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New Study: High School History Textbooks Are Inadequate

Chester E. Finn, Jr., on the website of the Fordham Institute; from the foreword to A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks (Feb. 2004):

Within days of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, major textbook publishers began scrambling to revise their high school history texts to include information about 9/11. An understandable, even commendable impulse, but it went badly. Because these hasty updates or supplements had to be written by early 2002 in order to be included in the 2003 editions of the textbooks—publishing timelines are nothing if not long and slow—by the time they reached classrooms just about all the information in them was obsolete.

Far more troubling, because textbook publishers bend over backwards not to offend anybody or upset special interest groups, the 9/11 information, like so much else in today's history texts, was simplified and sanitized. The reader would scarcely learn that anybody in particular had organized these savage attacks on innocent Americans and citizens of 80 other nations, much less why. The impression given by most textbooks was more like"a terrible thing happened"—reminiscent of the two-year-old gazing upon the shards of his mother's shattered glass vase and saying"It broke."

I've dubbed such verb usages the"irresponsible impersonal" voice and, regrettably, they're more norm than exception in U.S. history textbooks. As with the vase breaking, things happen in these books (though not necessarily in chronological order), but not because anybody causes them. Hence, nobody deserves admiration or contempt for having done something incredibly wonderful or abominably evil. No judgments need be made. (To judge, after all, might upset a person or group who disagrees with the judgment or dislikes the way it makes them or their ancestors look.) The result: fat, dull, boring books that mention everything but explain practically nothing; plenty of information but no sorting, prioritizing, or evaluating; and a collective loss of American memory.

World-history texts present similar problems. It's hard to name a culture or era that doesn't turn up somewhere in these sprawling compilations, but no real story is told. There's no thread, no priorities, no winnowing of the important from the trivial, the history-shaping from the incidental. It's as if a car's chrome trim and speaker system were equivalent to its chassis and engine.

Why does this matter? Some successful countries— Japan and Singapore come to mind—get by fine with slender curriculum guides rather than enormous textbooks. That's because their teachers are subject-matter experts in fields like history and, when supplied with guidance about what state or national standard-setters deem most important, can easily generate their own lessons and find their own materials. They don't depend on textbooks except as reference works.

That's not true in the United States , where few history teachers ever learned much history themselves. More than half of high school history teachers did not major or even minor in history in college. Instead, most studied education or psychology or sociology, perhaps with a focus on"social studies education." As a result, teachers charged with imparting essential information to young Americans about the history of their country and world must rely heavily on the textbooks available to them—often textbooks that teachers themselves had little to do with selecting. Because these texts end up serving as students' primary sources of information, it's vitally important that they be accurate and interesting, and that they establish a narrative of events with a strong sense of context. They must tell"the main story" without neglecting lesser stories that form part of an accurate picture of the past. What they must not be is sprawling, drab assemblages of disjointed information in which everything matters equally and nothing is truly important.

How many—if any—of today's textbooks live up to that obligation? Unfortunately, few independent reviews of textbooks have been conducted to help answer that question. Hence, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, as part of our broader effort to strengthen history education and breathe new life into the moribund field of social studies, judged that it was time to look closely at widely used high school level textbooks in American and world history. In the spirit of being constructive as well as critical, we judged that a competent appraisal would provide practical help to educators tasked with the selection of history texts, to parents concerned about their children's education, to policymakers,

and even to publishers eyeing improvements in their products.