How Politics Shapes American History Textbooks

McGraw Hill

In a nice piece of investigating reporting and research (which she writes about in this companion piece), New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein compared middle school and high school textbooks read by students in California and Texas.  These books, published in 2016 or later, had the same publishers and credit the same authors.  Yet they sometimes tell the story of United States history in different ways.

Here is a taste:

The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.

The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.

Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.

A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.

Read the entire piece here.  The graphics are amazing. You need to read it for yourself to really appreciate the work that went into it.

A few comments:

  • In the passage of the article I excerpted above, the Texas request to include the clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence and the reference to the First Great Awakening influence on the Revolution has David Barton and Wallbuilders written all over it.  Barton, and other conservatives who embrace his view of Christian nationalist history, have sat on the Texas Board of Education-appointed committee that approves textbooks and social studies standards.  I have been following this off and on since 2009. I even wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle addressing Barton’s involvement.  For the record, there was only one member of the clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence.  It was John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian minister who also served as president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  And the influence of the Great Awakening on the nation’s founders is a problematic claim.  Yet we see evangelicals like radio host Eric Metaxas and pastor Greg Laurie--evangelicals who probably get their history from Barton– making such statements all the time.   But I digress.
  • This article reminds us that educational publishing is a business.  If Texas or California politicians and government officials want their history framed in a certain way, the textbook companies are happy to do it.
  • It is good to see Goldstein note that U.S. history textbooks, of both the California and Texas variety, have come a long way.  Many of them do a nice job of covering slavery, women’s rights, and immigration.  For example, students no longer read about slaves who prefer slavery to freedom because of kind masters.
  • Of course a textbook is only one tool at the disposal of a middle school or high school history teacher.  A good teacher might even try to show bias in their textbooks, perhaps through an exercise such as Opening Up the Textbook.  Goldstein’s article might be a nice starting point to get students to see that their textbook (or any piece of published material, whether it be hard copy or on the Internet) has a bias.
  • A bit of snark to the end this post.  Goldstein’s article assumes students actually read the textbook.