1 1 11 HOW UXTHOOHS FPO OHOONO THE WORLD PilliTHHV 11.9.11ISTOIR 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 1, 2005 BOOKS & THE CULTURE 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 IN 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 couldby dint of merit, maleness, and white skinbecome an influential member of society. His well timed treatise, Common Sense, sold hun dreds of thousands of copies while con demning the habit of granting Europe “more than it deserves” and extolling America as a “blank slate” upon which its inhabitants could write a more hope ful 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 rhetoricexceptionalism, purity of purpose, liberty, antityranny, and pragmatic wisdomhave 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 innocuto 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 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. From 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 continued on page 28
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