Are History Textbooks Worth Using Anymore? Maybe Not, Some Teachers Say

Jun 30, 2020

Among contemporary education critics, the textbook is a classic and perennial foil—perhaps because its very construction is essentially a compromise between experts and politicians, groups with sometimes competing agendas. This is especially true of history texts, which attempt to distill complex and contrasting events into simple, linear narratives, often at the expense of nuance and unpleasant truths. Yet despite these limitations, textbooks are still the most popular way to teach and learn history.

In her 2003 book “The Language Police,” education historian Diane Ravitch contends that “every textbook has a point of view, despite a facade of neutrality.” Beyond names and dates, she notes, “there is seldom, if ever, a single interpretation of events on which all reputable historians agree.” As one writer in the Atlantic quipped, “history is anything but agreeable.”

Textbooks are written by academics and historians, of course. But they pass through innumerable hands before they ever reach a classroom. And states play an outsized role in the adoption process. Textbooks are shaped by state standards, approved by state legislatures and reviewed by panels of educators and lay people appointed by—you guessed it—state departments of education, who can request significant revisions from publishers. A New York Times analysis earlier this year detailed how the most influential states, Texas and California, produce markedly different versions of the same texts from publishers such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson and McGraw-Hill “shaded by partisan politics.”

The California version of a popular McGraw-Hill textbook, for example, includes language on redlining and housing discrimination against African Americans after the Second World War; yet owing to different state standards, the Texas version does not. Depending on what state they’re sold in, textbooks with the same titles either temper or amplify subjects like Reconstruction, LGBTQ rights and gun control in stark ways when compared side by side. In reading the Times’ analysis, it can seem that not only does every textbook have a point of view, but every edition as well.

“The truth of the matter is education is political,” says Tinisha Shaw, a social-emotional specialist and former history teacher for Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina, during a recent webinar on textbook standards, organized by Social Studies Network, a Facebook group for educators. “Especially in my state, my general assembly—our legislative body—is involved deeply in how our standards are written. So these are politicians, not teachers. And therefore my curriculum is political. And so, I would guarantee, is yours.”

Tellingly, although Shaw has helped write standards at the state level—the same ones that influence textbook adoption—she hardly ever used them in her own classroom, due in part to what she sees as flaws in how textbooks are written and adapted, as well as their tendency to overly script curriculum.

“I’m more of the thought of getting rid of the textbooks,” she says. Instead, she suggests that each teacher create curated lists of materials they’ve vetted—“primary sources and secondary sources that hit particular themes that we discuss.” It’s for sure a different approach to teaching history, but one that’s gaining currency with educators who want their students to explore a greater variety of viewpoints.

Of course, history texts across the board have changed significantly over the past half century, stripping out narratives of European and American exceptionalism along with myths minimizing the impacts and conditions of slavery. And publishers have made at least some effort to add more multicultural and diverse perspectives. Still, they suffer from terminal weaknesses that make them virtually unusable to educators like Liz Ramos, who teaches world history and AP Government in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Among Ramos’ complaints: Too often the story of women and people of color is not woven into the central narrative of the textbook, but is relegated to sidebars and special sections. “They are intentionally putting them on the margin—they’re still marginalized,” she says during the same webinar. “It’s not, ‘Oh, this also was going on.’ They are part of the whole story.”

But there may be an even bigger issue with history textbooks, one that goes far beyond the material condensed within their pages. During a recent discussion with the global education activist Jamira Burley, Ramos heard her own views summarized succinctly: We need to prepare students for an uncertain and protean future—the so-called fourth industrial revolution. They need strong critical-thinking skills, and just teaching to the textbook is not enough. “I’ve been like, ‘Hallelujah, I’ve been saying that forever,’” Ramos says. “Just teaching out of a textbook, I think, robs the students not only of critical-thinking skills, but also of the richness of history, and the other voices that are there, which is why I hate the darn textbook and don’t use it.”

There are plenty of other reasons to eschew textbooks. Angela Lee, a high school history teacher in Massachusetts who also participated in the recent webinar, says educators in smaller states such as hers can’t make the same requests of publishers that larger states can, and obviously do. Ultimately, it means that without the political heft of a Texas or California, even the best-designed curriculum cannot be encapsulated by a single weighty tome. “A lot of times we get the textbook and have to do a lot of supplementary and outside work on our own to reflect the curriculum as we want it,” says Lee, adding that she’s spent years curating stories of colorful characters often sidelined from textbooks, such as the Peruvian revolutionary Micaela Bastidas and Qiu Jin, an early 20th-century republican martyr who is considered a national hero in China.

Lee’s overall point is similar to that of Ramos and Shaw: Despite the fact that history isn’t made from any one source, textbooks can only teach students how to digest a narrow synthesis of history written from a single perspective, which may be as untenable as it is undesirable. What students really need, these teachers say, is to encourage students to work with primary sources themselves. That way they’re doing the work of historians—following an approach known as historiography—contrasting various points of view and coming to their own conclusions. “You’re not trying to teach students what they should think,” clarifies Shaw. “But you need to teach them how to think.”

Historiography is hard, but undoubtedly easier in the internet age, which has made primary sources more accessible than ever. Shaw has students consider expansive questions with no clear-cut answer—e.g., “Is democracy the best form of government?”—and then sift through documents on websites like Teaching American History, the Library of Congress and the Toolbox Library of the National Humanities Center to make their cases. She also leans on the collections and work of Facing History and Ourselves, a social-justice and anti-prejudice nonprofit that offers curriculum and professional development opportunities.

Despite the abundance of online resources, textbooks of both the print and digital varieties remain stubbornly influential. Nearly a decade ago, just a third of all history teachers had received a degree in the subject or were certified to teach it—the lowest level across all the humanities. “Most history teachers don’t do history, and don’t know how to do history,” Jim Loewen, the historian and author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” once told the Atlantic. In other words, if you’ve only learned history from a textbook, it’s far easier to teach from one.

To truly do history, though, students cannot stop at primary sources, says Shaw. Nor can they stop at analysis or even critical thinking. After all, history, much like history education, is political, she reiterates. It cannot, and should not, be separated from active, engaged citizenship—whether that means students protesting, becoming activists for issues they care about or trying to change history themselves.

Shaw often thinks about what she calls the four essential questions teachers should constantly ask themselves: What kind of citizens are we trying to develop? What kind of society do we want? What does an ideal school look like in our minds? And what is the purpose of schooling? “If we are looking at those questions and reflecting on them, then it should come up in how we teach our classes, the resources that we use and the standards that we build.”

Those are questions no textbook could ever have the answers to. And that’s entirely the point.

“I always say this,” she adds. “Nobody’s going to come and save us. So we’ve got to save ourselves.”


Other news