Americans recall their school history texts since the 1960s

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Coming apart’:

Americans recall their school history texts since the 1960s

Sidney Brown
In utilizing the still contentious techniques of oral history, this article seeks to explore the views of a sample of some twenty Americans of the history texts they used at their high schools. With ages ranging from 20 to 60 years the responses provided insights into the vicissitudes of texts over the last four decades of the twentieth century. In such matters as content, emphasis and approach it is suggested that American high school history texts reflected many of the concerns of American society. The purpose of such texts appears to have been to encourage, through the study of American history, the changing nature of what constituted the ideals of American citizenship and democracy. How far such well intentioned messages were to be delivered successfully to their youthful recipients is a matter of debate, judging by the findings of this interim study.

The potency of cheap music, to which Eliot referred in Noel Coward’s Private Lives in 1930, has provided a sure fire device for ever increasing numbers of writers seeking to capture the flavour of a particular time in their work ever since. The choice of this means to illuminate the period with which this article is concerned is partly encouraged by its songs’ rebellious tenor so dramatically evident in years famous for open youthful angst and its repercussions. Although, necessarily, the songs which form the section headings are presented in the anemic written form, the hope is entertained that in this obvious limitation, paradoxically, the advantage of utilising oral techniques in furthering our study of textbooks’ importance will be underlined and illustrated by considering the impact on their readers.

Both the texts utilised in the study and the secondary sources employed have been deliberately selected from the 1960s and 1970s in order to capture the flavour of the times and the then contemporary influences on the changing school history texts whilst, hopefully, minimizing the sometimes stultifying effects of subsequent hindsight.

This period, which saw a youthful Bill Clinton obtaining high grades, Hillary Rodham achieving exceptional ones, and George Bush junior attending high school can, thus, be considered not only fascinating in itself as an important turning point in the evolution of the American history text but may have some contemporary interest.

What did you learn in school today?

Tom Paxton 1966
What did you learn in school today?

Dear little boy of mine.

What did you learn in school today?

Dear little boy of mine.

I learned that war is not so bad,

I learned about the great ones we had had.

We fought in Germany and in France

And someday I will get my chance.

That’s what I learned in school today,

That’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today?

Dear little boy of mine.

What did you learn in school today?

Dear little boy of mine.

I learned our government must be strong,

It’s always right and never wrong.

Our leaders are the finest men,

And we elect them again and again.

That’s what I learned in school today,

That’s what I learned in school.

Tom Paxton’s droll lyrics serve as a suitable introduction to a section concerning former high school students’ memories of their history texts in the last 40 years. Four decades ago, it has been suggested, America appeared to be ‘coming apart’ with assassinations, race riots, and the growing debacle in Vietnam. And, as events on 11th September 2001 have so tragically indicated, characteristics American optimism continues to be sternly tested. Analyses of American history texts have been made by a number of scholars with various priorities and emphases. In no instance was any attention given to the views of the texts’ young readers it seems. In 1913 an analysis was made of United States history texts by graduate students at the University of Illinois. Taking a small sample from texts used from 1865–1900 the study revealed that war content had declined.1 In 1922 Julian Hubbell’s survey revealed that 61.3% of the texts’ content was concerned with politics.2 David McDonald reached a similar conclusion in 1930.3

Wider sampling was employed by Chauncey Jacobs in 1939. Texts, he argued, still put much store by memorization of ‘facts’ and lacked worthwhile illustrative materials. However there had been a small improvement in size, material and quality after 1870.4 In 1956, Frank Caputo continued Jacobs’ survey and concentrated on texts from 1886–1954. Working under the same supervisor as Jacobs, John Nietz, he discerned a growing tendency towards interpretation rather than pure factual data, and was impressed by the use of cartoons, maps, pictures, graphs

and charts in then more recent works. But he warned that texts were often coy over contentious issues because of pressure groups and zealous censors.5

Ray Allen Billington’s excellent work on bias in texts and Anglo American misunderstanding and Frances FitzGerald’s impressive book on the changing nature of American school history texts provided the initial stimulus for this article.6 Evaluation of the texts used in courses is usually part and parcel of the overall process in which students are invited to engage in these appraisal conscious times. For the most part the comments excite less sense of involvement compared to feedback directed towards the strengths or limits of the instructor for obvious reasons. Nevertheless the feedback that texts have prompted (and on rare occasions inspired) has provided an interesting focus for the writer over the last thirty years or so.

Overall, accepting the dangers of generalisation, the message received can be summed up in the depressing word ‘lukewarm’ at best. The reasons for this would be well beyond the boundaries of this short article. What is of special interest is that, despite the gallant and laudable attempts to improve the text throughout the last four decades, the result has been disappointing.

The complexities and inherent dangers of any exercise in oral history are well documented in a number of works.7 Allowing thus for the possibilities of skewed sampling, misleading responses and other obvious limitations the following section of this article attempts to provide a record of the views of some twenty Americans of their school history texts. The sample’s ages ranged from the late teens to the early sixties although the majority was located in the twenty/thirty-year group. Men and women were represented equally and came from widely dispersed regions. All were resident in Britain in 1998–1999 and were involved, for the most part, with the military, the civil service, private firms and education. As is customary anonymity was preserved.

For those respondents who were at school in the late 1950s the distant memories are of history texts strong in patriotism and good citizenship exhortation but with no attention given to ethnic awareness and feminism.8 A fairly critical note was struck by one teacher who recalls that her school in New Jersey favoured texts which took ‘an ethnocentric approach’ which was ‘definitely pro capitalist/anti communist’ in tone although there did seem to be an implicit understanding that the past could be a means of providing insight into avoiding mistakes in the future.9

Those who were students in the 1960s provided, not surprisingly, a wide variety of responses. Notwithstanding its reputation as the decade of change and ‘coming apart’ one New Yorker remarked that texts rarely mentioned any ‘mistakes’ made by the United States throughout its history.10 To another, the concentration on American history’s famous highlights such as the Civil War ensured that ethnic and feminist issues, let alone the rest of the world

which apparently ‘no one cared about’ were not significant for many text book writers and, it seems, their less than enthused readers.11 One Michigan resident recalled that American history seemed to end with the Korean conflict12 whilst another, from the rural part of Indiana, remembered his text linking various ‘atrocities’ in history such as Dachau and Belsen with the infamous Boston Massacre!13

For some 1970s students it appeared that ‘the cavalry continued to save the day’ in the history text­book recalled by an upstate New Yorker. Yet this was tempered by considerable space devoted to Native Americans and their contrasting societies.14 ‘I remember loving history and getting A in it’ recalled one who had spent his early days in Winchester, Indiana. The emphasis, he recalled, was on ‘the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War’ and the purpose of the subject, it appeared, was to ‘create pride’ in being American.15 On balance, thus, the majority of texts appeared to have changed little from the 1950s to the early 1980s. What ‘ethnicity there was was brought up by the teachers themselves’, whilst the texts continued to plug such well-worn images as ‘Washington crossing the Delaware’ and remained uncritical of the United States.16

By the 1980s one anonymous Tennessee respondent recalls the texts at school had a ‘definite left wing bias’ but did not enlarge.17 Another, from Maryland, similarly hinted at ‘angles in texts’ and suggested patriotism, ethnicity, feminism and good citizenship were present but ‘should not be’. A particularly ‘fictitious account of John Brown’s activities’ left a lasting impression on him it seems.18

The 1970s’ texts seemed to have contained some memorable illustrations if one Boise, Idaho respondent’s memories are to be taken as representative. Not surprisingly, the impressive paintings of Catlin charting the settlement of the west gave a graphic (and close at hand) reminder of the stirring frontier days in the 19th century. But the more contemporary and, perhaps, less ‘heroic’ issues appeared to have made no impression on the text­book authors’ choice of material.19

However children growing up in the declining ‘Rustbelt’ of urban Ohio at this time were encouraged to take a more critical view it seems. Uncomfortable matters such as slavery, Native-American suffering and the exploitation of cheap labour in Latin America were boldly placed before the students for debate and discussion. In fact the text appeared to the respondent at a distance of twenty years ‘liberal and almost radical’ and, without doubt, made a deep impression.20 Another 1970s student recalls being taught by ‘a Native American’ and a text which grasped ‘environmental issues’ as an integral part of economic history. However the norm still remained a highly patriotic approach to the Revolution et al. The civil-rights crusades of the 1960s were tacked on in the form of a somewhat awkward continuing (and triumphant) American dream.21

Students from the southern states who completed their schooling by the 1970s were still, it appears, given strong doses of ‘good citizenship’ and the more ‘radical history of blacks, Hispanics and women’ made little impact in their text book recollections.22 One respondent, who spent his formative years in Jacksonville, Florida, could not remember any of the books at all, let alone their content!23

Interestingly an Afro American from Philadelphia offered a complete contrast. For her, although the texts tended to play down ethnic conflict, there were significant portions devoted to black history and feminism as part and parcel of the continued quest for good citizenship awareness.24 Such a response was unusual. Even in highly urban and cosmopolitan areas such as Brooklyn, New York, according to another 1970s respondent, the impact of ethnic and feminist approaches was minimum and was still very traditional and, sadly, ‘uninteresting’ because of its lack of contemporary relevance in the decade which witnessed Watergate and the end of the war in Vietnam.25 What radical history there was appeared to one Marylander as short pieces on such notables as ‘Rosa Parkes, Martha Washington and Dolly (sic) Madison’ whilst the picture of the ‘Bombardment of Fort McHenry and Francis Scott Key writing the Star Spangled Banner’ has remained etched in her memory.26

Some especially unusual impressions from the 1970s and 1980s were provided by a young woman who spent her early years in England and thus came to the American educational system a little later than many of the other respondents. Her fairly critical views of the texts used include such observations as history not being ‘treated as a relevant and interesting subject’ and a worry that ‘Native Americans were not addressed as valuable first Americans’ whilst the coverage of the Revolutionary War was ‘slanted against the British (No big surprise!)’.27

If this response is taken as typical it reveals a somewhat dismal picture of caution and torpor amongst the text book writers despite the vast changes in American society’s features and attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s. Ethnic awareness ‘in terms of ethnic subgroups’ was still hard to find and feminism given little attention. However the old war-horses such as patriotism and good citizenship continued to feature in a traditionally safe and somewhat anemic way with scant regard given to ‘current events, popular culture and the art, music, literature etc. of the period’.28 This is a pity, for as the respondent observes, history given this treatment in the text books would, without doubt, ‘come alive for students’.29

Fairly recent high school graduates presented an interesting and widely varied set of responses on their memories of late 1980s and early 1990s texts. Some books were still badly produced with ‘small print and no pictures’, yet history as a subject was ‘loved’ by one young

woman.30 For another, who had studied in Colorado Springs, there was a marked bias towards ‘recent history’ and its relevance and implicit in this was a strong interest in ethnic and gender issues.31 For one white student her overriding memory was of ‘a lot of black history’ in her school in Baltimore, Maryland and the teacher spent a great deal of time on slavery and the Civil War which was not, it seems, to everyone’s taste!32 Another, from the deep South (Louisiana), whose ancestors were slaves, found the text book discussions of the infamous triangular trade fascinating and, of course, personally revealing.33

The overwhelming impression from the returns was that, despite the sterling efforts made by the well-intentioned educators since the 1960s to inject more ‘relevance’ (which was equated with multi ethnic, feminist, and ‘caring’ content) the students remained remarkably unimpressed.

School day (ring! ring! goes the bell)

Chuck Berry 1957.

Almost fifty years ago it would seem that American children were model students:

Up in the mornin’ and out to school,

The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule;

American Histr’y and Practical Math,

You study ‘em hard and hopin’ to pass.

These lines from the legendary Chuck Berry retains something of the optimism of what has been called ‘the last black and white decade’.

The emphasis placed on an omnipresent, standard, nicely illustrated and well organised textbook has appeared to the author one of the most consistent features of American school history teaching in many areas of the country. American history is a required course of study throughout the United States at present. State laws frequently single it out as essential to the training of good citizens. Typically it is taught for a full year in the junior year (or eleventh grade; children aged 15) and constitutes the last formal contact with history many Americans will ever have. Every American school will, of course, vary to some extent but it would be safe to assume that the vast majority will use history textbooks now as they have done since the opening of the twentieth century.

The level of work becomes progressively difficult and demanding but the concept of the subject, for the most part, remains the same. American children often study the same period of American history three times, once in Elementary and again in junior and Senior High School. The fact that history texts are used at all three levels frequently means that the method of teaching is similar though, of course, the material involved becomes more complex. At the high school level some history is studied by all the pupils whether they like it or not, and irrespective of aptitude. For the most part this is justified on the basis that it will help the pupil become a responsible citizen.

In the United States the prevalence of voluminous and detailed curriculum guides, statements of course objectives, and, especially, text­books with teachers’ manuals has often

given the teacher little room for manoeuvre. The adoption of a particular text book in a state is a complex process subject to many variables. To take one example, the state of California’s education code by 1972 had over 2,300 pages. The state adopts textbooks for statewide use and constantly revised its guidelines on courses. Despite indications of strong central control, the political tradition of localism powerfully affects the implementation of state policies. Most important is the tension between lay groups and legislators on the one hand and professional educators on the other. Thus conflicting groups pull and push the state department of education at Sacramento in different directions.

This complex political melee has grown since the early years of World War II. At that time the state superintendent of public instruction drew the bulk of his support and advice from a group of local school superintendents and professors of education.34 But times were changing.

Wonderful world. Sam Cook 1960.

‘Don’t know much about history’ confessed the unusually modest Sam Cooke in his 1960 hit ‘Wonderful World’ and it would appear that many contemporary scholars, academics and teachers would have echoed that anxiety as they viewed the nation’s students in the year Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ triumphed. The decade was characterised by a sense of great loss for the American people; apart from the deaths of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy there must be added the cost of Vietnam. It is thus, not surprising, that the American national mood in those ten years was frequently one of confusion, bitterness and uncertainty.

Although originally intended as a guiding inspiration for the founding thirteen states the motto ‘Out of the many one’ came to symbolise the hope that the various immigrant groups which came to the United States should ideally merge. The well known ‘Pledge of Allegiance’, which is a feature of the morning ritual in schools, was designed to further this. By the mid twentieth century this was showing signs of being outmoded.

The concept of nationalism in the United States is an interesting one. In contrast to the ideal of the ‘Melting Pot’ so popular in the early years of the 20th century, there has steadily grown an awareness of the multicultural nature of American society. Hence the image of the ‘Salad Bowl’ became more in vogue.35 The ideal is no longer a blend of all the ingredients into a mixture in which all the individual characteristics are sublimated in the quest for a White, Anglo Saxon Protestant (‘WASP’) American type; rather it is a mixture in which each element retains its separate identity but contributes its own special flavour. The individual elements are to be recognized as contributing something unique which will enrich the whole.

Such attitudes have had important repercussions in history textbooks at the university and school level in the last forty years. New emphasis has been placed on Black history, Indian history, Chicano history and Women’s history in an attempt to gain fuller and more realistic perspectives of the American past. This is not to say that American nationality does not exist but, inevitably, a nation comprising such a diversity of peoples, given a deceptive veneer of a common language, must find its unity in factors other than memory and descent. How successful was the ‘Great Experiment’ that had been launched in 1776 in the terms of the post 1960s? This was the key question in a still strongly regional country.

A century after the Civil War opened one southerner was still concerned about the quality of textbooks in the former Confederate states. He maintained that it was becoming increasingly difficult for authors of textbooks, publishers, and textbook commissions to find suitable books for adoption in some states such as South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. Unhappily, intellectual quality was not the prime criterion for selecting a book. Books in many fields, especially the social sciences, had to conform to concepts which textbook commissions and parents had of the meaning of the term ‘southern way of life’. Two history textbooks, Our Changing Social Order and Land of Freedom were criticised in Georgia on bases bearing no relation to their academic quality but for other reasons. One text which denigrated the Confederacy proved professionally disastrous to the school librarian who had ordered it.36

The Times They Are A’Changin’

Bob Dylan (1963)

If ever the words of a song encapsulated our present perceptions of the 1960s it surely was ‘The Times They Are A’Changin’ ’ from one of the decade’s self-proclaimed icons, Bob Dylan.

Come mothers and fathers,

Throughout the land

and don’t criticize

What you can’t understand.

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend a hand

For the times they are a changin’.
Two closely connected factors – the student revolution and American involvement in Vietnam – further demonstrate the appropriateness of the phrase ‘coming apart’ as it is applied to the 1960s. Beginning at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 and culminating in the shootings at Kent State University, Ohio in 1970, it seemed that through much of the decade America’s youth was pre­occupied with sit ins, demonstrations and draft card burning. A great deal of this was the result of growing American military involvement in Vietnam and, in particular, the threat of the draft to young men who regarded the conflict as immoral, as well as being dangerous to themselves. Politically the war led to the virtual abdication of President Johnson in 1968 while, at the same time, it gave the American people the ominous lesson that even the United States was vincible, and could actually lose wars. Yet it is only since the 1960s that American authors involved in children’s textbooks have deemed it necessary to include much controversy in their discussions. Much of this can be explained in political terms for the very change in emphasis and approach provide ample testimony to the success of the Feminist movement’s efforts. But however many texts included Addams, Dix and the rest, they still lay themselves open to the trap that such courses as ‘Outstanding Black Americans’ fall into. Namely do such approaches,

however well intentioned, miss the point by only concentrating on the achievers? Most modern American children’s texts have made great strides in incorporating the vital new directions that American historiography has taken of late. They will give attention to Frederick Douglass, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. Du Bois, Geronimo, Shirley Chisholm, and a host of other individuals representing either minority groups or victims of discrimination. But few of those I have examined of the recent period, have avoided the implicit suggestion that ‘the only thing that succeeds is success’. In this, of course, they are inflicted with the general problem that history is largely a story of the winner and, in the United States in particular, the concepts of Social Darwinism, ‘rugged individualism’ and free competition, however mythical they have been in the past, and are in the present, remain a pervasive conditioning influence on the younger generation. By the 1960s and 1970s, to the majority of American teachers the idea of responsible democratic citizenship appeared mainly to be concerned with the problem of reconciling conflicting ethnic groups, political views, religious beliefs and economic interests into a single society in which none could feel themselves to be oppressed. Instead of an attempt to mould all these different elements into a homogeneous whole (the ‘melting pot’) the emphasis in recent times has been on accommodating all these differences in a united but diverse society. These problems have contributed to a feeling among American teachers that there are no absolutes where social and political issues are concerned, and that the task should be to foster tolerance and understanding A guide for Maryland teachers published in 1975 contains the following statements:

We have a ‘cultural mosaic’ in the United States, not a ‘melting pot’. Rather than a remoulding of all cultural groups after one Western European model, we have a multiplicity of cultural groups living side by side in a mosaic ... students should be able to identify and describe the contribution of more than one ethnic or cultural group in discussing an event in history ... We need to help students at all levels to explore their own prejudices and seek the facts and attitudes that will destroy prejudice ... As teachers we need to become increasingly aware of our own prejudices, especially racial prejudices, and try to overcome them.37
Curriculum guides for teachers in two states not noted for their liberal credentials, even in the 1970s when they appeared in Arizona and Indiana, serve as a useful pair of case studies for the purposes of this article. As education in the USA is a state, not a federal responsibility, much valuable insight may be gained from sources such as these reflecting its essentially local character.

During the Bi centennial year, despite the understandable patriotic swell, the traditionally conservative state of Arizona’s ‘Criteria for Textbook Selection’ revealed some surprises. Its authors suggested that care must be taken not to ‘omit negative aspects of the past’ and the ‘opposition to the war in Vietnam’ should be squarely addressed. However the ‘vital role of leadership in the world’ which the United States held and its ‘traditional American values of freedom, independence and self-realization’ were deemed still as vital in ‘What every child

should know’, at least in Arizona.38 Phrases used in the Arizona publication which went to press over a decade after its most famous son, Senator Barry ‘In Your Heart You Know He’s Right’ Goldwater was defeated for the Presidency by Lyndon Johnson, still took a patriotic note. NATO and SEATO were to be discussed ‘as efforts to stabilise world peace’ and ‘the growth, evolution, prestige and standing of the United States’ was to be stressed. Arizona’s students were not to be spared the ‘opposition to the so called military industrial complex’ and to be told of ‘the dichotomy between young people and the establishment of the ‘civil rights movement’ and ‘opposition to the war in Vietnam’39 which was then a recent memory. Yet over one third of the thirty four page guide is devoted to a remarkably detailed consideration of the history of Arizona with special emphasis on its place as part of the expansion of the United States westward. Thus such figures as Wyatt Earp and Frank Slaughter would, presumably, occupy a fairly prominent place in classrooms all over Arizona.

A refreshing contrast may be found in Indiana’s equivalent guide published at the same time.40 Students should be encouraged ‘to first identify a contemporary problem of political importance; second, select a position; and third, build a carefully reasoned case for this position’ in the pursuit of developing their own point of view. Controversial and sensitive issues, the racial slurs ‘of an Archie Bunker’ (a popular TV figure of the time) and possible alternative and more critical ways of looking at American Christian missionary activity in Hawaii are all considered:

An extremely interesting – although obviously controversial and sensitive issue – is ingrained white American perceptions of Africans as ‘primitive’. The racial slurs of an Archie Bunker are relevant at this time, e.g., his use of the epithet ‘jungle bunnies’. Introduce the concept of ‘de humanization’, i.e., using language to degrade others. It can be argued that both Europeans and Americans have ‘dehumanized’ persons of a darker skin colour.
1. What is the meaning of the term ‘dehumanization?’

2. What examples of dehumanization can your students describe which they personally encountered, observed or discerned?

3. What are examples of dehumanization on a broad scale?

4. Why do individuals form one society wish to dehumanize others?

Americans tend to regard Christian missionary efforts throughout the world as a good thing. However, it is clear that such missionary efforts are often regarded with deep suspicion by others. Using either the movie or the book Hawaii by James Michiner (who interestingly enough, began his career in the 1930s as a social studies specialist) as a case study, describe and explain the original purpose of missionary activities. Consider the values that were involved (e.g., desire to convert, desire to build an economic empire, the desire to retain traditional customs). Extrapolate from the case of Hawaii to (the former

colony) Belgian West Africa for the purposes of framing and examining different hypotheses. Contrast both Hawaii and Belgian West Africa with missionary activities in the American colonies of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Indiana publication included several cartoons which obviously offered their teacher readers and presumably students the opportunity to question the conservative, traditional values which texts have championed throughout the 1950s:41

Students can identify values expressed by cartoonists in political cartoons on the editorial page.

1914   make the world safe for democracy!

1941   save the world for democracy!

1975   make oil safe for industrial nations!

Although the implications of the cartoon would be obvious the Indiana publication gives its readers a list of specific questions to ensure that the students would take a refreshingly critical approach:42

Sample questions that can be asked of the above cartoon:

1. There are three political slogans used. Two of them were used in past wars. In which wars were the two slogans on top employed?

2. The slogan ‘1975 – Make Oil Safe For Industrial Nations!’ might be used by which nations? To what does this slogan refer? (or, what events led up to the slogan on bottom?)

3. There, in your own words, what point is the cartoonist attempting to make?

4. What is the meaning of the swords in the first two slogans? What is the meaning of the sword in the bottom slogan?

5. Does this cartoon worry you?

6. Are there other possible interpretations of this cartoon? And if so, what are they?

7. Design another cartoon of your own on the same theme.
Ironically as this article was finalised the American led coalition’s invasion of Iraq dominated the newspapers. Debates over the degree to which this was inspired by idealism or self interest in the region’s oil reserves were, to say the least, lively.

A similarly cynical note is struck by the caption on an Oliphant cartoon on the challenge which senior citizenship offered to those approaching old age forty years after Roosevelt embarked on the New Deal.

‘First the good news ... When you were a boy your Uncle Franklin D. set up a trust fund for your retirement years. The bad news is that some scoundrel seems to have spent it all!43
Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.

Don Maclean 1972

With his somewhat odd and convoluted tribute to an America which preceded the death of Buddy Holly in 1959 Don McLean’s 1972 hit ‘Bye, Bye Miss America’ he does, perhaps, provide a little of the uncertain flavour of the Nixon years and the perceived loss of innocence ever since.

By the late 1970s there seems to be growing determination by textbook authors to embrace wider and more enlightened approaches. The by now distant Vietnam debacle is squarely faced and such factors as napalm’s use and unexploded mines discussed with phrases such as ‘the hopelessness’ of the situation clearly employed. To young readers the message that the United States was capable of error on a grand scale reminds us that after three decades of rewriting, lurching and uncertainty, such textbooks might just provide some grounds for satisfaction. However such satisfaction may well have been somewhat limited. Educators, consultants, administrators and the usual bevy of ‘experts’ were but part of the equation. How far the children to whom these new texts were offered were inspired remains a matter for debate.

The very title of one recent text considered certainly implies the determination of its authors to embrace wider perspectives.44 The now distant but still contentious Vietnam issue was squarely faced including the clear statement that the United States used deadly chemicals to make the land unusable and that to this day unexploded land mines and bombs from both sides continue to create mayhem.45 The balanced treatment of the Cold War generally characterized such a textbook. Perhaps because it was published after the demise of the Communist bloc, a greater sense of calmness and re-sxdassurance was possible to a generation of readers who, in the main, felt convinced that the United States had emerged the victor. With regard to the Korean conflict, for example, there was a realization that ‘violent incidents’ were the result of both sides’ actions46 whilst Stalin’s immediate post war occupation of Eastern Europe was discussed under the fairly mild sub heading ‘Ensuring Soviet Security’47 may well reflect the impact of the revisionist historians such as William A. Williams and Noam Chomsky.

It had, thus, taken almost two decades for textbooks as a whole to follow in the pioneering steps of Lew Smith’s remarkable work which boldly stated to its young readers ‘that we are capable of error – and on a grand scale’ and that the USA failed to see ‘the hopelessness of the situation’ in Vietnam.48 Interestingly as the study was nearing completion a small trans Atlantic furor erupted over the efforts of New York Governor George Pakati to enact legislation concerned with the state’s texts’ approach to the Irish potato famine. In an effort to ‘put the record straight’ he compared British policies throughout as identical to those of Nazi Germany towards the Jews. Accordingly the texts in the future would depict the events as such. Although this stance might well have an appeal to some Irish American voters (which could have occurred to Governor Pakati) such a step would seem not only unhistorical but offensive as well, not the least to the Jews.

How far individual teachers would consider it important to be mindful of the variety of reactions expressed by adult students to the education they received at school remains contentious. It would perhaps be a dimension which lends itself to future research on a wider scale and, in the interim, to some reflection and awareness. To a depressing degree the changes in approach appeared somewhat contrived, overstated and, on occasion, seemed to produce a sense of resentment which would well have led in part to the conservative reaction by the 1980s exemplified by Ronald Reagan. It would, of course, be absurd to overemphasise the importance of high school history textbooks to mature adults by the 1980s and 1990s but it is the contention of this article that, overall, the attempt to ‘radicalise’ teaching materials in this way in the last forty years fell short of its avowed intentions for a significant number of Americans reaching adulthood in the last thirty years. Not long ago the distinguished Marxist historian Eugene D. Genovese reminded us that although traditional history is dismissed as ‘elitist – dead, white, male history’ the main figures in American history have ‘primarily been white and male – and are now dead’49 which is, indeed, sobering!

1. W. C. Bagley and H. Rugg, ‘Content of American History as taught in the Seventh and Eighth Grades’ University of Illinois School of Education Bulletin No. 16, University of Illinois, 1916.
2. Julian Hubbell, ‘A Suggested Plan for the Reorganization of History Material in Secondary Schools’ Unpublished Master’s Thesis, George Peabody College for Teachers, Tennessee, 1922.
3. David McDonald, ‘Analysis of the Trends in Content of American History texts used in Secondary Schools 1840–1930’ Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California, 1930.
4. Chauncey Jacobs, ‘The Development of School Textbooks in United States History from 1795–1885’ Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1956.
5. Frank Caputo, ‘The Development of Junior High School United States History Textbooks from 1886 to 1954’ Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1956.
6. Ray Allen Billington, The Historian’s Contribution to Anglo American Misunderstanding (London, 1966); Frances FitzGerald, America Revised (Boston, 1979).
7. For a good overview Richard Bessel’s Oral History Project Study Guide (Open University, Milton Keynes, 1993) is illuminating.
8. Barbara S.
9. Bonnie B.
10. John W.
11. Douglas B.
12. Barbara R.
13. Hollins R.
14. Michael S.
15. Michael W.
16. Tim S.
17. Anonymous (Tennessee).
18. Russell R.
19. Connie Q.
20. Anthony C.
21. David K.
22. Robert W.
23. Christopher F
24. Tara W.
25. Karen S.
26. Donna F.
27. Susan B.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Patrick L.
31. Anonymous (Colorado).
32. Carla C.
33. Lisa C.
34. Joel Berke and Michael W. Kirst, Federal Aid to Education (Lexington, MA, 1972), p. 3.
35. By the late 1960s, partly because of its vulnerability to numerous quips, the term was largely replaced by such phrases as ‘cultural mosaic’ or ‘multi cultural society’.
36. Thomas D. Clark, The Emerging South (New York, 1968), pp. 245–246.
37. Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Compensatory urban and Supplementary Programs publication (1975), pp. 29–33.
38. Arizona Department of Education What Every Child Should Know: United States and Arizona History: Course of Study Criteria for Textbook Selection (1976), pp. 22–23.
39. Ibid.
40. Indiana Department of Public Instruction Social Studies A Guide for Curriculum Development (1976), E 30.
41. Ibid., E 9
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid., E 10
44. Iftikhar Ahmad, World Cultures: A Global Mosaic (New Jersey 1997).
45. Ibid., p 280.
46. Ibid., 382.
47. Ibid., p. 750
48. Lew Smith, The American Dream (Glenview, Illinois 1977,) p. 584.
49. Eugene D. Genovese, ‘Restoring Dignity to Thucydides’ Profession’ Los Angeles Times, June 7 1998, p. 4.

Sidney Brown’s continuing interest in American education began in 1965 when he taught at the University of Maryland and returned in 1976 to work at the State University of Connecticut. He has taught American Studies for the Open University since 1993.

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