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We Expect Textbooks to Do Too Much

Fontenelle cautioned that we should distrust all ancient histories. As it turns out, being skeptical of contemporary ones is probably good advice, too. Need a reminder? Then don’t miss Dana Goldstein’s interesting look in The Times at just how different textbooks can be around the country. 

Goldstein focused on Social Studies, a politically fraught area with real interstate variance in standards. She showed how some controversial topics, for instance the Civil War or the 2nd Amendment, are treated differently in blue California than red Texas – large states have extra leverage in the marketplace – and how politics infuses what students are taught. Do students really need to learn about the Solyndra controversy to understand the debate over green energy? Texas apparently thinks so. Yet like everything these days the article was consumed through a partisan or ideological lens. Apparently we are supposed to choose sides and signal if we like California or Texas (half of Twitter is that kind of signaling and the other half is pet pictures). 

Yet a careful eye might notice problems with textbooks in both states. For instance, California paints a far more textured and nuanced picture of American history, particularly on race, than Texas. At the same time, California clumsily grafts contemporary LGBT frames onto Native Americans far more definitively and expansively than many Native Americans themselves would. 

Good times. But, parsing various issues or just picking sides misses the larger point: We’re asking textbooks to do too much work. American history is complicated and our understandings of it evolve with time and through sometimes contentious debate. Today we’re having a lively debate about whether to trace the genuine founding of the nation to 1619 or 1789. Others argue it’s 1776. (I’m partial to 1865). There isn’t a right answer, tastes about what’s “right” will evolve, and people will disagree for at least as long as there is a country to disagree about. Making sense of that is a tall order for any textbook, especially one that’s also supposed to convey history across great swaths of time. 

Good teachers recognize this and it’s why they try to eschew textbooks in favor of primary sources and different perspectives or at best use them as jumping off points. This can and should be done in an age appropriate manner and it takes substantial training and time. It’s the only way, though, to really help students understand the story (what happened) and then think for themselves about the complicated questions bound up in it (what it meant and why it matters). 

That’s a heavy lift so trying to do it with just textbooks is a sucker’s play. Trying to get teachers to do it without greater support for them in their work, including through curriculum, is a recipe for frustration. The real action is in finding material that helps students understand the story and then primary and contemporary takes that do justice to the rich and diverse tapestry that is the American story and thoughtful debates about it. Technology makes this a little easier than in the past, yes, but in the end the way through is still good teaching. That is an old story in education and textbooks are certainly no exception.

What Do You Think?
Andrew J. Rotherham
Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education. You can learn more about him and Bellwether here.

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