Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks

History textbooks are dubious things.  On the one hand, they are often large, written in uniform, rather mechanical style, by multiple authors, covering far too broad a range of history, and exceedingly dry.  On the other hand, they are transmitting a single, unified, uncontested narrative of past events without revealing the methods that led to their compiling.  They are really unique animals in the world of history.  Historians are constantly talking about primary and secondary sources: a) primary sources being those texts written by contemporaries  or near-contemporaries of researched events and individuals; b) secondary sources being those books, papers, and presentations produced by professional historians as the result of their research.  Textbooks rank in their own category for me: tertiary sources.  (I also put documentaries in this category as they are frequently catering to TV ratings and rarely directed and produced by professional historians.)


"You can read this without falling asleep? It doesn't even tell you how we know that!"

Tertiary sources

There are several problems with the further removed, tertiary source that we all used in school.  Some of these have already been referenced:

  • they are dry (aka: boring)
  • they are both incredibly condensed and incredibly long
  • they are frequently written by multiple people, and yet in one voice
  • they are several times removed from the passion of detecting and discovery inherent in the real field of history
  • they reveal nothing of their methods
  • they tell people “what happened” supplying “historical facts”–things which don’t precisely exist in the real field of history

Of these, I will lump the first three together, the fourth follows naturally from them, and the fifth naturally from the fourth, but the final point I will address in the following section of the post.

Textbooks are often dull reads.  They are dry.  They sometimes tease us about something we find interesting, but they do not deliver ending the subject before our questions have been answered.  (From my own experience, I can recall the incredibly unsatisfying two paragraphs written about the fascinating North African, Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta, who covered twice the ground as Marco Polo, before Marco Polo did it.  To further compound my frustration, there was no further or recommended reading provided for him.)  This can have a rather stultifying effect in a young and curious student.  Part of the reason for this is the need to create one (dull) voice to unify the contributions of multiple authors.  There are multiple authors because the text book must cover such long and unwieldy period of time, which further results in the minimizing many important points in history.  This further often also results in the exclusion of various sub-fields of history, that leaves a rather minimalist, narrative account, touching on many things but going into detail on few.

Thus, if a historian is passionate about his or her work–which we typically are since we find it interesting, spend a ridiculous amount of money on learning it, and then hope to continue doing it for a living–none of the passion of discovery or enlightenment comes through in the reading of the textbook.
That is, in fact, frequently sanitized from the text.  The individuality of the scholar is, for that matter, sanitized from the text.  Of course, the adventure of history, the methodology which leads historians to their various conclusions is all together absent.  This is problematic in itself, as sharing one’s methodology is an integral part of every other academic history publication except the textbook.  For some reason, there exists a current of thought which does not require that students be initiated into the real thing but simply swallow what they are assigned to read without question.  This heavy-handed approach seems ill-fit to our democratic society.  This leads, finally, to the next point.

Undisputed narratives

History is not a unified, uncontested, all-agreed upon narrative of fact.  None of us were around when Thucydides, Augustus, Ghengis Khan, Charlemagne, Sulyman, Napoleon, or George Washington walked and talked and acted out their lives.  What happened, why it happened, how it happened, and who was involved is frequently contested among leading historians.  One book about John Adams will reveal a different man than another book that covers him.  Not only is this text book approach to history stultifying,  it is also misleading in representing how we know about the past and at times outright manipulative.

When someone tells another what happened in the past, it can shape one’s present and future.  It is simply dangerous to society to have an American history book that misrepresents the past.  In the 1990s, one of Howard Zinn’s students, James W. Loewen, stirred the waters with a book entitled, Lies my Teacher Told Me.  (Zinn and Loewen have their own agendas, but that does not negate some of the essential points Loewen addressed.)  Lowen described his attempt to get his Mississippi state history textbook published with a lynch mob photograph.  Loewen wrote the following:

Lynch mobs often posed for the camera.  They showed no fear of being identified because they knew no white jury would  convict them.  Mississippi: Conflict and Change, a revisionist state history textbook I co-wrote, was rejected by the Mississippi State Textbook Board partly because it included this photograph [a bleary black and white photo of a group of white men around a fire, with a dark figure appearing in the fire].  At the trial that ensued , a rating committee member stated that material like this would make it hard for a teacher to control her students, especially a “white lady teacher” in a predominantly black class.  At this point the judge took over questioning.  “Didn’t lynchings happen in Mississippi?” he asked.  Yes, admitted the rating committee member, but it was all so long ago, why dwell on it now?  “It is a history book, isn’t it?” asked the judge, who eventually ruled in the book’s favor.

~ Lies my Teacher Told Me, caption p. 167

History written with a particular agenda in mind is common among history professionals and their books, but unlike standard textbooks they are required to be upfront about their agenda and their intentions–this is why you should really read the introduction and the concluding chapter!!!  Textbooks are written with agendas all the time, but seldom explain that agenda–indeed, one imagines explaining it would be counterproductive–nor, do they explain issues for which contesting conclusions exist, regardless of the prevalence of the debate within the field.

As a result, even when there is less of an agenda intentionally built into the program of state-taught history, there is nevertheless a misleading and sometimes dated single narrative.  One of the best examples of this from my own specialization is the evolution of our understanding of feudalism.  I have yet to see a textbook deal with the questions raised about our traditional understanding of feudalism–comprised of conclusions made in the middle of the last century–despite encountering textbooks that would were written this century.  How backward can you be in educational discipline?


"So, how does this relationship work, again?"

Beyond the intro-level history classes, college-level history courses abandon textbooks for history monographs written by historians with peer reviews and transparency (ok, some of these are badly written, too, but they are usually academically honest, at least).  They must also account for the historiography of their subject, that is, the conclusions and evolutions in our knowledge of it, which addresses the differences of learned opinion and demonstrates the methodology for effectively concluding about the past.


Filed under Editorials on education

3 responses to “Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks

  1. Pingback: World History - Why You Should Be Suspicious Of Your Textbook

  2. American History Association 2012 annual conference was talking about this issue as well! http://youtu.be/43dxy74UTvk

  3. Pingback: Teaching history without a history degree | Brush off the dust! History now!

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