Blogs > Jim Loewen > Farewell to the U.S. History Textbook?

Feb 27, 2018

Farewell to the U.S. History Textbook?

tags: textbooks

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Pearson has announced its intention to sell its K-12 division. Let us hope it can find no buyer and simply closes it down.

Pearson, incorporating Prentice-Hall, has long been a dominant publisher of K-12 U.S. history textbooks. In the second edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, I show how two sets of Pearson "authors," Allan Winkler, et al., and Daniel Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelley, plagiarized each other. Actually, Pearson hired a clerk to write both of their high school U.S. History textbooks. However, instead of hiring two clerks, one for each book, as is standard practice, Pearson hired just one and used his/her work twice. As a result, for page after page the two books are almost identical. (Probably they went through separate copy-editing.)

Perhaps one reason for this economy move was Pearson's financial problems. Maybe Pearson was under pressure to cut costs, even though the list price for U.S. history textbooks has soared to more than $100/copy.

Certainly both Winkler and Kelley deplored Pearson's frugality. Initially they both implied that they wrote their respective books. (Well, Kelley actually said "Boorstin did it.") Then, after I told them that "their book" was identical to another Prentice-Hall book for page after page, each said, and I quote, "Oh no! That's terrible!"

But the problem wasn't just Pearson's false economy. The real issue is: Pearson has no integrity. It lists as authors famous historians who didn't write "their" textbooks, never knew who did, and didn't even bother to read them. So if Pearson sells its K-12 division, good riddance!

But again, the problem isn't just Pearson. The buyer would likely be no better. Other textbook publishers also release books by "authors" who didn't write them or even bother to read them.

Now imagine that Pearson does not find a buyer and simply closes the division. That would be an advance! The next step would be for other publishers to abandon the huge textbook entirely, whether in print or on line. Its time has long passed. In olden times (such as 1991), students in Tchula, Mississippi, had few resources for learning history other than their textbook. Now, almost every school in America has the web, so it has hundreds of thousands of books, photographs, the census, etc., available for students and teachers to use.

Despite the invention of the web, the books have actually grown. The twelve textbooks I examined for the first edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me, all published between 1975 and 1991, averaged 888 pages. The books I studied for the second edition, all published between 2000 and 2007, contained 1,152 pages. There is no excuse for this bloating. Textbooks should be shrinking. Teachers, districts, and entire states shouldn't choose any of these behemoths. They kill the excitement of history. By trying to cover everything, they don't uncover anything. Students suffering through courses based on these books never discover an answer. Even to questions such as when and how people first got to the Americas, where no consensus exists, textbooks don't invite thought; instead they choose one answer and present it for students to "learn."

We don't need these ponderous boring tomes any more. The web has made them superfluous. The textbook industry has been disrupted. It just doesn't know it yet, owing to the inertia built into its customer base — educational institutions. A skeletal 200-page paperback will do, indeed will do better, forcing teachers and students to go beyond the textbook instead of simply memorizing twigs.

A historian or a team might show the way by writing a good 200-page paperback U.S. history. A bad one used to exist, put out by the federal government and aimed at immigrants studying for the test required for becoming a naturalized citizen. It seems to have disappeared, leaving a vacuum. This is my million-dollar idea for you, the reader — free! Let me know when yours comes out!

Copyright James W. Loewen

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