Half-told histories: the problem of American history textbooks

By Isabella Lobo

In elementary school, during the history portion of class I was always the one with a hand raised. At the library, I would search for books about Cleopatra, the Romans, and the American Revolution instead of fiction. I was excited when we began learning a history I didn’t know, like that of my own great state of Texas: the fight for independence, the victory over Santa Ana, the heroic last stand at the Alamo. It would not be until years later as I pursued my same passion that I would realize the fact that my state was a slave and confederate state had been glossed over, as the civil war had been described in broad, glorifying terms and the events of the war serving as the main focus rather than the motivations behind them. The contributions of African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans were hardly mentioned, such as the many cultural traditions that the original Mexican settlers had given the state alongside the significant number of African American cowboys that expanded the Texan frontier. Additionally, the prejudice and violence suffered by these three groups as the state gained its independence and for many years after was something I would only understand years later.

My experience is only the tip of the iceberg in a variety of half-told histories that exist and has existed within the curriculums of many states. Americans like to think of implicitly biased curricula, ones that misrepresent or completely exclude minority voices, as an issue left safely behind in eras of Jim Crow. However, this tradition with centuries-old roots is not easily eliminated in a matter of a few decades, and can only be corrected if we are willing to confront it in the present.

Mistold Histories: The Origins

Post civil war, as public schools became more common, states began writing many of their own textbooks. In 1916, A Child’s History of North Carolina was written and distributed through schools throughout the state. In the book’s attempt to describe slavery as a profitable institution rather than an inhumane one, it stated that slaves “were allowed all the freedom they seemed to want, and were given the privilege of visiting other plantations when they chose to do so. All that was required of them was to be in place when work time came.” Such falsehoods concerning the true horrors and lack of freedom of slavery stemmed from the “Lost Cause” ideology, which emerged soon after the civil war and aimed to rewrite the confederacy as an honorable stand against the North’s attack of the Southern way of life. Under this ideology, slavery was painted in the old Southern context as the “Peculiar Institution,” a natural and necessary system that justly subjugated an inferior group and was superior in its treatment of the enslaved than the North was to its industrial workers. This created not only a false sense of Southern pride in Confederate history, but allowed the discrimination faced by African Americans in the 20th century to appear to be a natural evolution following slavery’s end. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group of influential southern socialites, touted this idea and pushed it into textbooks in the south that were published up until the 1950s and taught for decades after.

However, though the south was more extreme in its mistellings of slavery, the North does not escape guilt in continuing racist sentiments. Though northern textbooks often did not shy from detailing slavery as a moral wrong, with books like Children’s Stories of American Progress describing in detail the horror of the Middle Passage journey and the white man’s unjust oppression of African slaves. This book, however, while condemning the actions of white men, did not paint the Africans whom they held in bondage to be their equals. It reflected the common sentiment of northern progressives through the Antebellum and well into the 20th century that black people, though undeserving of enslavement, were still inferior to the white population.

Similarly, the period in which textbooks became more widely used was the same period in which the United States had completed its rapid expansion through North America. The purchase of the Mexican Cession and the acquisition of millions of acres of native land had finally stretched America from sea to shining sea. The US government had adopted the policy of native removal and eventually, with the advent of boarding schools, such as the Carlisle School, meant to erase native culture from young indigenous boys, an assimilation campaign that amounted to cultural genocide. Apathy and distaste for native culture were as high as they had been throughout all of American history, and the government's policy of either restriction or total elimination only further cemented the attitudes. A lack of accurate inclusion of native Americans in textbooks followed well into the 20th century, with only mentions of wars with indigenous populations and little concerning the complex cultures that existed and varied regionally within the United States. In the elementary school textbook, Hazen’s Elementary History of the United States: A Story and a Lesson, the stories of natives Americans on their own are almost completely excluded. Rather, native Americans are only ever mentioned in reference to white settlers, their names only appearing in the tales of the European settlement and manifest destiny.

The Textbooks of Today

Though textbooks now lack much of the overt racism within textbooks that was prominent even until the 1970s, there still remains plenty of progress to be made. The problem continues to insidiously underlie many of today's textbooks, occasionally resurfacing in ways shocking enough to rally public scorn. For example, in 2018, a student in Texas released a picture of a worksheet he had received that instructed students to list the positives and negatives of slavery. This worksheet was tied to an activity in a decades-old textbook, Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States, that had repeatedly downplayed the cruel treatment of slaves in an effort to humanize their masters. In other, less obvious ways, textbooks continue to overlook the role of African Americans as consistently central to the story of the United States. Such as displaying their stories in a series of punctuated events that either apathetically tells of their direct oppression or liberation: the Africans arriving in the United States in 1619, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. These stories hold little inclusion of the voices of those who survived these events, leaving many students with a half-formed sense of their impacts on real people.

Additionally, modern textbooks have been known to limit the stories of other groups, such as Native Americans, by providing often limited and ignorant accounts of their cultures and histories. In the American history textbook The American Nation, only four of 972 pages are dedicated to native Americans, and these pages mainly describe the wars they engaged in in the 19th century over the loss of their land, providing little to no detailed summation of native American cultures and before or during European colonization. Similarly, a history textbook named America inaccurately generalizes native culture, stating that “the people of each tribe speak the same language, and have the same religion,” ignoring the subtribes, dialects, and religious diversity that truly existed within many Native American tribes. Such limited knowledge offers an easy road to the ignorant stereotyping of native Americans, especially the popular perspective that their cultures were “primitive” and “savage” in comparison to that of their European colonizers.

To offer American students a truly comprehensive view of American history and pay proper respect to the many different voices that exist within it, we must acknowledge the shortcomings of our current textbooks and understand their connection to a past of prejudice. We must understand that the ways in which we teach history must change with the tide of time, and offer a comprehensive selection of the primary sources and perspectives of those who both suffered and prospered from our history so that we may better learn from it.

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