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Textbooks and History Standards: An Historical Overview

Clashes over what students should learn about American history are not unprecedented.  The debate over social studies standards in the Lone Star State is merely the latest act in this ongoing drama.

History defines a nation and its vision for the future, and history is unceasingly controversial.  The taboos of polite conversation—politics and religion—have been at the core of American history textbook controversies for over a century (See Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present by Joseph Moreau [2003]).  As historian Joseph Moreau wrote in 2003:  “For those who would influence textbooks and teaching—Protestant elites in the 1870s, Irish-Americans in the 1920s, and conservative politicians today—the sky has always been falling.”

Textbooks have provoked censorship, charges of bias, distortion, omission, and libel, and even burning and community violence.

Early American textbook history

In colonial America, education was often tied to religion.  The New England Primer (1690), a beginning reader with religious and moral lessons, was used in the colonies for more than a century.  Most other textbooks were imported from England.

When the Revolutionary War cut off schoolbooks from England, many schools adopted American lexicographer Noah Webster's reader for students, American Spelling Book (1783), and later his dictionaries (1806, 1828), stressing an American language to reflect the new nation.  Webster’s nationalistic and moralistic Early American History (1841) is often considered the first American history textbook.

In the early nineteenth century, education often was a part of religious training.  By 1827, 200,000 children were learning to read from the Bible through Sunday schools

In 1836 the first readers by Ohio teacher William Holmes McGuffey were published.  By 1870 some 47 million copies of the McGuffey texts were sold.  The readers reflected McGuffey's conservatism and Protestant beliefs devised to promote good character.

Before the Civil War, most textbooks came out of the northern states and questioned the “peculiar” southern institution, slavery.  In response, many southerners objected to the books as misguided attacks on their culture and on the right of states to map their own future.

Post-Civil War

After the Civil War, students learned wildly varying versions of the war’s causes.  A Young Folks’ History of the United States was informed by the views of author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist, social reformer and former Union commander of a regiment of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.  In the south, the former vice president of the Confederacy, Andrew Stephens, wrote a southern history of the antebellum period and the war, minimizing slavery while justifying secession.

By the 1890s, many Civil War veterans from both sides called for a schoolbook that would bind together the nation, while minimizing sectional differences.  For Confederate veterans, reconciliation meant a reunion of whites across regional lines while rejecting the equality of all citizens and a strong central government that would respond to attacks on civil rights by the states.  In response to the southern market, mainstream publishers minimized discussion of slavery and excised events such as Higginson’s account of the Confederate massacre of black prisoners of war at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and the history of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.

A growing Catholic population desired history books that were less steeped in the Protestantism of mainstream writers.  Catholic presses began issuing books for parochial schools in the late 1800s.  By the 1920s, large publishers moved to produce books that were acceptable to Catholics by dropping offensive material. 

Into the Twentieth Century

In the late nineteenth century, textbooks provided authority and often became substitutes for well-trained teachers.  In some regions, the textbook may have been a student's—and a teacher’s—only source for history.  Europeans called the use of textbooks “the American system” of education.

By the 1890s, the public schools had more students than the private academies.  Textbook sales correspondingly increased then and in ensuing decades. Sales boomed from $7.4 million in 1897, to $17.3 million in 1913, to $131 million in 1947, and to $509 million in 1967.   (Source: Twentieth Century Textbook Wars by Gerard Giordano [2003].) 

An American History (1911) by history professor David Muzzey became a standard text and dominated history teaching into the 1950s.  Muzzey told a compelling story featuring mostly white Protestant males—some flawed—making history, and questioned industrialization and immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  Despite the textbook’s wide usage, it came under fire during the 1920s Red Scare when conservatives attacked Muzzey as subversive for impugning the founders and other “eminent Americans.”  In he 1960s his book was held up to scorn by liberals, who disparaged his blatant racism and paternalism.   

In 1925, a science book provoked perhaps the most well-known American textbook dispute.  A Tennessee high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was arrested for violating a state law by teaching evolution—from a state-approved biology text.  The case generated national attention as William Jennings Bryan argued for the state and Clarence Darrow for the defense.  Scopes was convicted and fined $100.  On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law, but reversed the lower court's decision on a technicality.  Tennessee's Butler Act (repealed in 1967) made illegal teaching "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible."  From 1921 to 1929, 37 bills were introduced in 20 states to prohibit the teaching of evolution.

Depression, War, and Cold War

In the 1930s, the books of Harold Rugg became perhaps the principal rival of those by David Muzzey.  During the Great Depression, Rugg wrote a series of progressive histories for the elementary and secondary schools.  His book presented social and economic history while discussing the role of ordinary citizens, as well as stressing the need for critical thinking.  Many of his books, such as A History of American Civilization, Economic and Social (1930), became bestsellers.

In 1938, the Advertising Federation of America (AFA) attacked Rugg for portraying advertising as an industry that misrepresented goods and encouraged people to buy products they didn’t need.  The National Association of Retail Manufacture followed suit and blasted what it saw as Rugg’s anti-business views.  Conservatives branded Rugg a Communist propagandist.  Inflamed Bradner, Ohio citizens held an anti-Rugg book burning.  The most damning attack came in 1940 when the American Legion charged that Rugg’s work was treasonous and that he was a Red financed by Russia—even though Rugg was never affiliated with the Communist Party.  

As a result of these attacks, sales of Rugg’s books plummeted from 289,000 copies sold in 1938 to only 21,000 by 1944.  The lesson textbook publishers absorbed was that controversy is to be avoided. 

Many textbooks praised international cooperation following the horrors of World War I, the first modern war.  These attitudes faded however with World War II and the ensuing Cold War.  Mainstream history books during the 1940s and 1950s were decidedly nationalistic.

Conservative groups encouraged a positive view of American history after World War II. For example, the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization devoted to"God, Home, and Country," attacked textbooks that did not reflect Christian values nor celebrate a triumphal, paternalistic history.  In its Textbook Study (1960), the DAR blacklisted 170 schoolbooks as subversive because they, among other things, described the U.S. as a democracy rather than a republic; emphasized the Bill of Rights rather than the original instrument, the Constitution; and included too much "realistic literature."

The Sixties and Multiculturalism

By the mid-twentieth century, a call rose for multicultural textbooks in place of mainstream texts that had ignored or stereotyped non-WASP ethnic groups and races, and women.  This movement against stereotyping and for fair consideration in history books spread across the nation, rejecting books that treated the United States as a solely white, middle-class society when it was in fact multiracial and multicultural.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups published reports on racism in schoolbooks and provided advice on detecting bias.  In 1962, as the result of NAACP action, the Detroit School Board withdrew an offensive text, and began examining all of the history texts used in the school system for racial bias.

The depictions of women in history texts also came under scrutiny.  Janice Trecker (1971) investigating more than a dozen history books for high school students published between 1937 and 1969, found that women were rarely mentioned and, when they were, the representations were both incomplete and inaccurate.

Within a few years, organizations from the Anti-Defamation League to the Council on Interracial Books, were studying texts for racial, ethnic, religious and gender bias and making recommendations for a new generation of schoolbooks.

Award-winning writer Frances FitzGerald reported on her exhaustive study of history texts in America Revised (1979).  Since the 1960s, she wrote, a new form of history arose in which race, ethnicity, class, and gender emerged as core areas, representing "the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place" in America.  As a result, publishers were pressed to present the multiple perspectives of a multiracial, multicultural society composed of distinct ethnic groups and races, each with its own history, achievements, and heroes.

FitzGerald criticized most history school texts as dull and simplistic.  She contended that U.S. history texts were written in flaccid and vacuous “textbook prose,” by editors and educational specialists who excised any ideas likely to prove offensive to community prejudices almost anywhere. 

Similarly, conservative historian Diane Ravitch opined that textbook publishers do not allow their books to address potentially "offensive" topics that might generate controversy, especially at the time of state adoption hearings.  Unlike FitzGerald, however, Ravitch has been critical of a social studies approach with an unending history of social strife, political repression, and political inequalities among racial or ethnic groups.

Ravitch’s questioning of the new history found an unusual ally in liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.  Schlesinger strongly objected to multicultural history teaching in his 1991 book, The Disuniting of America:  “Instead of a transformative nature all its own, America in this new light is seen as a preservation of diverse alien identities. . . .It belittles unum and glorifies pluribus.”

Culture Wars

Conflict was unavoidable as reformers urged school officials to offer textbooks that enhanced ethnic and racial pride as they brought in economic and social issues, while conservatives called for a return to texts that celebrated American ideals, a Christian heritage and nationalism.
Textbook and curriculum disputes boiled over in dozens of American communities, and even exploded in violence. 

Some see the violent 1974 outburst in Kanawha County, West Virginia, as the first battleground of the American culture wars.  Outrage erupted there when the local schools adopted new textbooks and works by authors such as Eldridge Cleaver, Arthur Miller and George Orwell.  Textbook opponents firebombed and dynamited school buildings, shot up buses, beat journalists and eventually shut down the schools system as protesting miners closed up local mines.  Textbook opponents believed the books taught their children to question traditional American values and Christian beliefs.  The protests ended only after the books were pulled from the schools.

The National Standards for History and Beyond

In the early 1990s, teacher task forces working with academic historians, school administrators, and other history educators, developed National Standards for History.  The Standards contained ideas such as balancing differing interpretations (criteria 1 and 6); fusing American history with American government, and making students into citizens (criteria 9 and 10); using multiple sources (criteria 5 and 7); and treating diversity in America (criteria 8 and 13).

Lynne Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities who had helped fund the creation of the history standards, savaged the standards for political correctness in the Wall Street Journal on October 20, 1994.  Cheney charged that the standards had no redeeming value even though approved by a national council, half of whose members were her appointees, and were endorsed by thirty major professional and public interest organizations.  She attacked the standards for giving insufficient attention to Robert E. Lee and the Wright brothers and far too much attention to minor figures such as abolitionist Harriet Tubman or embarrassing episodes such as the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism.  Cheney wrote:  "We are a better people than the national standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it."

Cheney’s attack sparked a fierce media debate just before the November 1994 election.  Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested that the standards be “flushed down the sewer of multiculturalism.”  The outrage killed the national standards—and all national education standards were condemned as unlawful federal dabbling in local affairs.  In January of 1995, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the standards by a vote of 99 to 1.

Cheney was so incensed over the National Standards for History that she used her clout as the wife of the vice president in 2004 to demand that the Department of Education destroy 300,000 copies (costing $110,360) of a revised edition of a pamphlet, Helping Your Child Learn History, because it mentioned the 1996 standards.

The National Standards for History were revised following the bitter debates of the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, in 1995,James W. Loewen, a liberal sociologist and professor, published his best-known work, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995).  The book reflected his two-year survey of 12 leading high school textbooks of American History including the venerable The American Pageant by Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, and Triumph of the American Nation by Paul Lewis Todd and Merle Curti.  Loewen wrote that his study revealed a dull Eurocentric history presented with a mix of bland optimism, blind patriotism, and misinformation.  Loewen wrote, “We need to produce Americans of all social classes and racial backgrounds and of both genders who command the power of history—the ability to use one's understanding of the past to legitimize one's actions in the present.  Then the past will seriously inform Americans as individuals and as a nation, instead of serving as a source of weary clichés."  His book offered ideas on how teachers can build lesson plans about difficult topics such as the American Indian experience, slavery, and race relations.

In the revised 2007 edition of Lies, Loewen updated his earlier findings and added comments on other books.  He concluded that history textbooks still repeat lies.  He stressed that history texts must challenge students with actual chronological history, and with images and comments from diverse viewpoints, leaving each student to come to their own conclusions.

Texas Now

Texas now looms large in the textbook culture wars.  The state is the second-largest textbook purchaser in the U.S., only behind California, and its core texts are used as templates for books sold in nearly every other state.  However, some publishers argue that the influence of Texas today is overstated because, with the newest technology, books can more readily be tailored for each region.

A Republican-dominated State Board of Education (SBOE) has tentatively adopted social studies standards that retreat from the teaching of multicultural and social history while requiring more study of the Christian heritage as well as American exceptionalism and other nationalistic views. 

Texas has long been a "culture war" battleground, and dispute over divisive social issues have increasingly dominated in education.  The state established a textbook committee in the early 1960s. Some of its proposals included a requirement that texts omit all references to Pete Seeger, Langston Hughes, and anyone else attacked by the House of Un-American Activities, as well as and a bill requiring every public school teacher to swear to a belief in a supreme being.
More recently, in 1992, religious conservatives began a concerted effort to take control of the state board and, by 2006, the faction grew to seven members out of 15.  The social conservatives dominate.  The board has taken on divisive "culture war" battles in the past three years such as teaching creationism in public school science classes, insisting on abstinence-only policies in sex education, and now downplaying the contributions of minorities and different cultures in history and blurring the line separating religion and government.

Digital Revolution and the Future of Textbooks

The future of traditional history textbooks in Texas and beyond may be dimming as digital technology grows.

On April 10, 2010, Gov. Rick Perry proposed that Texas abandon traditional textbooks in public schools and replace them with materials available through computers.  "I don't see any reason in the world why we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years.  Do you agree?"  Perry asked participants at a computer gaming education conference in Austin.

Digital resources would allow students to access a wide range of free, open source materials—and perhaps make traditional textbooks things of the past.

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