Love the History Textbook Story? Some Resources for Further Reading

It is a great day in the offices of ILYBYGTH International when a study of US History textbooks makes the front page of the New York Times. Dana Goldstein’s comparison of textbooks from Texas and California has been a big hit. My fellow nerds and I have been swapping books and sources we’ve used to teach this kind of thing. I thought I’d collate them here to make it simple.

NYT TExtbooks CA TX

What students see in CA is not what they see in TX.

Outside of academic sources, anyone who wants a quick intro to Texas textbook policies could start with Trey Kay’s podcast about the Gablers. They were a powerful couple who pushed Texas textbooks in more conservative directions, with impressive results.

If you’re more of a watcher than a listener, check out The Revisionaries. This great documentary tells the story of Texas’s school board in 2010.

If you’re in the mood for an academic look at these issues, here is a short list of a few great books in no particular order.zimmerman robertson case for contention

#1: Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.  From the publisher:

From the fights about the teaching of evolution to the details of sex education, it may seem like American schools are hotbeds of controversy. But as Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson show in this insightful book, it is precisely because such topics are so inflammatory outside school walls that they are so commonly avoided within them. And this, they argue, is a tremendous disservice to our students.

#2: Ronald W. Evans, Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children? From the publisher:

The history of social studies is a story of dramatic turf wars among competing political camps. In this volume, Ronald Evans describes and interprets this history and the continuing battles over the purposes, content, methods, and theoretical foundations of the social studies curriculum.

binder contentious#3: Amy Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools. From the publisher:

Both [Afrocentrism and creationism] made similar arguments about oppression and their children’s well-being, both faced skepticism from educators about their factual claims, and both mounted their challenges through bureaucratic channels. In each case, challenged school systems were ultimately able to minimize or reject challengers’ demands, but the process varied by case and type of challenge.

#4: John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? John Fea has long been one of the most astute and penetrating scholars studying the history culture wars. In this book he examines the claim that America’s history proves that it was meant to be a specifically Christian nation. If you don’t have time for his whole book, you can get a taste at his blog.

#5: Adam Shapiro, Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools. Okay, it’s not about US History, but Shapiro’s analysis of the process by which textbooks authors, editors, and publishers come up with a final product is an absolute must-read.

#6: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Also beyond a narrow focus on history textbooks, Prof. Petrzela looks at the culture-war history of California schools in the twentieth century.

Trying Biology

#7: Sorry to include a book of my own, but The Other School Reformers looks hard at the politics of history textbooks. Conservative reformers spent a lot of time examining textbooks. They complained about progressive-sounding ones and successfully had them removed. They had less luck when they tried to publish textbooks of their own, as I recounted recently in these pages.

What else? This list is just a start. What other books and resources would you recommend for people interested in the culture-war politics of history textbooks?

Conservative History Textbooks: The Rest of the Story

Have you seen it yet? The New York Times just published Dana Goldstein’s comparison of US History textbooks from California and Texas. The results won’t shock SAGLRROILYBYGTH. This morning I’ll offer a little additional history of the long feud over US History textbooks.

NYT TExtbooks CA TX

What students see in CA is not what they see in TX.

As Goldstein documented, US History textbooks look very different in the two states, even though they come from the same publisher and include the same authors. Yet the differences can be glaring. For example, in a section on the Constitution, the California edition notes that there have been some restrictions on Second Amendment gun rights. The Texas edition leaves that part blank. The California editions emphasize African American struggles and LGBTQ history far more than do the Texas ones.

It’s not only US History textbooks that have experienced this sort of regional culture-war editing. As Adam Shapiro explained in Trying Biology, science textbooks have long been an awkward weapon in evolution/creation culture wars.

As I argued in The Other School Reformers, in the twentieth century conservatives worked hard to promote a more-conservative textbook option. Their record was mixed. At times, conservative history-textbook activism flopped in embarrassing ways.

For example, in 1925 the American Legion commissioned a new, patriotic history of the United States. Too often, the Legion complained, American youth “grow up ignorant or anarchistic or otherwise ‘destructive.’” They needed a textbook that told the nation’s history as it really was. Namely, the Legion insisted, despite “occasional mistakes,” American history has been “so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism.”

horne rejection AL

From the Legion commission’s report, 1926

Unfortunately for the American Legion, the actual textbooks they commissioned were terrible. Like, Jefferson Lies terrible. After a prominent historian called them “perverted American history” in The Atlantic, the Legion appointed a special commission to analyze the books. After this Legion commission concluded that the books were “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements,” the Legion withdrew their support and the textbooks stayed in their warehouses.

Other conservative activists have had far more success with their history activism. Most famously, the roots of the Texas bias that Dana Goldstein uncovered can be traced to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Journalists tend to focus on the textbook activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, which began in the 1960s. That activism mattered, but the Gablers got their ideas from the Texas DAR.

For decades, the DAR—at both national and state levels—made history textbooks the focus of their activism. For instance, in 1928 the national President General told the annual gathering that some state DARs had chosen

to look into the matter of textbooks used in some of the schools.  Individuals have sounded a warning that many books deny the Christian faith and contain sacrilegious and scornful sentences which will have a disastrous effect upon the impressionable minds of the young.

In 1941, a new President General repeated this call, in more gendered terms. As Helen Pouch exhorted her DAR audience,

Do all that women can do to eradicate questionable textbooks from the schools. This can and has been done in many cities.  It should be done in every city where these books are used.

Similarly, in 1950 new President General Marguerite Patton told the assembled DAR:

members should be especially aware of the schools in their own communities.  They should know the teachers who instruct their children; they should know the wording of textbooks, especially those pertaining to American history; and they should be cognizant of the manner in which the teachers present the subject matter to the pupils.  The interpretation of historical data can be, and often is, twisted erroneously, if a teacher is inclined to do so.

These decades of DAR activism paid off. DAR members were in a position to send uninvited “inspectors” to local schools to read textbooks and listen in on classroom teaching. They had the energy and drive to read through history textbooks to sniff out evidence of progressive politics or anti-patriotic teaching.

By the 1960s, their activism had become an expected part of textbook politics, especially in Texas. It lasted well into this century. If you haven’t seen The Revisionaries yet, it’s worth a watch. The documentary examines the conservative takeover of the Texas State Board of Education in the early 2000s.

Science and history were both targets of the new conservative majority. Creationist Don McLeroy wanted the science textbooks to help students reject mainstream evolutionary theory. McLeroy and his conservative allies also hoped to skew the history textbooks in a more conservative direction. From the list of required terms, the conservatives cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music.” They insisted on more about Reagan and the NRA.

More recently, too, Texas tweaked its list of required historical terms. In 2018, “Hillary Clinton” was out, but “Billy Graham” stayed in as terms Texas students needed to know.

It might seem shocking to some, but Texas’s careful curation of its history textbooks has a long and checkered history. Conservatives haven’t always won in Texas or elsewhere. When they did win, it was by harping on two points.

1.) Conservatives won by insisting their patriotic, conservative history was truer than other options. Conservatives haven’t won by saying kids should be kept ignorant. They’ve won by arguing that their vision is closer to historic fact. And,

2.) Conservatives won by insisting those other histories were at best misleading and at worst downright subversive. As always, any whiff of danger to students always makes parents and school administrators nervous. Conservatives have won their history-textbook wars when they’ve convinced enough people that their version of history is safer for both students and society.

The OTHER Textbook Culture War

You know the script: Progressives face off against conservatives, fighting over history textbooks. Progressives want more focus on freedom struggles, conservatives on America’s exceptionalism. It’s the story we hear a lot, and one I focused on in my book about educational conservatism. My reading these days, though, points out the hidden importance of a very different sort of textbook battle.

As do a lot of academic types, I spend my summers catching up on reading. I often agree to write reviews of new books for a variety of academic journals. This summer, I’m reading historian Charles W. Eagles’ new book Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook.civil rights culture wars

It’s a terrific book. If you want to read my full review, you’ll have to wait til it comes out in the Journal of American History. In these pages, I’d like to talk about something else, something I don’t have room for in my official review, one of the most revealing and eye-opening parts of Eagles’ history.

Professor Eagles tells the story of a new state-history book for Mississippi, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. It was an effort by sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis in the early 1970s to bring a more balanced and more progressive history to Mississippi’s ninth graders.

Eagles tells the story of the controversial book in remarkable detail, and the usual players all show up. Progressives liked the book for finally including African Americans in the history, not only as loyal slaves or bumbling Reconstruction-era politicians, but as Mississippians. Conservatives blasted the book as unbalanced, obsessed with denigrating the history of the great state of Mississippi.

As I followed the predictable back-and-forth, I couldn’t help but hear an additional muted counter-melody running through all the deliberations. There was an additional voice struggling to be heard, a point of view beyond the usual culture-war progressivism and conservatism.mississippi conflict and change

Over and over again, the experienced teachers who reviewed and rejected Loewen’s and Sallis’s textbook made a similar complaint. The book was no good, they argued, not because of any overarching ideological slant, but for a much more pragmatic reason. Any boasts about the academic excellence of the history or about its progressive ideology were simply beside the point.

Using this textbook, the teachers wrote, would make it impossible for Mississippi teachers to do their jobs.

Why?

Because the content of the textbook would unsettle classrooms. It would make it impossible for teachers to do any teaching at all, since teachers would instead be breaking up fights among students.

Consider, for example, the remarkable testimony of textbook-review board member John Turnipseed. The book was “unsuitable for classroom use,” Turnipseed concluded, because “in a racially mixed classroom, the discussion of the material would be improper. . . . [it] would cause harsh feelings in the classroom.”

The judge in the federal case could hardly believe his ears. Judge Orma Smith asked Turnipseed if Turnipseed really thought images and discussions of lynching could be left out of a Mississippi history book.

                Judge Smith: “You don’t see any historical value in that kind of situation?”

Turnipseed: “No sir, I don’t. I feel the contributions made by blacks as well as whites are more important and should not be degraded.”

Smith: “The racial situation that existed wouldn’t have had any historical significance at all? Where are students to learn the fact if they don’t learn them in school?

Turnipseed: “Again, I think in integrated classrooms it would cause resentment.”

Just as historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his landmark book Whose America, school leaders always prefer to add in bland praise, rather than to suggest any criticism. Every social group demands that their history be praised, and school leaders like Turnipseed usually acquiesce. To do anything different would unsettle classrooms in a dangerous way.

It was not only white conservative board members like John Turnipseed who focused on the goal of quiet classrooms. African American board member John Earl Wash also voted against the Loewen and Sallis book. Images of lynching, Wash argued, hurt African American students. “The 9th grade black student,” Wash wrote, “would probably resent hearing about the lynching topic.”

Even though Loewen, Sallis, and their fans envisioned their new textbook as a corrected, pro-civil-rights history, experienced teachers like Wash had different worries. Topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, Wash testified, were things Mississippi African Americans “want to forget.” Worst of all, the progressive textbook put African-American students in physical danger. In Wash’s words,

Blacks just resent anything that I would say would carry them back to times of slavery, anything. Then anything to do with the Klan or terrorizing blacks or something of this nature, right, it would definitely bring conflict.

In racially mixed classrooms, talk of lynching and Klan violence threatened to do more than simply educate young students. As experienced teachers knew, talk of violence could quickly become real violence, putting minority students in the crosshairs.

In 1970s Mississippi, at least, there were other reasons for opposing progressive textbooks than mere knee-jerk traditionalism. Teachers knew that the topic was explosive among students. If they hoped to control their classrooms, they didn’t dare expose students to controversial ideas, even if they agreed that those ideas were true and important.