"It would be better not to know so many
things than to know so many things that are
not so." -- Felix Okoye
"Those who don't remember the past are
condemned to repeat the eleventh grade."
-- James Loewen
"American history is longer, larger, more
various, more beautiful, and more terrible than
anything anyone has ever said about it."
-- James Baldwin
"Concealment of the historical truth is
a crime against the people." -- General
Petro G.Grigorenko, samizdat letter to history
journal, c. 1975, U.S.S.R.
High school students hate history. When they
list their favorite subjects, history always
comes in last. They consider it "the most irrelevant"
of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life
today. "Borr-r-ring" is the adjective they apply
to it. When they can, they avoid it, even though
most students get higher grades in history than
in math, science, or English. Even when they
are forced to take history, they repress it,
so every year or two another study decries what
our 17-year-olds don't know.
African American, Native American, and Latino
students view history with a special dislike.
They also learn it especially poorly. Students
of color do only slightly worse than white students
in mathematics. Pardoning my grammar, they do
more worse in English and most worse in history.
Something intriguing is going on here: surely
history is not more difficult than trigonometry
or Faulkner. I will argue later that high school
history so alienates people of color that doing
badly may be a sign of mental health! Students
don't know they're alienated, only that they
"don't like social studies" or "aren't any good
at history." In college, most students of color
give history departments a wide berth.
Many history teachers perceive the low morale
in their classrooms. If they have lots of time,
light family responsibilities, some resources,
and a flexible principal, some teachers respond
by abandoning the overstuffed textbooks and
reinventing their American history courses.
All too many teachers grow disheartened and
settle for less. At least dimly aware that their
students are not requiting their own love of
history, they withdraw some of their energy
from their courses. Gradually they settle for
just staying ahead of their students in the
books, teaching what will be on the test, and
going through the motions.
College teachers in most disciplines are happy
when their students have had more rather than
less exposure to the subject before they reach
college. Not in history. History professors
in college routinely put down high school history
courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey
of American history "Iconoclasm I and II," because
he sees his job as disabusing his charges of
what they learned in high school. In no other
field does this happen. Mathematics professors,
for instance, know that non-Euclidean geometry
is rarely taught in high school, but they don't
assume that Euclidean geometry was mistaught.
English literature courses don't presume that
"Romeo and Juliet" was misunderstood in high
school. Indeed, a later chapter will show that
history is the only field in which the more
courses students take, the stupider they become.
Perhaps I do not need to convince you that
American history is important. More than any
other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems
our present society wondrous or awful or both,
history reveals how we got to this point. Understanding
our past is central to our ability to understand
ourselves and the world around us. We need to
know our history, and according to C. Wright
Mills, we know we do. Outside of school, Americans
do show great interest in history. Historical
novels often become bestsellers, whether by
Gore Vidal (Lincoln, Burr) or Dana Fuller Ross
(Idaho! Utah! Nebraska! Oregon! Missouri! and
on! and on!). The National Museum of American
History is one of the three big draws of the
Smithsonian Institution. The Civil War series
attracted new audiences to public television.
Movies tied to history have fascinated us from
Birth of a Nation through Gone With the Wind
to Dances With Wolves and JFK.
Our situation is this: American history is
full of fantastic and important stories. These
stories have the power to spellbind audiences,
even audiences of difficult seventh graders.
These same stories show what America has been
about and have direct relevance to our present
society. American audiences, even young ones,
need and want to know about their national past.
Yet they sleep through the classes that present
What has gone wrong?
We begin to get a handle on that question by
noting that textbooks dominate history teaching
more than any other field. Students are right:
the books are boring. The stories they tell
are predictable because every problem is getting
solved, if it has not been already. Textbooks
exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave
out anything that might reflect badly upon our
national character. When they try for drama,
they achieve only melodrama, because readers
know that everything will turn out wonderful
in the end. "Despite setbacks, the United States
overcame these challenges," in the words of
one of them. Most authors don't even try for
melodrama. Instead, they write in a tone that
if heard aloud might be described as "mumbling
lecturer." No wonder students lose interest.
Textbooks almost never use the present to illuminate
the past. They might ask students to learn about
gender roles in the present, to prompt thinking
about what women did and did not achieve in
the suffrage movement or the more recent women's
movement. They might ask students to do family
budgets for a janitor and a stock broker, to
prompt thinking about labor unions and social
class in the past or present. They might, but
they don't. The present is not a source of information
for them. No wonder students find history "irrelevant"
to their present lives.
Conversely, textbooks make no real use of the
past to illuminate the present. The present
seems not to be problematic to them. They portray
history as a simple-minded morality play. "Be
a good citizen" is the message they extract
from the past for the present. "You have a proud
heritage. Be all that you can be. After all,
look at what the United States has done." While
there is nothing wrong with optimism, it does
become something of a burden for students of
color, children of working class parents, girls
who notice an absence of women who made history,
or any group that has not already been outstandingly
successful. The optimistic textbook approach
denies any understanding of failure other than
blaming the victim. No wonder children of color
are alienated. Even for male children of affluent
white families, bland optimism gets pretty boring
after eight hundred pages.
These textbooks in American history stand in
sharp contrast to the rest of our schooling.
Why are they so bad? Nationalism is one of the
culprits. Their contents are muddled by the
conflicting desires to promote inquiry and indoctrinate
blind patriotism. "Take a look in your history
book, and you'll see why we should be proud,"
goes an anthem often sung by high school glee
clubs, but we need not even take a look inside.
The difference begins with their titles: The
Great Republic, The American Way, Land of Promise,
Rise of the American Nation. Such titles differ
from all other textbooks students read in high
school or college. Chemistry books are called
Chemistry or Principles of Chemistry, not Rise
of the Molecule. Even literature collections
are likely to be titled Readings in American
Literature. Not most history books. And you
can tell these books from their covers, graced
with American flags, eagles, and the Statue
Inside their glossy covers, American history
books are full of information - overly full.
These books are huge. My collection of a dozen
of the most popular averages four and a half
pounds in weight and 888 pages in length. No
publisher wants to be shut out from an adoption
because their book left out a detail of concern
to an area or a group. Authors seem compelled
to include a paragraph about every president,
even Chester A. Arthur and Millard Fillmore.
Then there are the review pages at the end of
each chapter. Land of Promise, to take one example,
enumerates 444 "Main Ideas" at the ends of its
chapters. In addition, it lists literally thousands
of "Skill Activities," "Key Terms," "Matching"
items, "Fill in the Blanks," "Thinking Critically"
questions, and "Review Identifications" as well
as still more "Main Ideas" at the ends of each
section within its chapters. At year's end,
no student can remember 444 main ideas, not
to mention 624 key terms and countless other
"factoids," so students and teachers fall back
on one main idea: to memorize the terms for
the test following each chapter, then forget
them to clear the synapses for the next chapter.
No wonder high school graduates are notorious
for forgetting in which century the Civil War
None of the facts is memorable, because they
are presented as one damn thing after another.
While they include most of the trees and all
too many twigs, authors forget to give readers
even a glimpse of what they might find memorable:
the forests. Textbooks stifle meaning as they
suppress causation. Therefore students exit
them without developing the ability to think
coherently about social life.
Even though the books are fat with detail,
even though the courses are so busy they rarely
reach 1960, our teachers and our textbooks still
leave out what we need to know about the American
past. Often the factoids are flatly wrong or
unknowable. In sum, startling errors of omission
and distortion mar American histories. This
book is about how we are mistaught.
Errors in history textbooks do not often get
corrected, partly because the history profession
does not bother to review them. Occasionally
outsiders do: Frances FitzGerald's 1979 study,
America Revised, was a bestseller, but she made
no impact on the industry. In a sarcastic passage
her book pointed out how textbooks ignored or
distorted the Spanish impact on Latin America
and the colonial United States. "Text publishers
may now be on the verge of rewriting history,"
she predicted, but she was wrong - the books
have not changed.
History can be imagined as a pyramid. At its
base are the millions of primary sources - the
plantation records, city directories, speeches,
songs, photographs, newspaper articles, diaries,
and letters from the time. Based on these primary
materials, historians write secondary works
- books and articles on subjects ranging from
deafness on Martha's Vineyard to Grant's tactics
at Vicksburg. Historians produce hundreds of
these works every year, many of them splendid.
In theory, a few historians working individually
or in teams then synthesize the secondary literature
into tertiary works - textbooks covering all
phases of United States history.
In practice, however, it doesn't work that
way. Instead, history textbooks are clones of
each other. The first thing editors do when
recruiting new authors is to send them half
a dozen examples of the competition. Often a
textbook is not written by the authors whose
names grace its cover, but by minions deep in
the bowels of the publisher's offices. When
historians do write them, they face snickers
from their colleagues and deans - tinged with
envy, but snickers nonetheless: "Why are you
writing pedagogy instead of doing scholarship?"
The result is not happy for textbook scholarship.
Many history textbooks do list up-to-the-minute
secondary sources in bibliographies at the ends
of chapters, but the contents of the chapters
remain totally traditional - unaffected by the
What would we think of a course in poetry in
which students never read a poem? The editors'
voice in literature textbooks may be no more
interesting than in history, but at least that
voice stills when the textbook presents original
materials of literature. The universal processed
voice of history textbook authors insulates
students from the raw materials of history.
Rarely do authors quote the speeches, songs,
diaries, and letters that make the past come
alive. Students do not need to be protected
from this material. They can just as well read
one paragraph from William Jennings Bryan's
"Cross of Gold" speech as read two paragraphs
about it, which is what American Adventures
substitutes. No wonder students find the textbooks
Textbooks also keep students in the dark about
the nature of history. History is furious debate
informed by evidence and reason, not just answers
to be learned. Textbooks encourage students
to believe that history is learning facts. "We
have not avoided controversial issues" announces
one set of textbook authors; "instead, we have
tried to offer reasoned judgments" on them -
thus removing the controversy! No wonder their
text turns students off! Because textbooks employ
this god-like voice, it never occurs to most
students to question them. "In retrospect I
ask myself, why didn't I think to ask for example
who were the original inhabitants of the Americas,
what was their life like, and how did it change
when Columbus arrived," wrote a student of mine.
"However, back then everything was presented
as if it were the full picture," she continued,
"so I never thought to doubt that it was." Tests
supplied by the textbook publishers then tickle
students' throats with multiple choice items
to get them to regurgitate the factoids they
"learned." No wonder students don't learn to
As a result of all this, high school graduates
are hamstrung in their efforts to apply logic
and information to controversial issues in our
society. (I know because I encounter them the
next year as college freshmen.) We've got to
do better. Five sixths of all Americans never
take a course in American history beyond high
school. What our citizens "learn" there forms
most of what they know of our past.
America's history merits remembering and understanding.
This book includes ten chapters of amazing stories
- some wonderful, some ghastly - in American
history. Arranged in roughly chronological order,
these chapters do not relate mere details but
events and processes that had and have important
consequences. Yet most textbooks leave out or
distort them. I know because for several years
I have been lugging around twelve textbooks,
taking them seriously as works of history and
ideology, studying what they say and don't say,
and trying to figure out why. I chose the twelve
to represent the range of books available for
American history courses. Two, Discovering American
History and The American Adventure, are "inquiry"
textbooks, composed of maps, illustrations,
and extracts from primary sources like diaries
and laws, linked by narrative passages. These
books are supposed to invite students to "do"
history themselves. The American Way, Land of
Promise, The United States -- A History of the
Republic, American History, The American Tradition,
are traditional high school narrative history
textbooks. Three textbooks, American Adventures,
Life and Liberty, and Challenge of Freedom,
are intended for junior high students but are
often used by "slow" senior high classes. Triumph
of the American Nation and The American Pageant
are also used on college campuses. These twelve
have been my window into the world of what high
school students carry home, read, memorize,
and forget. In addition, I have spent many hours
observing high school history classrooms in
Mississippi, Vermont, and the Washington metropolitan
The eleventh chapter analyzes the process of
textbook creation and adoption to explain what
causes textbooks to be as bad as they are. I
must confess an interest here: I once wrote
a history textbook. Written with co-authors,
Mississippi: Conflict and Change was the first
revisionist state history textbook in America.
Although Conflict and Change won the Lillian
Smith Award for "best nonfiction about the South"
in 1975, Mississippi rejected it for public
school use, so the authors and three school
systems sued the textbook board. In April, 1980,
Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al. resulted
in a sweeping victory based on the first and
fourteenth amendments. The experience taught
me first-hand more than most authors or publishers
ever want to know about the textbook adoption
process. I have also learned that not all the
blame can be laid at the doorstep of the adoption
agencies. Chapter twelve looks at the effects
of using these textbooks. It shows that they
actually make students stupid. An epilogue,
"The Future Lies Ahead," suggests distortions
and omissions that went undiscussed in earlier
chapters and recommends ways that teachers can
teach and students can learn American history
more honestly - sort of an inoculation program
against the next lies we are otherwise sure