneer of highbrow cynicism. The Western frontier, the expansion of the franchise, emancipation, the rise of a domestic market economy, ethnic diversity, religious diversity, women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, animal rights, the fact that we all know some version of the underwear weaver-made-best-selling-author story—all of it has come at an enormous cost. As a historian, I spend much of my day contemplating and teaching about that cost. Still, for better or worse, at the end of the day, I choose to see that glittering speck of gold at the bottom of the polluted river that is our past and, for whatever reason, hold it up and call it good. The authors might not agree with my optimism, but they should have at least set higher standards for their important endeavor. James E. McWilliams uses a textbook in his American history classes that embraces a global perspective, but he’s certain nobody actually reads it.

Do you think free access to journalism like this is important? The Texas Observer is known for its fiercely independent, uncompromising work—which we are pleased to provide to the public at no charge in this space. That means we rely on the generosity of our readers who believe that this work is important. You can chip in for as little as 99 cents a month. If you believe in this mission, we need your help.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

You May Also Like: