When White House chief of staff John Kelly said that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War” in an interview with Fox News on October 30, he caused an uproar. To some, his statements were blatantly false; to others, any other historical interpretation would’ve seemed a mischaracterization.
Most historians agree that the Civil War was primarily caused by slavery, not a lack of compromise. Yet many Americans continue to believe Kelly’s narrative, and while most people aren’t historians, everyone interacts with and has opinions about history: what’s true, what’s not, and what constitutes history itself.
Kelly’s remarks were in response to the ongoing conflicts over pro-confederacy Civil War monuments in the southern United States, which critics argue lionize traitors and intimidate residents of color. Those in General Kelly’s camp, who oppose the removal of these statutes, say that removal would constitute destruction of historical record. On August 12, the conflict culminated in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and counter-protests.
Anyone claiming, as many students do, that history is dead or irrelevant would be hard-pressed to defend their position against footage of the demonstrations in Charlottesville, where efforts to take down a single statue became a political and cultural touchstone for the alt-right and ultimately resulted in the murder of a counter-protester and a state of emergency declaration for Virginia.
It’s easy to dismiss the other side, whichever side that is, as simply “wrong” in their interpretation of history. But depending on where in the U.S. someone grows up, they may receive a radically different history education. As the nation fights over how to recognize history, conflicting sides are often referencing different histories altogether.
Most foundational history education will take place in middle and high school classrooms, and much of it will heavily rely on textbooks as a resource to shape curriculum. Unlike many European countries, the U.S. has a fairly localized educational system, in which states have a large amount of control over the content and skills standards that go into curriculum design, and textbook publishing companies design their textbooks to fit these frameworks so they can be more marketable.
Some states, however, have disproportionate influence on national curriculum. Because it would be inefficient to design separate textbooks to fit each state’s different educational standards, publishing companies cater primarily to the largest educational markets. “Certain markets like California, Texas, New York, all the biggest states, make the most money or have the most number of students of those textbooks always,” social studies teacher Sharilyn Scharf said. “So those textbooks always gear their history towards those state preferences.”
While California has the largest number of students, Texas curriculum standards are more influential, because under Texas textbook laws, the adopted textbooks must then be used by all districts in the state. California has similar rules up to eighth grade, but allows individual districts to adopt textbooks independently in ninth through twelfth grade, provided they meet state guidelines. This structure allows Texas to have much more concentrated purchasing power than any other state, and between 50 to 80 percent of all pre-college textbooks used nationally were originally designed to cater to Texas, according to an article by former textbook editor Tamim Ansary for Edutopia.
In Texas, textbooks must be approved by State Board of Education (SBE) panels. According to the Texas Tribune, these panels are often staffed with people under-equipped to perform their central duty — finding and correcting factual errors in the textbooks — because there are no requirements that panel members be experts in the fields they’re reviewing.
Determining curriculum standards is often a politically fraught process, subject to extensive lobbying by special interest groups who have vested interests in the way that history is told. “It does speak to the extent to which public education is political … [if] you want to sell textbooks, they need to fit the bill for whatever market, and states have different policies and standards about what they think is important in school. It is a reminder that [history curriculum] is not neutral,” social studies teacher Dr. Claire Ernst said.
In one example of lobbying, conservative Hindu nationalist groups have been pushing California lawmakers for the past 10 years to accept changes to content standards that would reframe the Indian caste system and Hinduism in a more positive light, according to the Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The same groups have advocated concurrently in Texas, where in 2014 they succeeded in convincing lawmakers to adopt textbooks with over 100 changes in their descriptions of Hinduism and India. According to a press release by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which led the lobbying effort, the original textbook had described India’s caste system as one in which “at the top, a small elite concentrated in its hands most of the power, authority, wealth, and privilege. Everyone else, which was the vast majority, worked hard, got little and, most of the time, did what they were told.” In the newer textbook, the comparable passage read “according to the Varna system, each member of society has a specific role to adhere to; which, in turn, leads to the harmonious functioning of society.”
These changes were approved despite long-term opposition from most South Asian historians. In a 2005 letter urging the California Department of Education to reject the lobbying of Hindu Nationalists that was signed by over four dozen academic experts, Harvard Sanskrit professor Michael Witzel wrote “[the opinions advocated by HAF and other groups] do not reflect the views of the majority of specialists on ancient Indian history nor of mainstream Hindus. There are ill-conceived political agendas behind these views that are well-known to researchers and tens of millions of non-Hindu Indians, who are routinely discriminated against by these groups …. It would trigger an immediate international scandal if the California State Board of Education were to unwittingly endorse religious-nationalistic views of Indian history from which India has only extricated itself in the last two years.”
Historically, social studies textbooks have often been criticized for their treatments of race, gender, and religion, and for their lack of representation for women and people of color. While the most extreme examples, including a Texas world geography textbook that described enslaved peoples as “workers,” aren’t likely to occur at Tam given the district’s localized control and political climate, Tam social studies teachers still said that parts of the textbooks they used were, in their view, problematic. According to Scharf, part of this is due to the monopolistic nature of the textbook publishing industry. “There’s very few options and there’s no textbook that any teacher is ever completely happy with … [textbooks might be] good in this way but problematic in this way. So you always have to find ways to deal with that,” she said.
Scharf cited the current World History textbook’s treatment of imperialism as one example. “Toward the end of the chapter [the textbook] basically tries to sum up imperialism, and it said it in a way of here were the negative sides and here are the plus sides as if history has a neutral balance sheet,” she said. “That to everything there’s pluses and minuses … I had a huge problem with that, because really would you say that about a war, would you say that about the Holocaust, would you say that about slavery, that there’s pluses and minuses? That it’s a neutral balance sheet? No. History is not a neutral balance sheet. So I had my students kind of break down this and critique the textbook and how they portrayed the legacy of imperialism.”
For freshman Jade Sweeney, who attended Willow Creek Academy prior to entering Tam, poor experiences with textbooks have negatively impacted her view of history as a whole. “You can’t just go off of what one company thinks happened in history, you got to really do the research. I don’t believe the textbooks …” she said. “They do talk about the slaves, and the Indians … they be lying, they be trying to sugarcoat it, like, oh no, it wasn’t even that bad, you know. But it was bad, I know it was bad … half the stuff in that history book is so wrong. It’s sad.”
Sweeney said that in middle school her teacher had relied on the textbook to shape the course. “They just teach you right out the book, and they give you a textbook, a History Alive textbook and a History Alive workbook and you just go in it,” she said. “[Teachers] don’t even talk to you …. We’d walk in there, [the teacher would] give us a page, and a page to work in the workbook, and we’d read it and write it, and it’s just like … I’m reading something that I’m not going to believe in.”
In an attempt to correct the biases that students like Sweeney experience in their textbooks, social studies teachers supplement them with outside sources and alternative perspectives. “A lot of the other sources I bring in are going to be from those other perspectives. So that people get a sense of oh, okay, there was actually more going on, and if you get the perspective of women, or of workers, or of immigrants, or whatever, you get a different understanding of history,” Ernst said.
Social studies teacher Sarah Ewell concurred. “The majority of my job is contextualizing and giving people different perspectives and having people question [narratives],” she said.
At the same time, several teachers cautioned that, while it may be appealing to focus curriculum on alternative narratives and points of view, students need to be aware of more traditional ones as well. “Sometimes I think social studies teachers, we assume that students know a basic story line for a unit of history and therefore we just try to give them just primary sources or just alternative points of view like the People’s History of the United States,” Scharf said. “…. If you don’t know what’s considered like the general or the regular, and I’m putting it in quotes because there is no regular history … [you] don’t know how to compare those other points of view [to] that.”
Dr. Robert Self, Chair of the history depatment at Brown University and a coauthor of “America’s History,” a textbook used at Tam, told The Tam News over email that an effective textbook has to find a balance between outside perspectives and more mainstream ways of understanding history. “Traditional political history in textbooks was also associated with a highly nationalist account of the United States. The idea was that through an account of the political evolution of the nation one could see and appreciate the essential qualities of the nation,” Self said. “My sense is that textbook authors, heavily influenced by social and cultural history, are more likely now to resist highly nationalist accounts. They don’t seek some transcendent notion of the national character or national qualities but they seek rather a rich account of how people, societies, nation states, landscapes, and more interacted and changed one another over time. The national frame is still important (that is, the idea that the United States is a “container” of history), in part because it’s hard to write a coherent textbook without it. But plenty of historians don’t agree that history can be confined to the study of only what happen inside the boundaries of nation-states.”
Since 2009, there has been a major push to nationalize educational standards through the Common Core State Standards Initiative. One of the initiative’s primary designers was an organization called Student Achievement Partners, founded in 2007, many of whose founders and board members have ties to for-profit educational service industry. David Coleman, the current president of the College Board, was one of the founders of Student Achievement Partners. According to NPR, he had previously founded and sold a textbook publishing startup to publishing giant McGraw-Hill.
Common Core Standards have the potential to dramatically change the textbook publishing market, because states that have adopted the standards will now have to buy new textbooks designed to match them. In 2013, Education Week reported that 68 percent of districts implementing Common Core Standards planned “to purchase new instructional materials,” introducing an opportunity for textbook publishers to make significant profits.
Other advocates for Common Core include Achieve, a non-profit educational reform organization whose board includes the former CEOs of IBM and Intel, in addition to several current Prudential executives, and ALEC, an organization whose members include both major corporations and conservative lawmakers and is known for developing “template” legislation, including the basis for Florida’s now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” law. ALEC has been widely criticized for its involvement in legislating, and has received a significant amount of its funding from both the Koch brothers and Exxonmobil. Exxon has done its own educational advocacy work, primarily focused on science standards, and independently led a public relations campaign for adoption of the Common Core Standards.
The effects of lobbying on the contents of textbooks have been exacerbated in the past two decades by the consolidation of the academic publishing market. Today, just five publishing companies dominate the textbook industry, limiting the number of choices that textbook selection committees have when deciding which books to adopt. Because of the high production costs associated with developing all-new textbooks, these companies are under extreme pressure to win state- and district-wide contracts; if they don’t, the resources poured into developing these textbooks, designed specifically for a given market, will have been wasted. Cost pressures push textbook editors to more aggressively pander to the biases of textbook selection committees operating in larger markets, like Texas.
The end result of this system is what’s playing out in the U.S. right now: political polarization, “alternative facts,” and an inability to agree on even the most basic of facts of American history. Textbooks, because of the way they are often treated by students as objective and comprehensive, are central to that; the lessons learned from textbooks are what inform citizens decades down the line.
“I get to teach kids how to be, you know, critical members of a democratic society,” Ewell said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Social studies teacher leader Aaron Pribble said that he encourages students to approach textbooks as both reference material and primary sources in and of themselves. “Every source has a perspective, and since textbooks are often the key source of information in a class it’s imperative we consider their points of view. A healthy questioning of the provenance of particular content is especially important in a world with a surplus of information,” he said.
Self agreed that analyzine and contextualizing sources like textbooks is an important part of consuming them. “Inasmuch as history is an act of interpretation, an act of bringing meaning to a set of facts, events, and developments, it will always have a political character and will always develop certain perspectives at the expense of others,” he said. “That’s true of any work of history, because historians are always making choices: about what to include and exclude, what to emphasize, what kinds comparisons to make, and so forth….To say that a textbook has a point of view—that it is “political”—is the first step, not the last. What is its point of view, and how can we as readers analyze it? Does the author let their point of view blind them to certain facts? Or does their point of view account for the known facts pretty well? Is the textbook truly political in an ideological sense or is it simply emphasizing certain kind of experiences and explanations over others?….In its broadest sense, I think a textbook can model historical practice. It can model how evidence is analyzed and how that analysis is synthesized into interpretations. It can show you, and ask you to practice, the kinds of questions historians ask. It can help you learn to ask penetrating and useful historical questions, rather than banal or uninteresting ones. It can expose you to primary sources and their role in developing historical interpretations. In short, it should engage you in a constant back and forth about history, in which the reader is not a passive ‘memorizer,’ but an active participant.”
For students like Sweeney, for whom history has become a recitation of facts she can’t trust, an emphasis on questioning may be necessary to restoring the relevance of the class. And while it’s tempting to suggest that the U.S. should aim to develop a more cohesive and unified historical narrative on a national level, that’s not likely to occur anytime soon, and might not be possible.
When asked if the U.S. should attempt to find a national story, Dr. Ernst waited a while before responding. “If there’s a narrative [to US history] it’s a complex narrative, that we probably have yet to really add all up and connect [into] one narrative. There’s a lot of different voices and perspectives and stories that make up the true narrative,” she said. “I think the job in a history class is to make clear that it’s a complex story and rather than providing, this is what the true narrative is, just that the narrative is contested, and will always be contested, and here are the things that have been left out in the past that we can bring in, and how does that change how we think about it.”