Glenn Uminowicz - April 2007

The Triumphant Rise of the Great Republic Told Through the Stories of the Many Peoples Who Met the Challenge of Freedom in the Land of Promise


Glenn Uminowicz

   In 1954, little Geraldine Johns walked into her classroom in a Talbot County elementary school and wrapped her hands around controversy. Her teacher handed her a brand new copy of the textbook Your Country and Mine.
    Controversy would likely follow whatever textbook Geraldine received on that day in September. In Schoolbook Nation (2004), historian Joseph Moreau documented that Americans have continually engaged in culture wars over history texts for more than a century and a half. In the late 1800s, for example, southerners railed against a perceived northern bias in textbooks. In the 1920s, Irish Catholics detected a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant tone in books used in public schools. In the 1950s, conservative critics argued that America was losing the Cold War because of a collectivist mentality being implanted in students’ minds. In short, the road to Moscow was paved with leftist history books.
    In retrospect, Geraldine’s textbook proved a good choice in the 1950s. Its was subtitled Our American Neighbors. It began with a brief overview of American history. Geraldine learned about the Founding Fathers, westward expansion, the Civil War and the rise of the United States as a global power. In later sections of her book, she was introduced to her American neighbors. A chapter was devoted to each region of the United States, describing its history, economy and population. Moreover, units were included on “Our North American Neighbors” and “Our South American Neighbors.”
    In the concluding chapter, the authors of Your Country and Mine observed that our “Latin American neighbors” were particularly interested in how the United States developed as a nation. The writers insisted, “They have watched eagerly as we have tried to build a democracy. They have seen us working to conquer disease, poverty, ignorance, and intolerance, and attempting to establish world-wide peace.”
    The textbook authors then concluded by counseling their young readers, “One of the privileges you will have, as citizens of tomorrow, will be to co-operate with our neighbors for the peace and happiness of our entire Western Hemisphere, as well as the rest of the world.”
    In short, in the 1950s and early 60s, Your Country and Mine encouraged elementary school students on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to think globally. The textbook authors especially stressed the importance of learning about the cultures and customs of our neighbors in this hemisphere and to cooperate with them in the future to create a better world.
    In addition, Geraldine’s textbook did not entirely avoid ethical issues and differing interpretations of the past. After noting that the Declaration of Independence declared, “All men are created equal,” for example, the textbook authors observed, “So long as some men owned others as slaves, it was hard to see how we could say that all men are equal.” Regarding Franklin D. Roosevelt, Geraldine learned that millions were grateful for the employment offered through New Deal programs, but others worried about the enormous national debt generated through deficit spending.
    Of course, Your Country and Mine could never stand up to the standards imposed by statewide textbook review panels today. The book contains entirely too much emphasis on dead white men, while totally ignoring topics such as the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The graphics alone would provoke apoplexy among modern textbook publishers. In 2002, historian of education Diane Ravitch listed forbidden stereotypes imposed on textbook illustrators by one publisher. They included boys playing sports or girls playing with dolls; men playing sports or working with tools; women doing housework or caring for children; older people fishing or baking cookies; Asian Americans portrayed as academics; African-Americans portrayed as athletes; and children portrayed as “bundles of energy.”
    Since the 1980s, Ravitch has criticized the censorship imposed on textbook authors by their publishers. In an effort to please a variety of pressure groups, from civil rights activists to members of the religious Right, publishers tried to make their books all things to all people. According to Ravitch, this approach produced enormous tomes ballooning to close to one thousand pages with questionable content and devoid of any controversy. The one overriding theme found in the texts was the unending march of American progress. For the publishers, teachers and their students were not their end consumers. Their texts needed to meet the standards of review committees pressured by interest groups.
    At an event sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2003, historian David McCullough observed that dreadful history textbooks that embrace multiculturalism and cultural equivalence were boring high school students. Combined with these dreadful texts, he insisted that the presence of thought police in the schools posed as great a threat to American freedoms as al Qaeda terrorists. The national memory was being eaten away, leaving a terrible cultural amnesia behind.
    When and how did this frightful state of affairs develop? One proposed answer could be found in the pages of one of the most widely used United States history textbooks—The American Pageant. According to its publisher, the book retains the “trademark wit” of its original author, diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey.
    In the 1971 edition of the book, Bailey’s wit was nowhere more evident than in a chapter on the culture of the 1960s. Bailey acknowledged the popularity of “Rock-‘n’-Roll” among “gyrating youth, despite the hazard to eardrums.” The music provided an anthem for the “hippie movement” that offered the “weird spectacle of long-haired, unwashed youths of both sexes rejecting the materialistic, hypocritical values of society. But in the eyes of their contemptuous elders they seemed to be living for marijuana, alcohol, hallucinatory drugs and sex.” Parents themselves began to “fall short of perfection” with alcoholism and drug addiction on the rise. The baby boom generation they created overtaxed the schools leading to alarming numbers of incorrigible “punks,” dropouts and functional illiterates.
    For many critics of history textbooks, the problem was not just that schools were overcrowded in the Sixties. During that decade, our cultural amnesia developed when misguided activists demanded a more “inclusive” curriculum. A fragmented incoherence soon replaced the single, simple narrative of the American past that earlier textbooks offered. Like their students’ parents, educators fell short of perfection when revising how our past would be remembered. Bailey’s description of the Sixties serves as evidence that textbook authors in the Seventies were losing confidence in their ability to chronicle the uninterrupted progress of the nation. The Sixties certainly appeared as a possible turning point when things went wrong.
    With a perspective gained from reading over one hundred textbooks written over a century and a half, Moreau rejects the “blame it on the Sixties” explanation for the decline in textbook quality. In the 1880s and 1920s, Americans also asked, Can the stories of minority groups be integrated into textbooks without upsetting the “main story” of American history? Moreau also makes the important point that no artifact, including a textbook, can itself determine how people will interpret it. Their books are not the only place that students learn about history. Television, movies, museums and the Internet provide diverse sources of information. I find it encouraging that the latest edition of The American Pageant comes with a companion Web site. The site includes hundreds of documents and visuals and a multitude of links to other primary and secondary sources of information. In essence, here is an acknowledgement that controlling content is no easy task in the information age.
    Finally, lets admit that textbooks, despite all their shortcomings, can sometimes offer valuable perspectives. On the last page of The American Pageant (page 1,067), Thomas A. Bailey looked forward from the perspective of 1971. He wrote:
    Americans will have to learn to live with chronic crises. They should seek to reconcile a maximum of liberty with a maximum of security. They should strive to preserve their precious freedoms without strangling them in an effort to protect them from enemies, within or without. They should remember that America was founded and built by generations of nonconformists. They cannot permit truth and thought to become captives in the Land of the Free; they cannot safeguard democracy by shackling democracy. The best way to preserve it is to practice it.
    What a message from our past with resonance for us today, and from a history textbook too!