What Do You Think?
In America, History is Taught by Weight of the Book and Number of Pictures, Says Retired Teacher Tom Shuford
"An archaeologist/historian of some future civilization...Looking back at the history books of the long-vanished American Civilization, he would probably realize that if its education system could put textbooks like Globe Fearon American History in teenage students' hands, it was surely engaged in folly on a much wider front. It was a civilization, he might deduce, committing suicide."
From the desk of Betsy Combier:
I have always loved history, and this subject was a favorite of mine throughout my elementary and secondary school years, even though there were very few pictures on the pages. I was very impressed when I first read the article below in Jimmy Kilpatrick's EducationNews, and I urge all readers to question whether or not we want our children to repeat the mistakes of our civilization's past - basically all the events recorded down through the ages - because our children will not know about these events and how to see similarities in the present and future? We all need to examine not only why we are cutting off our past, but whether we want our civilization to "commit suicide" as Mr. Shuford warns in his article:
History Textbooks: View from the Far Future
Tuesday, February 8, 2005
by Tom Shuford
Examined clinically, as if studying a rare artifact from a long-lost world, public school history textbooks are fascinating. An archaeologist/historian of some future civilization would be struck first by the weight of the books. The textbook in my hand, American History published by Globe Fearon, weighs 3.9 pounds. The future historian might surmise that the long-ago students of 2005 were unusually strong and/or intelligent to handle such large books.
Peering inside, the historian would see narrow and shortened columns of text. For the narrative competes with an abundance of colorful graphics, text sidebars and suggested exercises. Now the historian of the future might become puzzled. He would know that for histories of much earlier civilizations, the words are all. Thucydides of Greece and Tacitus of Rome left unadorned narratives.
Granted, the graphics capabilities of ancient historians were limited. Still, a future historian with a four-pound history textbook from long-ago 2005 in his hand might look to its words with some unease. Had words become secondary by 2005?
The striking feature, he would discover about history textbooks of 2005, is not weight, not visual busyness. The salient feature of the history textbooks of the long-ago American civilization is that they would have conveyed little meaning to young eyes.
A famous 19 th century historian, still read today with pleasure - and some amazement - explains: "Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more that a research, however, patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning and untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the times....He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes." (Francis Parkman. A controversial passage from Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851) exhibits his gripping style.)
For a contrasting style: a description of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton from the four-pound textbook from 2005:
"...Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. A duel is potentially deadly fight with pistols to settle a quarrel between two people. Hamilton accepted the challenge. On July 11, 1804, the two men met a Weehawken, New Jersey. They exchanged shots, and Hamilton was severely wounded. He died the next day."
Hamilton "died the next day." The interest of sixteen-year-olds of 2005 quite likely died long before they encountered that sentence. The Globe Fearon account is scrupulously true, and yet untrue, its author no sharer or spectator of the action. In fact the author is not even a sharer of his name. The future historian would look in vain for an author. There are eight editors. There are five content consultants. There are six reviewers. There is NO AUTHOR. There is no recognizable voice. It is as if the book (copyright date 2003) was written by a committee.
If this textbook were the one piece of evidence he had to go on, the historian of some future civilization, trying to piece together what happened to the vanished American Civilization of the 18th-21st century, could make a tentative hypothesis.
Americans of the early 21 st century, he might surmise, knew little history. They had no guide for facing that century's challenges. 21 st century Americans lacked understanding of their civilization, its extraordinary origins, its achievements and first principles. This would have left them vulnerable. They could not have known their civilization was at risk, nor what threatened it. And so, according to his hypothesis, American civilization imploded - not so much from external threats - but from internal weakness. Its citizens were ignorant. Defenseless.
Notable quotation to this point:
"Something is eating away at our national memory....For a free, self-governing people, something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential if we are to hold on to and sustain our freedom." - Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian David McCullough
COMMENT: 28 years as a public school teacher has taught me what that "something" is: state education. Blame not Globe Fearon for a dull textbook. The intellectual featherweights that run state and local education monopolies are not at fault. Publisher and educator alike are bound fast to mediocrity by the structure in which they work.
Another observation by David McCullough comes to mind -- on the education of the Founding Fathers: "They were steeped in, soaked in, marinated in the classics: Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman ideas, Greek and Roman ideals. It was their model, their example. And they saw themselves very much like the Greeks and Romans, as actors on a great stage in one of the great historic dramas of all time."
Imagine a trace of that kind of education in a public school today. How about a passing mention of Greek and Roman classics? McCullough, from the same 2002 speech at DePauw University :
"...The fact that they all rose to the occasion and did what they did, accomplished what they did against the most horrendous odds, is the real miracle. And the more I know about that period, the more I read about it, and the more I come to understand it, the more convinced I am that it's a miracle that the United States ever happened."
It will take a miracle for Americans of the 21 st century to keep it -- for it is now little understood by citizens and by those in charge of state education systems. How else to explain four-pound textbooks of tedious prose and abundant distractions?
My point here is not original. New York University research professor and National Assessment Governing Board member Diane Ravitch:
"The dullness of history textbooks is legendary. I am involved right now in a study of history textbooks, and I must say that I have trouble reading them because of their jumbled, jangly quality. I also have trouble lifting them because they are so heavy and overstuffed with trivia and pedagogical aids. With one or maybe two exceptions, most textbooks put more emphasis on visual glitz than on the quality of their text. By the time that these books emerge from the political process that is called state adoption, they lack voice and narrative power. They lack the very qualities that make historical writing exciting. Our history textbooks are distracting, and I don't know how students learn anything from them." ( Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? (Yes) , History News Network, 5-27-02)
Let us pause and reflect - on millions of teenagers made to read textbooks like this, made to try to make sense of them, made to carry them about.
Let us pause and reflect - on the politicians who sustain the giant bureaucratic systems that make textbooks like this inescapable for the young.
Returning to our historian from the future: Looking back at the history books of the long-vanished American Civilization, he would probably realize that if its education system could put textbooks like Globe Fearon American History in teenage students' hands, it was surely engaged in folly on a much wider front. It was a civilization, he might deduce, committing suicide.
He would be right.
Follow-up suggestion: Beauty Over Brains? - Strongly recommended. This is a press release for a report by the Fordham Institute on history textbooks. Excerpt: "When it comes to high-school history textbooks, beauty is indeed only skin deep, reports a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Masked behind colorful illustrations and bright graphics, a distinguished panel of reviewers finds, the most widely used texts are shallow, bland, and bulky."
POSTSCRIPT: I wrote of the Globe Fearon American History textbook because it was loaned by a teacher who recommended it. Based on observations of others who have systematically studied American history textbooks of earlier publication date, I suspect it is of above average quality. It is comprehensive -- encyclopedic, in fact. It's wooden prose, hefty size and constantly distracting side elements are, apparently, standard for the industry. Had I read this textbook as a teenager, I would have been overwhelmed and bored, which is probably the standard response of students. It has potential as a reference book, nonetheless.
Tom Shuford email@example.com is a retired teacher living in Lenoir, NC.
Globe Fearon American History Books
Mr. Shuford suggests the following library for serious students of history:
American Heritage Junior Library