What impression do you get from your child's history text? Are sentences short, bland, and choppy? How many challenging words can you find? If you come away with the feeling that there's less flesh and more fluff, you're not alone. "The most recent textbooks appear to be designed on the debatable premise that they must compete with Nintendo video games and MTV," writes Alexander Stille in the June '98 issue of the New York Review of Books. "The books bombard the reader with images, maps, charts, broken-out quotes, and a rainbow of colors and typefaces, as if the average 10- or 11-year-old child suffered from an attention disorder."
The bad old days
There's a reason why history textbooks are the subject of so much controversy and it's rooted in a history of their own. Just consider what our own parents and grandparents were learning about world and national events. Before World War II, a single historical perspective ruled and it was overwhelmingly white and western. American Indians were "savages." Minorities were depicted passively -- rather than participating in the flow of historical events, things seem to "happen" to them. In one widely read text, The Growth of the American Republic, celebrated authors Samuel Morison and Henry Steele Commager wrote: "There was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization. The negro learned his master's language and accepted in some degree his moral and religious standards. In return, he contributed much besides his labor -- music and humor for instance -- to American civilization."
The pendulum swings
Since then, publishers have endeavored to make textbooks less biased and more balanced. Minorities are more accurately portrayed as shapers of social policy. The civil rights movement and women's issues have seen the light of day. In some cases, however, the pendulum has swung out of control. Smith College professor Robert Lerner points to the stir created by feminists who felt there weren't enough women portrayed in depictions of the Revolutionary War. "So," he says, " they took a woman, Sybil Ludington, who helped warn the Connecticut state militia of an impending British attack on Danbury." In a 1985 high-school text America: Its People and Its Values, Ludington is portrayed "as being as important as Paul Revere. No objective historian believes that."
Throughout, the question remains: Is there such a thing as a unified picture of past events? How can any single textbook address the history of women, other cultures, laboring people, religious, and racial minorities while presenting multiple perspectives?
A promising trend
A Virginia grandmother, Joy Hakim, was so irked by traditional textbooks that she wrote her own American history series for upper elementary students. Published by Oxford University press, The History of US comprises ten paperback volumes of colorful prose, imaginary dialogue, and engrossing narrative. Notice how artfully Hakim draws kids into the world of whaling: "Think of the most dangerous, scary amusement-park ride you have ever heard about. Whatever it is, it is tame compared to a Nantucket sleigh ride." The History of US also exposes students to the ambiguities and moral choices faced by historical characters: "South Carolina's John Rutledge argued at the Constitutional Convention in favor of slavery . . . and then went home and quietly freed his slaves."
What Hakim's series does in ten volumes, other publishers still struggle to encompass in one massive textbook. What kind of materials does your school prefer? It's worth a conversation with your child's teacher.
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