Jill Lepore Talks “These Truths”

These TruthsThis is a great interview with Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States.  I am really looking forward to reading this book.  I hope to find a copy in my mailbox when I return to the office today.

Here is a taste of Sean Woods’s interview with Lepore at Rolling Stone:

Are there dangers for the historian when you’re trying to make the past relevant to the present?
Yeah. Absolutely. Historians talk about the fallacy of presentism, that is, if you’re too interested in what’s going on in the present, you will adjust your past to justify your preferences about the future. That is a sound caution. On the other hand, if people who are cautious and careful and concerned about evidence and argument and method refuse to talk about the relationship between the past and the present, then the only people who will be doing that will be Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

So much of popular American history is about the Battle of Saratoga or the Battle of Brooklyn or World War II. And I wonder if that’s because so many of the historical books have been written by men and military history is something men get very jazzed about.
Most popular history is either military or presidential and has little sense of the incredible force and political power of social movements and protest movements, and doesn’t have any way of understanding a politics that doesn’t involve the White House. You wouldn’t write a history of this era and say everything was Trump, although that is what everybody thinks in the moment. Everybody’s fallen into the Trump vortex. But if you pull back, you go like, “OK, well actually there’s a lot of things going on.” And among them we get Me Too and Black Lives Matter. These are a really important part of realignments. Nor would you write a history of the Me Too movement without talking about Trump. Because a lot of Me Too is the proxy war on Trump. And a lot of Trump’s followers are actually engaged in a proxy war on Me Too. They’re inseparable analytically in the world that we live in. So why do we accept a public history that imagines that there’s presidential history and then there’s also a history of political movements. You have to look at them together. And you know, it’s hard and it’s a mess, but it’s also really illuminating.

Read the entire interview here.

What James Loewen Needs to Learn About History Education

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Many of the readers of this blog are familiar with James Loewen, the author of the popular 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  In the introduction to a recent interview with Loewen in The Atlantic, journalist Alia Wong described Loewen’s approach in Lies:

In 1995, the University of Vermont sociologist and historian James W. Loewen published a book that sought to debunk the myriad myths children were often taught about the United States’ past. Framed largely as a critique of the history education delivered in America’s classrooms but also serving as a history text itself, Lies My Teacher Told Mewas the result of Loewen’s analysis of a dozen major high-school textbooks. It found that those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways. Take, for example, the false yet relatively widespread conviction that the Reconstruction era was a chaotic period whose tumult was attributable to poor, uncivilized governance of recently freed slaves. Textbooks’ framing of the history in this way, according to Loewen, promoted racist attitudes among white people. White supremacists in the South, for example, repeatedly cited this interpretation of Reconstruction to justify the prevention of black people from voting.

Wong’s interview with Loewen is occasioned by the release of a new paperback edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me.  You can read the interview here.

As I read the interview I was struck by how much emphasis Loewen places on the textbook as a measure of the state of history education in schools.  He seems to be unaware of the changes that have taken place in history education since he first published Lies nearly a quarter-century ago.

Anyone familiar with the work of the Stanford History Education Group or the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History knows that effective history teaching requires teachers to challenge or confirm narratives about the past through the close reading of primary sources and the critical reading of textbooks.

After reading Wong’s interview with Loewen, I ran across a Facebook post written by Nate McAlister, a history teacher in Kansas, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year, and my partner in the Gilder-Lehrman Institute’s “Colonial Era” summer seminar for teachers held each year at Princeton.  Here is his response to Wong’s interview with Loewen and Lies My Teacher Told Me:

I like and dislike the article. And I agree and disagree with Loewen. His analysis based solely on the textbook discounts one major factor, the teacher in the room. He assumes that every history teacher cracks open the textbook and calls it a day. I do agree, that textbooks narratives are often poorly written or plain wrong. I also agree, that if a teacher is reliant on only the textbook the results will be as he stated, poor. But I don’t think this is where history education is in this country. I believe that history teachers are some of the best in the field. I believe that history teachers push students, daily, to think critically and challenged the given narrative. In essence, we—history teachers—are more than the textbook.

“I don’t think this is where history education is in this country.”  Well put.

Another Conservative Misses the Point of History Education

FraserOver at The National Review, Stanley Kurz claims that U.S. history textbooks are anti-conservative.  Here is a taste:

The most underappreciated political story of our time is the changing content of K-12 textbooks in history, civics, social studies, and related subjects. Yes, I said political story. Why are Millennials so receptive to socialism? Why are today’s Democrats dominated by identity politics? Why have movements on the political right shifted from a constitutional conservatism symbolized by the Boston Tea Party to a populist nationalism? All these changes, and more, are connected to what today’s history textbooks are, and are not, teaching. Yet we’ve barely noticed the link.

Almost any Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history textbook has more influence on American politics than 90 percent of the books reviewed in our leading newspapers and political magazines. Yet when was the last time you read a review of a high school history textbook? Never, I’ll bet. That’s partly because these thousand-page monstrosities are tough to read, and even tougher to judge for anyone but professional historians. And with growing academic specialization, even historians find it difficult to assess an entire text.

Liberals needn’t bother keeping track of history textbooks because they’re the ones who write them. But conservatives have dropped the ball on this issue so essential to their survival. Conservative politicians, institutions, and donors focus far more on short-term electoral politics and policy than culture. History textbooks don’t even register. Over the long haul, that’s a recipe for political exile and social ostracism.

Conservatives saw the tip of the enormous textbook iceberg earlier this April when a radio host tweeted out pictures a Minnesota student had sent her of an AP U.S. history (APUSH) textbook. The student had photographed pages of the not yet formally released update of James W. Fraser’s By the People, an APUSH textbook published by the international education giant Pearson. Those pages covered the 2016 election and the Black Lives Matter movement. Their blatantly partisan bias set off a conservative media firestorm. (I commented here, and Joy Pullman’s important take is here.)

Read the entire piece here.

I don’t know if Kurtz is correct about Fraser’s textbook because I have not read it.  But it does seem clear to me that Kurtz has no clue about how history is actually taught–or should be taught–in schools.

First, Kurtz’s entire argument rests on the fact that students actually read the textbook.

Second, and more importantly, most students learn history from their teachers.  In other words, Kurtz assumes that American history textbooks are the only way students learn history.  The best teachers know that all textbooks, like all history, are subjective.  They thus use the textbook to teach bias or to show how the textbook matches-up with their students’ work in the primary sources.  Show me a teacher who believes that his or her textbook represents received wisdom from on high and I will show you a bad history teacher.

White Supremacy in the History of American History Textbooks

pictoralhistory00goodrichHarvard’s Donald Yacovone has an interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the history of American textbooks and their representation of race.  Here is a taste of “Textbook Racism: How scholars sustained white supremacy“:

There it sat on a library cart with 50 other elementary, grammar, and high-school history textbooks, its bright red spine reaching out through time and space. As I opened the book’s crisp white pages, it all came back. My loud gasp startled those near me at the special collections department of Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library. Exploring the New World — published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965 — had been assigned in my fifth-grade social-studies class in Saratoga, Calif.

As part of a broader study of the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the modern civil-rights era, I wanted to assess how abolitionism had been presented in textbooks. I imagined a quick look. Instead, I found myself immersed in Harvard’s collection of nearly 3,000 U.S. history textbooks, dating from about 1800 to the 1980s. Without intending, I had become engaged in a study of how abolitionism, race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught for generations.

After reviewing my first 50 or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the students compelled to read them: white supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: “The White Man’s History.” Across time and with precious few exceptions, African-Americans appeared only as “ignorant negroes,” as slaves, and as anonymous abstractions that only posed “problems” for the supposed real subjects of history: white people of European descent.

Read the rest here.  To the extent that American history textbook publishing reflected the concerns of the larger society, this should not surprise us.

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

More Teaching Panels at the 2018 AHA

History

Mike Davis, one of our correspondents at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Historical Associationchecks in with some reflections on three panels on teaching history.  Read all of Mike’s AHA 2018 posts here. –JF

I attended three panels at the AHA conference on Friday (Day 2), each one engaging with issues relating to historians and their relationship with the broader community.

The first was a sales meeting for Pearson’s new Revel “interactive learning environment,” billed as an alternative to traditional online and physical textbooks designed to meet 21st century students where they live by letting them engage with ADA compliant audio, video, primary sources, and other learning techniques. While I found Revel engaging, I felt particularly empowered by the number and diversity of faculty present for the talk. Junior and senior faculty from high schools, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and comprehensive state universities all turned out for the opportunity to learn better ways to engage with their students.

The second panel: “The Culture Wars of the Texas K-12 Schoolbooks” dealt with Texas K- 12 schools and the efforts by both AHA members and their community allies to both build Mexican-American history studies programs and defend those programs from a hostile state legislature eager to heavily regulate – or outright abolish, any programs that encouraged “nationalism.” The panelists emphasized how the anti-Mexican historiography the state had considered was not simply immoral; it was also bad history, omitting decades of recent Mexican-American historiography. Having used this scholarship myself in the classroom, I was particularly looking forward to this panel and I was not disappointed.

I was particularly pleased at how the panelists – Emilio Zamora (taking the opportunity to present as two of the attendees had been unable to attend thanks to the inclement weather) and Carlos Blanton – emphasized that the focus of their work was on promoting critical thinking and student engagement rather than simply promoting ethnic pride. As they pointed out, this work benefited not just students from a particular ‘minority’ – but all students who get the opportunity to learn the contested nature of history and the way various disempowered groups have fought for power inside historical narratives.

The last panel I attended today was “Teaching the Master Narrative: American History Textbooks in the 20th Century”, a panel inspired by the scholarship of Kyle Ward (Minnesota-Mankato) that looked at the changing (or unchanging) ways various key moments in the “master narrative” of American history have appeared in secondary schools. The University of Miami’s Michael Horton looked at Columbus, offering his audience an interesting antidote to usual Whiggish notions of “historical writing improving over time” by looking at the historians of the 1920s and 1930s who were actually quite critical of Columbus and his career. In the same vein of anti-Whiggishness, Michael Kniesel at Kent State looked at the Boston Tea Party in high school textbooks – finding no particular improvement in accuracy in the way textbooks have discussed the Tea Party from the early 20th century. American teachers are reluctant to paint figures from the American Revolution as economic terrorists – despite the historiography in recent decades leading that way.

Finally, Lindsey Bauman looked at the way textbooks in the 1950s dealt with slavery – finding that textbooks generally relied on Ulrich Phillips’s master-centered economic history when telling the story of slavery. Bauman’s research showed that even as historiography in the academy moved beyond Phillips’s white-centric and white supremacist take on the history of slavery, school textbooks continued to directly use arguments and evidence from a work published some thirty-five years earlier even by the 1950s.

This was a good day – and it left me with good thoughts for my own panel presentation tomorrow. I look forward to seeing readers at the Early Career Lightning Round at 10:30AM on Friday.

Are Students *Still* Ignorant of the History of the Civil Rights Movement?

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Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled “Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?” I linked to Sam Wineburg‘s criticism of a Southern Poverty Law Center study that concluded students are not familiar with the basic facts of the fight to end Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s.  Here is a taste of what Wineburg wrote in the LA Times in October 2011:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated,” one headline announced. “Civil Rights Movement Education ‘Dismal’ in American Schools,” declared another.

The alarming headlines, which appeared in newspapers across the country, grew out of a report released three weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” which claims that the civil rights movement is widely ignored in history classrooms. By not teaching it, the report claims, American education is “failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.” The study included a report card for individual states, and California got slapped with a big fat F.

But is it true? Are today’s students really not learning about such an important part of U.S. history? The Southern Poverty Law Center has done groundbreaking work in combating racism and prejudice. But its new study simply doesn’t stand up.

For starters, the report did not base its conclusions on any direct testing of student knowledge. Not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single principal answered a single question about their knowledge for this report. The closest we get to a live child — and even this is a stretch — comes from Julian Bond, who wrote the report’s forward. Bond recounts that “some years ago” he gave a quiz to college students and found that none could identify George Wallace.

The report’s writers turned to a proven recipe in our crisis-addicted society. First, they gathered up standards documents from all 50 states laying out what students at each grade level should study; then they conducted a “content analysis” to determine what’s in these documents; next they landed a marquee figure to endorse the report; and finally, they invoked terms of impending doom and handed the final report to the PR department.

Had the report’s writers bothered to talk to real kids, they might have found something closer to what we found in a national survey of 2,000 high school students, reported in the March 2008 Journal of American History. We gave students a blank sheet and asked them to write down the names of figures from “Columbus to the present day” who are the “most famous Americans in history, not including presidents or first ladies.”

Surprisingly, teens rarely put down rock stars or sports idols for top picks. Instead, they listed legitimate historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Three names, however, dominated the lists, appearing more often than any other heroes in U.S. history. Each of these figures comes straight from the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. (appearing on 67% of all lists), Rosa Parks (60%) and Harriet Tubman (44%).

Are American students still ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement?  I have heard this over and over again from folks this week while I travel through the South as part of a Civil Rights bus tour.

If students today are ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I am not sure it is because the Movement is not covered adequately in history textbooks or state standards.  I am not familiar with every set of state history standards, but I would imagine that all of them, or nearly all of them, cover the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, there are some exceptions, especially in certain types of private institutions.  And yes, many textbooks do not cover the Movement to a degree of depth that will satisfy everyone.  But I wonder if the lack of knowledge about the Movement is representative of student ignorance in all areas of history.

Thoughts?

This Guy Fights “Satanic Thought” in Texas History Textbooks

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Neil Frey

Neal Frey is one intense guy.  He almost finished a Ph.D in American intellectual history at University of Virginia.  He has a strict diet that includes fasting for days at a time and eating a lot of prunes.  He rarely interacts with other human beings.  He spends his days finding and exposing “Satanic thought” in American history textbooks.  And he has been an influential figure in the Texas culture wars.

Reporting Texas tells Frey’s story here.

A taste:

LONGVIEW — “Satanic thought” and “liberal bias” have infiltrated Texas public school textbooks, Neal Frey says, and the 72-year-old is on a crusade to stop them.

Academic authority might object to Frey’s mission. But he’s undeterred.

“God put us here to win the culture war,” Frey said, as sweat beaded on his forehead during a September interview in his un-air-conditioned office.

Frey runs Educational Research Analysts out of his office in a rundown, 1960s-era strip mall. The organization distributes conservative Christian talking points on issues such as evolution and same-sex marriage to like-minded State Board of Education members and works to privately pressure publishers before they submit books to the state board for consideration.

While many of his victories are small, he said they add up to something substantial: textbook content better aligned with a conservative Christian worldview. That means books must stress America’s exceptionalism and its Christian foundations, and include alternative viewpoints on issues such as evolution, which the Educational Research Analysts’ website calls a “natural origins myth.”

East Texans Mel and Norma Gabler founded the nonprofit in 1961. They gained a measure of national fame by railing against perceived un-American and anti-Christian bias in schoolbooks at State Board of Education meetings and on television programs such as “60 Minutes” and “20/20.”

As their fame and influence with textbook decision-makers grew, publishers were compelled to confer with the Gablers, sometimes sending them textbook manuscripts for review. Frey, who took over the organization when Mel Gabler died in 2004, has embraced the less public approach of discretely working directly with publishers.

Read the entire piece here.

In case you didn’t notice, we just did back to back posts on guys named “Frey.”

Revolutionary America: An Update on Textbook Selection

brown-and-carpIn the past I have spent a lot of time stressing over readings for my 300-level course on the American Revolution at Messiah College.  How many  monographs should I assign? How should I balance new works with classics in the field? What are the seminal scholarly articles that must be assigned?  What about important primary sources?

This year I decided to avoid the stress and assign only two textbooks. The first text is Gordon Wood’s short and concise The American Revolution: A History.  Wood’s text is limited in what it accomplishes, but I want students to have a political overview of the events leading up to the revolution, the war, and the confederation period.

The second text is Richard D. Brown and Benjamin Carp’s reader Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791.  This text is loaded with excerpts from some of the best secondary essays in the field (Gordon Wood, Alfred Young, Gary Nash, Fred Anderson, Carp, McConville, Armitage, Jasanoff, Dowd, Sinha, Zagarri, Crane, Butler, Noll, Onuf, Gross, Beeman, Cornell, Bouton) and some very teachable primary sources.

Most importantly, Major Problems allows me to assign manageable readings that my students can actually digest and discuss.  It allows us to spend more time analyzing primary sources and has enabled me to introduce historiography more effectively.  The discussions in class have been much better because we are not rushing to finish one monograph and get to another.  After fifteen years of teaching this course it now feels less like a graduate seminar and much more like an undergraduate history course.

Here is what we have done so far:

Day 1: Introduction to the course.

Day 2:  Discussion of the “Britishness” of the colonies of the eve of the American Revolution. Here I reveal my preference for the Anglicization interpretation of British America. Ben Franklin’s “For Interest of Great Britain Considered” (1760) was perfect for this discussion.

Day 3: We talked about the 12-15 research paper the students will write.  I introduced students to the Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers collections. (We are fortunate to have these resources at Messiah College–thanks Beth Mark!).

Day 3: Discussion of four documents on changes in British customs policy and the Proclamation of 1763.  My favorite is George Washington’s letter to his land agent about trying to illegally buy land beyond the Proclamation line.  It portrays Washington as a self-interested land speculator.  This is a side of Washington that is new to most of my students.

Day 4: We read documents on the Stamp Act.  Brown and Carp include sources chronicling the violent resistance to the Act as well as the more intellectual opposition that came through people like Patrick Henry and the Stamp Act Congress.  The students really enjoy the descriptions of mob activity in New York written by Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden and his son David.  Today one student pointed out David Colden’s blatant attempt to land a job as a stamp collector and court the favor of the powers-that-be in London. Rank ambition indeed!  (Colden would end up fleeing to Canada).

Stay tuned.

John Wilsey is on Fire

John Wilsey teaches history at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Houston.  He is a real jack of all trades.  He is the interim pastor of a Houston-area Baptist church.  He teaches courses in history and theology to traditional seminary students, undergraduates, and prisoners in a maximum security prison.  He has written a good book critiquing the “Christian America” thesis and has a forthcoming book on American exceptionalism.

But I am writing about John today because he has recently written two great blog posts.

The first post, which appears at John’s blog “To Breathe Your Free Air,” is an honest account of the struggles and triumphs of writing his book on American exceptionalism.  His exhortation to “write, write, write” was something I needed to hear as I continue to push forward with my American Bible Society project.  If you need some inspiration to jump start a writing project, head over to Wilsey’s post.

The second post, which was recently published at Religion in American History, offers an assessment of American exceptionalist rhetoric in Christian school and home school American history textbooks. In the process he invokes the term “Americolatry.”  Here is a taste:

Combine the idea of American exceptionalism with the Christian America thesis—the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation—and you have a potent brew indeed, a super-charged nationalism which has an exceptional quality all its own. 

I have a word for this powerful ideological combination—Americolatry. Americolatry consists of a form of civil religion that entails the doctrine of American greatness, innocence, and superiority (e.g., Reagan’s “the last, best hope of mankind,” Albright’s “indispensable nation,” or David Gelernter’s America as “one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known”(2)). Americolatry also entails the practice of religious devotion to America by inextricably linking Christian devotion to patriotism. In other words, to be a devoted Christian equals the uncritical acceptance of America as superior and morally regenerate. 


Thanks for some good writing, John!

What are You Reading in Your U.S. Survey Course This Semester?

I always enjoy seeing what other professors are doing in their American history classrooms. Over at Historical Conversations, Jonathan Den Hartog discusses what his students are reading in his United States survey course. Here is a taste:

Let me start with my U.S. History Survey class. I’m supposed to take the class from First Contact to 1877. So, we’ve already talked about the condition of the Indians of the Americas in 1491, and in the last class we finally introduced the Europeans who will be settling in the New World.
I have a range of books for this class, and if I had more time I’d love to add a few more. This is a good start, though.
I start with a good narrative textbook. In as many cases as possible, I try to avoid this, but for this class it’s worthwhile. I have been most pleased with Eerdman’s text Unto a Good Land, which is distinctive as a survey text for the amount of attention it gives to religious experience in American history.

What are you reading in your U.S. survey course this semester?

John Woodbridge and Frank James III Publish New Church History Text

Are you a professor at an evangelical seminary or college who is looking for a new textbook for your modern church history class?  You may want to consider  John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III‘s recently published Church History: Vol 2–From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Zondervan, 2013).  Many of you may know Woodbridge as the longtime professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.  James is the president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA and former provost at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Boston area.  They write from a clear evangelical perspective, but are also sensitive to current academic trends in the field of church history.

The text has 22 chapters, from “European Christianity in an Age of Adversity, Renaissance, and Discovery” to “Christianity and Islam: The Challenge of the Future.”  (I might also add that volume 1 of this text was written by Everett Ferguson.)

Here is a taste of the preface:

This volume has sought to accomplish a number of goals.  The first of these is to provide an academically responsible engagement with the facts of history as best we can determine them, whether or not these facts comport with personal convictions.  We believe that such honesty, although at time painful, will ultimately serve the best interests of all, Christian or not.  Second, this volume endeavors to provide a global perspective.  We now inhabit a world where the center of Christianity has shifted from the West to the global South, which requires that due consideration be given to the theology and movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Third, we intend this volume to be contemporary and relevant to the church today.  Change, whether cultural, technological, political, or social, is now happening at an ever-increasing pace.  Although it is impossible to keep up with every new movement, we nevertheless endeavored to engage the most significant of those developments that are most likely to impact the Christian church.  Fourth, we have not avoided controversial issues of the past or the present.  But we do not presume to make final judgments.  Rather, we seek to present the relevant dimensions of the debate in order to provide readers with enough information so that they can begin to reach their own conclusions.

Fifth, we are keenly aware that church history–like all history–is culturally conditioned.  The social norms that governed an earlier era may not be the social norms today.  For example, we do not execute heretics.  However, even as we evaluate actions according to the cultural standards of the time, we are mindful that Christians affirm doctrinal beliefs and ethical standards that are culturally transcendent.  Finally, we have embraced a broad ecumenical stance; that is to say, we have endeavored to be respectful to all Christian traditions and indeed, to give a thoughtful and faithful treatments to other religions.

Did Hippies Worship Satan?

I am guessing that some of them did, but I don’t think the authors of an eighth grade textbook used by voucher schools in Louisiana and Indiana included this little historical nugget in their treatment of hippies because they wanted to present a full and accurate picture of the 1960s counterculture.
The textbook, America: Land I Love is published by A Beka Books, a publishing house affiliated with Pensacola Christian College that I discussed briefly in chapter four of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

America Blog recently posted an image of the pertinent page of the textbook:

Apparently this Louisiana voucher program has gotten into trouble before by using textbooks that praise the Ku Klux Klan, teach that human beings and dinosaurs walked the earth together, and affirm the existence of fire-breathing dragons. 

I am sure there is a larger critique of school voucher programs in all of this.

What David Barton May Get Right

For over a decade David Barton has been arguing that school textbooks have been hostile to religion or have removed religion from the story of American history.  If a talk I heard this week at the Duke conference on the “Bible in the Public Square” is correct, then Barton’s complaint may have some merit.  Let me explain.

In his lecture entitled “The Good Book as Textbook in Historical Perspective,” Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey described the textbook industry’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District vs. Schempp (1963).  (Now that I recall–this discussion may have taken place during the Q&A session). The Vitale case made it unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.  The Schempp case declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional.

According to Chancey (and I am paraphrasing his lecture here), publishers responded to these Supreme Court decisions by downplaying religion in American history textbooks.  Things got so absurd that several popular textbook authors avoided the mention of religion in discussions of the Pilgrims and Puritans.  As Chancey pointed out, the textbook companies misunderstood these Supreme Court decisions to mean that religion was not permitted in the curriculum.  Because they feared that public schools (which in many cases also misunderstood the decisions) would not purchase their books if they had too much religion in them, textbook companies chose instead to take it out.  After Vitale and Schempp, school districts and textbook companies became unnecessarily paranoid about violating the First Amendment’s religious clause and thus erred on the side of caution.

So when Barton complains about religion being missing from the story of America, he may have a point. 

But by the 1980s and 1990s a new wave of scholarship emerged that took (and continues to take) religion seriously in the story of the American past.  From what I have been able to tell, this new scholarship has found its way into school textbooks, offering a more religious-friendly narrative of American history than what may have been offered in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is very interesting stuff.  At this point I can only call attention to Chancey’s lecture, but I would like to learn more.

Do You Really Need a Textbook for Your U.S. Survey Course?

I am becoming more and more sympathetic to the argument Jonathan Rees made yesterday at the blog of the Historical Society.  Like anyone who teaches the United States History Survey Course, there is often a disconnect between the way the textbook organizes the material and the way professors organize their lectures.

And do students really read the textbook?

Rees has scrapped the survey textbook and has “never been happier” about the decision.  Here is a taste of his piece:

Please understand that it’s not as if I’ve chucked all assigned reading out the window.  I’ve replaced my textbook with edited primary sources.  Also, as always, I assign three other short books on a rotating basis covering subjects that I’ll explore in greater depth during class time.  I think of this arrangement as the equivalent of the Sugar Act of 1764.  Like the British Empire, I’ve lowered the reading tariff, but now it’s much more strictly enforced through things like ID quizzes and requirements for details on my essay exams.  Since the documents I select now correspond perfectly to what I cover in lecture, I’m also sending the unmistakable signal that this is the history that students have to know.

I don’t want to teach from a textbook.  I want to assign readings that reinforce the way I teach already.  Equally importantly, by killing my textbook I’ve killed the kind of coverage pressures that I discussed on NPR.  This not only gives me more time to teach the history that I want to teach, it gives me more time to teach skills like writing and reading that my students often desperately need in order to succeed throughout their college careers and beyond.

 A few years ago I taught my upper-division course on the American Revolution using only primary sources.  It worked very well.  Perhaps it is time to do the same thing with the U.S. Survey.

Richard Hofstadter’s "Lost Book"

Ben Hufbauer, an art historian at the University of Louisville, reflects on Richard Hofstadter’s The American Republic (1959), an American history textbook Hofstadter wrote with Daniel Aaron and William Miller.  As part of his essay at Inside Higher Ed, Hufbauer writes about an encounter he had with this text while doing research in Nigeria:

I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.

Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate.

I started reading and was surprised. My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. “Old American flag Bailey,” as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time.

A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:

“Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.”

Bailey sums up that the “discovery” of America was a “sensational achievement, “but states that “The American continents were slow to yield their virginity.”

Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:

“When we say, ‘Columbus discovered America,’ we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.”

Today “permanent occupation” probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, “catastrophic.”

Readings for a pre-1865 American Religious History Course

One of our faithful readers, an early American historian at a major research university on the west coast, is in the process of choosing texts for a course in American religious history to 1865.  He has taught the course before, but is thinking about retooling his syllabus with some new readings.

Any suggestions?  What has worked well for you when teaching religion during this time period?  This scholar-teacher is a specialist in colonial America, so he is particularly looking for books in the 1776-1865 range, but if you have suggestions for the colonial period as well I am sure he would welcome them.  Other pedagogical tips for teaching his period are also welcome.

Thanks.

More Problems With Secondary School Textbooks

Jonathan T. Reynolds is reviewing an African history textbook for a major publisher and it is awful.  Here is a taste of his post at Cliopatria:

OK… I’ve got a problem. I’m reviewing the Africa content for a new World History text by a Major Publisher Who Shall Remain Nameless. It is targeted at a secondary school audience.

Here’s the problem. It’s terrible. It’s often flat out wrong. It’s mired in misinformation on a host of levels. The periodization is a total mishmash. The writing is REALLY bad. The main source of information appears to be the on-line edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

At the end of the post he asks if anyone out there knows how secondary textbooks get written.  Great question.  I would like to know as well.

Our Virginia: Past and Present

Some of you may be familiar with the controversy surrounding the Virginia elementary school textbook, Our Virginia: Past and Present.  This is the textbook that claimed falsely that thousands of African-Americans fought in the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Over at the blog of the Historical Society, Randall Stephens writes about the findings of the “Report on the Review of Virginia’s Textbook Adoption Process…”  If you don’t want to read the entire report, Stephens breaks it down for us.

Here is just one part of the report, a section critiquing the textbook’s coverage of colonial literacy:

“Very few people in colonial America could read . . .” This is a myth. The overwhelming majority of white colonists were literate. In New England, literacy rates were higher than elsewhere because there were more schools and there was an emphasis on learning to read the Bible, but even in Virginia and other Southern colonies, almost all white men and even most white women could read in the eighteenth century. Percentages change over time, always growing larger, but even in the seventeenth century, about 60% of men in Virginia could read and about a quarter of the women. Figures are higher for the northern colonies. At no time in American history did “very few people” know how to read (unless one is talking about African Americans or Native Americans).