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The American Textbook Wars: The Revised Edition

Disputes over history textbooks in the United States have not sent protesters into the streets (not recently, anyway), as they have this spring in China. But as readers snap up copies of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas Woods, Jr., the old story of a fight between “traditionalists” and “revisionists” has returned. With it comes an irony. The bitter opponents in this history war actually have a common misunderstanding of the past—a vision of history teaching fundamentally transformed, for better or worse, by the 1960s.

Here’s the common view, repeated endlessly in the mass media, and even in many academic circles, for the last quarter century. Before 1960 American historiography was dominated by synthesizers, scholars like Charles Beard or, going further back in time, George Bancroft. They examined the grand sweep of America’s past and explained it with a single, coherent story. Their narratives, after some pruning and simplification, then found their way into a relatively homogeneous collection of textbooks for middle and high schools.

But then somewhere in the 1960s, the story goes, various groups beginning with African-Americans wanted their own history, not simply a national one, told to young people. Publishers obliged them with more “inclusive” educational materials. The standard high school textbook in American history, now filled with new chapters, sidebars, and illustrations, spilled beyond 1,000 pages and kept going. A once simple, standard account of the past had unraveled.

The story is half right. Revisions begun in the 1960s were significant. Nevertheless, they suggest continuity with the past, not a break with it. For almost as long Americans have wrestled with questions of national identity, they have fought over textbooks. Only rarely have any groups been able to impose an orthodox history on our schools. Yet ignorance of these basic, even banal facts from our educational past still confuses public debate.

It is easy to poke holes in this myth of history teaching’s bygone serenity (the view from the right) or jackbooted uniformity (the view from the left). A common national narrative extending backward from 1959? Hardly. As I write this, I am sitting in a coffee shop in Queens, New York, across the street from a parochial school. In 1915 students there would likely have learned about the country’s past from America’s Story: A History of the United States for the Lower Grades of Catholic Schools, or any of a number of texts like it. Down the street at P.S. 1, teachers would have used an entirely different set of books.

These rival versions of the national past reflected deep cultural and religious divisions. Since the mid-nineteenth century, American Catholics had complained about slurs against them and their faith in textbooks used in public schools. When publishers failed to revise their tomes to the critics’ satisfaction, Catholic educators began writing their own. In these new texts, the Protestant heroes of colonial New England came in for harsh criticism, while the Catholic settlers of Maryland earned glowing reviews. One text pointedly referred to those Marylanders as the “Pilgrims,” opting against that name for their neighbors to the north at Plymouth.

Protestants were horrified. “Catholic agencies are magnified,” railed one text critic, and “the edge and nobleness of Protestant history are blunted, and the point is pretty effectively made to stand out everywhere that what the country needs for the perfection of citizenship is Roman Catholicism....” Another reviewer concluded that the child who “learns history from such books learns no history.” Recent critiques of multiculturalism look tame by comparison.

If it is not difficult to debunk, why has the sixties-as-watershed claim enjoyed such a long shelf life?

First, it has a fine spokesperson in Frances FitzGerald. In 1980 she wrote the highly influential America Revised. From the American Revolution up to the Kennedy years, FitzGerald argued, text authors had “always succeeded in painting a fairly simple picture” of the United States. Popular understandings of history, and the schoolbooks that reflected them, had always been “remarkably uniform and remarkably simple. The shattering of this single image in current texts thus constitutes an important break with tradition.” Much of her analysis of texts was so persuasive, and so dripping with wit, that few people called her on this central premise of her work.

Convenience also offers some explanation. It is difficult to make generalizations about what might have happened long ago in the country’s classrooms. The easiest, though far from perfect method, would be to find the most popular books students had read, decade by decade. But that would mean hundreds of texts, almost all of which are reputed to be—again, an odd confluence of thought right and left—achingly dull. Better to trust FitzGerald, especially if her argument seems to jibe with hazy memories of high school.

Finally, utility plays a role. The sixties’ “revolution in the streets,” with long-hairs on one side and suits on the other, makes great melodrama, even when transferred to the staid world of textbooks. That’s why television and talk radio loved the story of national history standards ten years ago. It pitted liberal historians like Gary B. Nash and other creators of the standards, many of whom came of age in the sixties, against Lynne Cheney. As chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cheney had once embraced their work but then found that radicals had gone too far in producing a gloomy, “politically correct” view of the national past. It only helped that Cheney made her public break with the standards in the Wall Street Journal, and that her husband was a gruff former secretary of defense.

Interpreted differently, FitzGerald’s theory has served different groups well. To many liberals, reforms begun in the 1960s represented an effort by blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and others to reclaim their past from a national narrative that distorted or ignored their experiences. Scholars and teachers who took part could then cast themselves as successful rebels for the causes of social justice and historical truth.

To conservatives who rallied behind Cheney, these same minority groups had finally “hijacked” the national story. The price of a misguided effort at inclusion was a fragmented and incoherent history curriculum. Opponents of the standards could then lump questions of history teaching into a broader assessment of that misbegotten decade. That assessment, still with us today, is captured succinctly by a promotional line for Woods’s Politically Incorrect Guide, posted on his publisher’s website: “[T]he liberalism of the 1960s discouraged all the right things and encouraged all the wrong ones.”

While ideal for shouting matches, FitzGerald’s argument repeatedly stymies what might be more productive exchanges. Take the strange case of Crispus Attucks. Attucks was a sailor of mixed race, partly African and likely part Indian as well, who died at the hands of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. For some people who have spotted him in textbooks in recent decades, he has become a prime example of “history by quota,” an inconsequential figure tacked on to the national story to please multiculturalists. True, Attucks did make his textbook appearance in the ’70s. But it was the 1870s. He had a prominent place in a widely read text of the era, the Young Folks’ History of the United States by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, former abolitionist, confidante of John Brown, and commander of the first regiment of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.

While used in New England and much of the North, Higginson’s book was hardly emblematic of an agreed-upon view of the past. In fact, books like it inspired White Southerners, among them the former vice president of the Confederacy, to write their own histories for students in the South. They created a sub-market that, like the Catholic one, persisted for decades. Regional cleavages became as deep as denominational ones.

To argue the legitimacy of putting Attucks into history books, we have to understand the social and political forces that once took him out.

The point here is not that nothing has changed. The context for disputes over history teaching shifted significantly from the 1870s to the 1960s to the present, and that evolution has much to teach us. But what has persisted, particularly in the last twenty years, is the tendency to frame discussions of the curriculum with champions of a hoary, “traditional” history on one side and “revisionists” on the other. Bereft of a more nuanced understanding of how Americans have understood and taught their past, we endlessly circle around a mythical version of the 1960s and all the change those years are said to have wrought.

Perhaps a variation on George Santayana’s much overused dictum is appropriate. Those who do not learn from the history wars of the past are condemned to repeat them.