Of Textbooks and Serendipitous Reading

Tim’s thoughtful Assorted Stuff blog post about textbooks coincided with my reading of Blood: Stories of Life and Death from the Civil War, an anthology of mostly primary source documents. While it didn’t offer specific dates and times like a textbook would, it provided a human view of the time and, as Tim pointed out, could easily be supplemented with material available on the web to create a completely serviceable “textbook.”   I haven’t ever been a fan of textbooks–especially history–because in trying to get it all in, they inevitably have to pick and choose about both what to leave in and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to gloss over, and, in the end, leave us with the impression that historical truth in the guise of dates and names somehow exists.  Plus, they are really just boring.  As I’ve written before, I think we can use the media to make history generally more engaging, even (horrors!) at the expense of complete accuracy.

Because, as we’re learning in my own state, textbooks themselves have no great claim to correctness.  And here’s where the serendipitous reading comes in: as I’ve been drafting this entry, I picked up a book that has been on my shelf for some time, right next to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.  A quote from Zinn graces the front cover, recommending this book to every citizen, and I’m not sure what I thought it was about, but it turns out it focuses on high school American history textbooks.

I am not very far along but had to share this quote as it seems to sum up my own sense of the real problem with using textbooks to teach.  This chapter focuses on the myth of Columbus’s discovery of America, and Loewen provides a table that outlines all the possible voyages to America prior to Columbus.  They go back thousands of years and have varying levels of empirical support.  Loewen points out that they are also not mentioned in most textbooks and suggests that we could really teach students something about history if they were:

The evidence for each of these journeys offers fascinating glimpses into the societies and cultures that existed on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia before 1492. They also reveal controversies among those who study the distant past.  If textbooks allowed for controversy, they could show students which claims rest on strong evidence, which on softer ground. As they challenged students to make their own decisions as to what probably happened, they would also be introducing students to the various methods and forms of evidence–oral history, written records, cultural similarities, linguistic changes, human blood types, pottery, archaeological dating, plant migrations–that researchers use to derive knowledge about the distant past. Unfortunately, textbooks seem locked into a rhetoric of certainty. James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, coauthors of the textbook The United States–A History of the Republic, have also written After the Fact, a book for college history majors in which they emphasize that history is not a set of facts but a series of arguments, issues, and controversies. Davidson and Lytle’s high school textbook, however, like its competitors, presents history as answers, not questions.

The “rhetoric of certainty” is just a perfect description of the whole process of standardizing history and presenting it in a textbook.  Wish I had coined it…but Loewen did and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book.  I love it when a book appears just when I need it.  Now, I suppose there are historians who will question Loewen’s ideas but that’s another post.