Tortuous Textbooks

As an education major, I’d often been told that textbooks were frequently erroneous and not to be trusted.  And yet somehow–in middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the United States–teacher still lean on textbooks.  When I was student teaching, I rarely used the textbook, mostly because my cooperating practitioner strongly believed that they were heretical.  Since I was under his tutelage for four months, I slowly began to espouse this theory also, though I wasn’t really sure why.

Then I moved South, and when I rarely used the textbook, the pushback from students was astronomical.  I began to assign textbook reading at home so that students wouldn’t complain so much that they weren’t using the textbook, or so that rumors that I “wasn’t really teaching” didn’t start being spread.

During my second year of teaching, however, I was able to able to magically avoid this discussion merely due to the fact that my school did not have enough textbooks for me to even pass out to my students.  Whenever the inevitable question came up, “Ms. Owen, why aren’t we getting textbooks,” the easy answer became, “We don’t have them.”  Case closed, no debate.  Can’t make something exist out of thin air.

About two months into school I finally received my shipment of AP US History textbooks (while apparently we can’t afford regular course textbooks, we can still afford AP US History textbooks…but not until a fifth of the way through the course).  It wasn’t until I received these textbooks and started reading through that I discovered why textbooks really are absolutely atrocious and are leading to the dying breed of the Social Studies class:

1. They are incredibly biased, but claim to preach truth.  Example below, referring to post-Revolution America

“‘All men are created equal,’ the Declaration of Independence proclaimed, and equality was everywhere the watchword.  Most states reduced (but usually did not eliminate altogether) property-holding requirements for voting.  Ordinary men and women demanded to be addressed a “Mr.” and Mrs.”–titles once reserved for the wealthy and highborn.”  (The American Pageant, David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, 15th ed. Wadsworth Cengage Learning).

The paragraph goes on, but I’ll stop there.  The section goes on to highlight the equality of the new America, and overdramatically emphasize the trials of the new country.  Talk about giving vague evidence and eliminating glaring incongruities to prove a point.

A second example, relating to education reform in the early 1900’s:

“The famed little red schoolhouse–with one room, one stove, one teacher, and often eight grades–became the shrine of American democracy.”

Again, extreme biases that highlight a focus on democracy, when really democracy is about the farthest thing from America at this point.  And when you look at the motivation for tax-funded public education–the wealthy wanting to make sure that, if they did have to share the vote with someone poor of a different social class, these someone’s should be educated enough not to damage the country–it becomes clear that the textbooks is simply hiding the corrupt, arrogant, and selfish grasp that the white upper-class had on society.  Too often, these textbooks are taught as truth and students are not taught to examine the biases of the authors.

2. The second reason that I hate textbooks revolve around how they present history.  Cause and effect identified for students so that all they have to do is memorize.  No actual skills involved besides reading.  I mean, reading is good, but if the only thin you have to do after that reading is memorize it?  I hate to break it to you, but that’s not learning.


So no wonder history is a dying science.  There are some teachers out there who are changing it up and teaching differently.  But if the tests that states give to social studies still revolve around regurgitation of already biased facts and cause and effect statements, then that won’t fly, and we’re going to keep producing test-taking children instead of critical thinkers.


One thought on “Tortuous Textbooks

  1. Yes, texts ought to be a servant, not the master, of a knowledgeable teacher who knows how to use primary sources. Publishing companies aren’t our best guides. I prefer a community of veteran, actively learning/updating teachers, and a good library. So wonderful how easy it is in most schools to assign readings of online resources, both classic and cutting edge, that need not be purchased at all.

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