August 09, 2007

Needed perspective

Claude Lewis writes in today's Philly Inquirer that "It is a travesty and a tragedy that African American successes largely have been left out of history books."

I'd say that Mr. Lewis hasn't really looked over modern textbooks.

If anything, history textbooks have become hostages to just about every ethnic "interest group" that wants members of its group to be presented in as positive a light as possible. Felix discussed one such instance here a year and a half ago, and mentioned that I was once a member of DeTAC -- the Delaware Textbook Assessment Committee -- back in 2000. One of the functions of that group was investigating this "hostage crisis." What we found was contrary to what Claude Lewis describes; indeed, modern history textbooks do a quite excellent job of covering the history and accomplishments of minority ethnic groups. In some cases, this coverage occurs at the expense of obviously more significant events and/or people. For example, we noted that The American Journey by publisher Glencoe McGraw-Hill (1996 edition) attempts to make all groups

equally important to development of American history ... Inclusion of the contributions of women and minorities is beneficial when it relates to the main themes of historical development, but forcing trivial information into the text to ... increase the number of politically correct paragraphs creates a disjointed and unsatisfactory narrative.

While Mr. Lewis is obviously correct in that in the past "Blacks quietly excelled - one almost wants to write 'quietly,' but it wasn't quiet, it was simply not acknowledged - in the sciences, architecture, inventions, art, and many other fields" ... but the question remains that, in a history textbook, how much emphasis should be placed on these accomplishments in the entire -- and limited by publisher space considerations -- scope of American history? Lewis brings up figures like Garrett A. Morgan who, among other things, developed the traffic light. I knew about Morgan because -- surprise! -- I recall reading about him (and other black inventors) in ... a history book! But how much space in a standard history text should a figure like Morgan warrant?

DeTAC found that two of the three American history texts we reviewed seemed to "go out of its way" to arbitrarily include contributions of women and ethnic minorities merely to assuage "bean counters" and to act as "self-esteem enhancers." And, in addition, many negative aspects of American history in general were emphasized at the expense of the positive. The American Journey was one text; the other was Boyer's The American Nation by Harcourt Brace & Co. (1998). The latter, for example, gave as much space to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of the Bulge, the Allied bombing of Germany and the Normandy invasion put together. Senator Joe McCarthy was portrayed as as big a threat as Stalin, Khrushchev, and global communism in general.

This "victimization" and "ethnic inclusion" theme can be traced to the 1992 National Standards for History whose principal author, UCLA Professor Gary Nash, who stated that American history is the story of outcast groups "struggling under difficult conditions and ... in large and small ways, refusing to submit to abuse, discrimination and exploitation." In these new standards, important uprisings led by Daniel Shays and Nat Turner are given less emphasis than those led by Jacob Leister and the Paxton Boys. The 1848 declaration at Seneca Falls by a conference of feminists gets more coverage than either the Declaration of Independence of the Gettysburg Address. Once word of these new standards got out, the US Senate voted to repudiate them 99-1 and to cut off federal funds for them. But this didn't stop textbook publishers from putting out "safe" texts that "satisfied" as many groups as possible.

I understand and sympathize with Mr. Lewis' concerns. Unfortunately, I don't think he has really examined modern textbooks (and by "modern" I mean within the last 20 years or so). Given his age (he is up there in years) I believe he is perhaps using his [old] personal recollection of texts that did a regrettably disastrous job in covering the events and accomplishments of Africans/African-Americans (and other minority groups).

Posted by Hube at August 9, 2007 10:24 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

As a girl I was upset that there weren't any mentions of women in the history books, but I've seen modern texts and they have definitely gone to the other extreme. The Founding Fathers were brilliant and crucial to our nation (how obvious is that?) and yet there is very little coverage of them. I've heard that one text gave more place to Marilyn Monroe than to George Washington!

Posted by: Anna Venger at August 9, 2007 04:53 PM

Right on target. As a teacher, one sees at least one obligatory politically correct entry by the end of every chapter. Yes Washington and Lincoln have definitely been short changed.

Posted by: orestes at August 9, 2007 09:51 PM

Not sure where to post this, but just wanted to get some discussion going. A panel on Inner City Education last Thursday gave out this comment. Sorry I am remiss and have not found the source.

"The school system in Philadelphia dumps 1000 people a year on that city's streets with no chance of a job, or way to make themselves an advantage to society.

My take is that this is the real history that needs to be addressed by the schools. Not the revision. If you want to revise History, do something constructive to change it........

Posted by: kavips at August 17, 2007 01:37 PM