In this book, Loewen has talked about some of the glaring errors and biases in history textbooks. Now, it’s time to discuss a more general question: why, exactly, are textbooks so awful? Who are they satisfying?
For most of his book, Loewen has studied how textbooks distort history. Now, it’s time for him to discuss why they do so.
It’s possible that, at least in part, history textbooks are biased because historians are predominately male and white, and come from privileged families. It’s also possible that, in part, textbooks are biased against minorities because of the constraints of time and space—with a limited page count, textbook writers default to the most familiar historical narrative they can think of; namely, an ethnocentric, racist, classist one. Furthermore, it’s possible that the people who hold the power in our society—most of whom are white, male, and wealthy—deliberately create history textbooks that legitimate their own continued domination. While such an idea may seem far-fetched to some, consider that a few years ago, ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, donated six million dollars to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA); as a result, the NSTA refused to accept free copies of a documentary about global warming for fear that doing so would jeopardize their funding from ExxonMobil.
Loewen submits a series of explanations for the poor quality of contemporary history textbooks: 1) historians are biased and don’t know it; 2) historians are biased, know it, and don’t have enough time to correct their biases; 3) publishers are biased and do know it. While possibility 3) might seem far-fetched to many readers, Loewen offers an example of the ways that businesses manipulate the educational system to sway young people toward their own interests. Loewen doesn’t have time for a full-scale analysis of business manipulation (such an analysis would be beyond the scope of this book), but he simply suggests business interests as a possible explanation for some biases in textbooks.
Even though there’s a lot of truth in the idea that a “power elite” control society and intentionally make textbooks dull, there are some significant flaws in such an idea. For one, Americans are free to criticize their own country and its history—and regularly do so. Also, the “power elite hypothesis” is too easy: it is a way for ordinary people to absolve themselves of any complicity in society’s problems—it’s much easier to blame billionaires than it is to accept personal responsibility for the state of the world.
In this important passage, Loewen confronts some of his own biases. For much of his book, Loewen has criticized the “power elite” in America, accusing them of engineering wars to satisfy their own interests. Here, however, Loewen admits that blaming the power elite for America’s problems is, itself, indicative of bias—blaming the power elite for everything acts as an alibi for ordinary people’s ignorance and passivity.
One of the most basic reasons why textbooks are dull is that they’re designed to be adopted by school boards and textbook committees. In many states, textbook committees take a few months to choose between a few dozen potential textbooks for a school district. There simply isn’t enough time for committees to read all 1000 pages of each textbook, so publishers, recognizing the rules of the system, make their textbooks flashy and fill with them eye-catching visual aids and colorful pages. Increasingly, textbooks include a large number of sidebar sections, divided into categories such as “Terms to Learn,” “multimedia activities,” etc. As a result, the actual historical narrative of the textbook only takes up about half of the pages. In theory, sidebar sections are supposed to make the text more readable, but in fact, they make it far less so by distracting from the flow of history and creating the impression that history is a chaotic jumble.
One of the most interesting parts of this chapter is Loewen’s analysis of the economics of textbook publishing. As he points out here, textbook companies are, at their most basic level, businesses. Like all successful businesses selling a product, publishing companies need to attract consumers—thus, they print flashy textbooks that appeal to overworked textbook selection committees because they seem to be easy to read. However, Loewen argues, by focusing so extensively on the more superficial qualities of the textbook (visual aids, chapter outlines, etc.), textbook companies neglect the real, historical “substance” of their books.
The selection process for a textbook censors much of its historical content. For many years, any high school textbooks used in the South were formally required to call the Civil War the “war between the States”; only after the civil rights movement did textbooks revert to the usual terminology. Loewen wrote a textbook on the history of Mississippi that won an award for nonfiction. But before it was published, school systems told Loewen that the book contained too much “black history” and focused too greatly on the recent past. Loewen successfully sued the school district on First Amendment grounds, and won. Loewen argues that textbooks aren’t ethnocentric simply because textbook committees are ethnocentric, but also because textbook writers censor themselves—they’re afraid that they’ll be rejected for telling the truth, and so they stick to the standard narratives about Columbus, Lincoln, etc.
Textbook selection committees don’t just receive textbooks passively—their own biases control the kinds of textbooks that publishing companies print, and therefore, the kinds of textbooks that students read. Loewen personally sued a school district for trying to enforce a biased, arguably racist view of history, and won. Therefore, he knows better than most that selection committees have their own cultural and political agenda. However, Loewen further argues that historians, not just committees, are to blame for the poor quality of textbooks—historians are so afraid of being rejected that they tailor their books to the biases of the textbook selection committee.
Who writes textbooks? Allegedly, textbooks are written by one or two historians—the people who get their names on the front cover. The reality, however, is that textbooks are written by dozens of people, many with no more education than an undergraduate English degree. There are occasions when the credited authors of new history textbooks have been retired or dead for years. For the most part, the “authors” of textbooks don’t write every word; in theory, they just have the “final say” over what is written.
Loewen argues that the supposed “authors” of high school history textbooks have similar relationships to the contents of the textbooks that celebrities have to a clothing line or a perfume—they might serve in some advisory capacity, but their primary role is to allow a company to use their name to sell the product.
Loewen has found several identical or near-identical passages in two contemporary American history textbooks, each textbook with an entirely different set of credited authors. When Loewen asked one of the textbook authors about the passages, the author claimed to be “extremely distressed,” and said he wasn’t sure what had happened. Loewen suggests that the identical passages must have been written by some “nameless person” employed by Simon and Schuster, the company that published both textbooks. Often, Simon and Schuster reserves the right to edit and rephrase textbooks however it chooses, and in such cases it tasks clerks and interns with writing passages in textbooks. In this case, the same clerk must have written one passage and then reused it.
To prove that the ”author” of a history textbook doesn’t write all of the textbook, Loewen points out the amount of plagiarism in history textbooks. In this case, anonymous writers at Simon and Schuster are writing the same passages and placing them in different Simon and Schuster textbooks.
What’s most disturbing about Loewen’s anecdote is that the authors themselves didn’t know about the identical passages; in other words, they didn’t fully understand the information that was being passed off under their names. One ghostwriter told Loewen that it’s common practice for textbooks to assign most or all of the textbook writing to freelancers and ghostwriters, and then “rent a name”—usually belonging to a real historian—to go on the cover. This would explain the embarrassing factual errors in many textbooks (one 1990s textbook claimed that President Harry Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Korea in the 1950s.)
Many publishing companies employ well-known historians to write history textbooks. However, it would appear that these historians end up writing little to none of the text that high school students read in class—ghostwriters do most of the work. The result is that textbook companies pass off shoddily written history textbooks as the work of renowned historians, when, in fact, they’re nothing of the kind.
In addition to containing false or even plagiarized information, textbooks are bad at introducing controversy or uncertainty, even though these concepts are central to the study of history. For example, textbooks have an irritating tendency to provide “discussion questions,” many of which are either vacuous or impossibly broad, while also providing teachers with prepared answers to these questions—suggesting that textbooks are meant to engineer a “fixed” conversation, instead of provoking a real discussion about how to interpret history.
As Loewen has already argued, history is a constant process of research and interpretation, in which there aren’t always clear answers. However, history textbooks create the impression that history is the study of dates, facts, and historical figures, and that there can be little to no uncertainty in formal studies of the past.
Undeniably, one of the major reasons why history textbooks are so poor in quality is that high school teachers accept them instead of lobbying their superiors for better books. To be fair, high school teachers, who work long weeks for very little pay, have little incentive to work harder at educating their students. And high school history teachers may be afraid of “losing control” of their students: one of the reasons why history classes rarely leave any room for uncertainty. Ultimately, high school teachers accept dull textbooks because these textbooks make their jobs easier. Specifically, new textbooks often include prepared lists of main ideas, vocabulary terms, and dates, providing teachers with convenient exam material. The downside of prepared exam materials of this kind is that they make history seem like a jumble of facts, dates, and people, giving students little sense for the “flow” of history.
High school history teachers have a difficult job: they have to maintain control over their students while teaching the information in the history textbook. Thus, one of the major reasons why history classes are dull is that it’s easier for teachers to teach history as a series of dates and facts than it is for them to give a sense of the controversies and nuances of history. To name only one example, it’s much easier for teachers to grade multiple choice tests (in other words, tests with a factual right answer) than it is for them to grade essay exams (i.e., exams that give students the opportunity to write about historical ideas and historical ambiguities).
For the most part, history teachers do not “teach against their textbooks”; they teach their textbooks’ information, no matter how incorrect or ethnocentric the information is. Teachers who teach from a textbook “can hide behind” the textbook when they need to defend their work. Teachers know full-well that they can be fired for introducing even vaguely controversial material in their classrooms—so unfortunately, they have every incentive to stick to the textbook.
As Loewen points out, it’s often “safer” for teachers to stick to the curriculum, because they could be fired if angry parents accused them of teaching a controversial interpretation of history. Even if some teachers take risks and teach a more intellectually coherent, interesting version of history than the textbook provides, the majority of teachers do not—their economic and career incentives encourage them to teach the same biased history, year after year.
It’s not enough to blame teachers, power elites, or bad writers for the poor quality of history textbooks. The truth is that all Americans help to perpetuate bad history. Consider, for example, the way that textbooks in the 1930s dealt with the history of black soldiers in the Civil War: not a single 1930s high school history textbook that Loewen can find mentions black Union soldiers. By and large, mainstream society in the 1930s did not celebrate or respect the achievements of African Americans, and so the textbooks of the era omitted some important historical information. What was true in 1930 is true today: textbooks mirror the beliefs and attitudes of American society as a whole.
History textbooks partly reflect (though they also influence) what mainstream society believes, and what mainstream society finds worthy of discussion. Therefore, while it’s possible to blame one or more sectors of society (the textbook industry, historians, teachers, students), the truth is that all Americans are partly to blame for the poorness of history textbooks.
One of the most important ways through which society controls the content of history textbooks is by criticizing and in some cases suing teachers who expose children to controversial material. Thus, one of the reasons why children don’t grow up learning about Columbus’s genocide is that most people believe that children shouldn’t see pictures of hangings and corpses. But there must be a way to treat children fairly and sensibly without lying or censoring the truth. In the 21st century, teachers’ attempts to censor the truth are particularly unproductive, since children have access to media that often do a better job of telling the truth than teachers do. For example, children might learn about nice, friendly police officers in school, and then see footage of the Rodney King beating on television.
Loewen argues that history textbooks omit information and glorify historical figures because publishing companies are afraid of being sued by angry parents. While Loewen has some sympathy for the argument that children shouldn’t be exposed to information about war or genocide, he argues that in the 21st century, children are exposed to this information, whether their parents like it or not (for instance, when a black man named Rodney King was brutally beaten by the LAPD in the early 1990s, news networks played footage of the beating repeatedly). Therefore, textbooks should teach children the truth, instead of trying to preserve a state of innocence that few children have anymore.
Why do adults want to keep children ignorant of history? Supposedly, adults do so because they want children to remain idealistic, but it seems more likely that they do so in order to prevent their children from becoming idealistic; they don’t want their children to distrust authority and grow into committed, political crusaders. To this day, many, if not most, parents believe that learning to “respect history” is an important part of becoming a mature adult. The truth, Loewen argues, is that children need to learn how to question and challenge historical figures and events if they are to become mature, intelligent people.
Many parents want their children to be respectful and obedient; however, when children grow up being ordered to respect everyone in history—even murderers like Columbus—they become disillusioned and then simply bored with history. Furthermore, they become more passive and politically disengaged—hardly qualities that many parents would want in their children.
Teachers and parents often bemoan students’ inability to “learn about history”—i.e., to memorize their history textbooks. But perhaps students’ unwillingness to learn about history from a textbook is a sign that they want to learn the truth—an idea that Loewen will discuss in the next chapter.