by Chris Culig
In my five years of teaching US History to high school students, I most commonly used textbooks when I was asked to provide work for a student who was suspended. Then, you could write “Do questions 1-10” and be done with it. Yet for some teachers—perhaps most—they remain an important resource and a significant (sometimes vital) source of knowledge. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, the most famous critique of US History textbooks, was instrumental in reviving my dormant love of US History when I read it in high school. On a whole textbooks have gotten better since then, but through examining Unit 8 of The American Vision by Joyce Appleby et al, we can see a couple of areas of possible improvement.
In my experience, getting teenagers to care about history is tough. On the whole, there’s just something about learning from elders’ experiences that does not appeal to them, and sadly sometimes that includes learning from history. The American Vision wouldn’t really make that much easier. I love history, and I found it boring and painful to read. Chapter 24 on the New Frontier and the Great Society takes some of the biggest and most impactful government programs and more or less just states that they happened. It’s an inherent problem with textbooks. There is such a need for coverage, that there is no time for depth. And depth in history is generally where you find the interesting information. Even when the book hints at this depth, it isn’t uncovered. For example, on page 825, there is an electoral map of Kennedy-Nixon in 1960. They also show the electoral votes won by the noted segregationist senator from Virginia, Harry Byrd. While they ask the students to identify which states he won, it never says why he won them or anything whatsoever about his segregationist viewpoints. This would have been a great opportunity to tie this chapter in with the next chapter on the Civil Rights movement. While I do not envy the textbook writers their task, I have found that textbooks like The American Vision really make students view history as a boring list of facts and not the varied analyses and topics that it actually is.
One of the most profound difficulties that my students had with comprehension was understanding that just because something happened that way, didn’t mean it HAD to happen that way. The Civil Rights movement is a key example. It’s easy to assume that the Civil Rights movement would always succeed, but that simply was not the case. Like many others, this textbook often treats it like it is a continual progression towards the end goal. Set-backs are not really covered, even if they can illuminate what worked and didn’t work in the Civil Rights movement. The American Vision, much like American memory, also tends to wipe out the radicalism of some of the demands. Nothing is mentioned about Rosa Parks’ work for the NAACP prior to her arrest or her attendance of a citizenship school at Highlander. MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is mentioned as “one of the most eloquent defenses of nonviolent protest ever written” (p. 863). Nothing is mentioned, however, about it being a repudiation of Liberals who wanted the movement to “go slow.” In a day and age where Dr. King rightfully has a statue on the National Mall, it is important to realize that on his death, according to Gallup, he had only a 32% approval rating.
It’s easy to assume that the Civil Rights movement would always succeed, but that simply was not the case. Like many, this textbook often treats it like it is a continual progression towards the end goal.
One major factor that is also absent in the discussion about MLK is government interference in the movement. Perhaps not surprising, The American Vision is not one to focus on government malfeasance. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s active subversion of MLK or COINTELPRO are not explained. The Vietnam War chapter in particular is open to this criticism. The Gulf of Tonkin attacks are presented as something that most definitely happened. My Lai is mentioned, but almost as an outlier. The cover-up is never even hinted at. There is no mention of the “decent interval” where Kissinger asked the Chinese to help Nixon and the US save face by delaying the Communist overthrow of South Vietnam. Furthermore, there is not nearly enough mention of the toll of the war upon the Vietnamese people themselves. Napalm and Agent Orange are mentioned in passing, but their impact is not examined. Other questionable tactics like free-fire zones are not examined at all. These controversial aspects, particularly in reference to maleficence by the government, are what helps textbooks transcend boring lists of facts.
Textbooks have improved since Lies My Teacher Told Me. They are much more inclusive in terms of their discussions of the fights for Chicano rights, women’s rights, and LGTBQ rights. However, a major issue that they run up against is that since they have to appeal to a wide constituency, they end up being safe. In my philosophy, safe learning isn’t quality learning. You need to push yourself to consider other ideas and conceptions of things. We ask our students to examine texts for biases that often aim not to have an identifiable point of view. Thus, they mistakenly take it for being completely objective. Textbooks aren’t going anywhere (for one thing, there is too much money in them), but we move toward a more nuanced version of history.
Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945 -1975. Lawrence: University Press Of Kansas, 2013.
Chris Culig is a Special Education teacher at Montgomery Blair HS in Silver Spring. Previously, he taught US History at Annapolis High School in Annapolis, Maryland for five years. He earned a BA in History and Political Science from Gettysburg College, a MA in History from George Washington University, a MA in Teaching from American, and a relatively small amount of student loan relief from the US government for teaching for 5 years.
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 See “Tonkin Gulf Intelligence “Skewed” According to Official History and Intercepts”, at http://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB132/press20051201.htm