History Matters: The High Stakes (and Higher Value) of History


Textbooks (Wikimedia Commons)

The Texas State Board of Education’s changes to the state’s social studies curriculum have highlighted the political motivations behind the histories that are taught in schools. In response to the board’s conservatism, the left wrings its hands in dismay, the right smiles with vindication, and centrists ask to restore some kind of balance. But we should be concerned about more than political allegiances. There is more at stake than “correct” or “balanced” or “fair” histories. We need to question not only the power of political factions to promote particular visions of history, but also the profit motives that have made some histories more saleable and therefore more powerful than others.

Many are decrying the board’s revisions for putting a “conservative stamp” on the state’s curricula. According to the New York Times, they endorse the superiority of American capitalism, question the history of secular government, and promote Republican political philosophies. Even just a cursory look over other recent commentary on the subject shows how high the stakes are and how strong the divide remains, even outside Texas. Famously conservative Phyllis Schlafly welcomes a turn away from the imposition of liberal “revisionist histories,” while on the other side Diane Ravitch accuses Texas of promoting ignorance. Other commentators worry about wider effects on education. If textbooks modeled on the Texas state curriculum are successful, they could enter classrooms throughout the country. Such is the power of a large state to influence how history is taught across the country.

Ok, how surprised should we be that history is a fraught and disputed subject? Of course it is. It’s invested with diverse meanings that inform personal beliefs and collective identities. We are heavily invested in history, and that shows up in the Texas textbook debates. Nor should we be surprised that groups on either side of the political divide are deeply concerned about what appears in textbooks, each accusing the other of promoting a particular agenda. Both sides, of course, are correct to question what appears in textbooks. We should constantly re-evaluate received knowledge, question “obvious” wisdom, and be prepared to refashion textbook histories. The point that critics and commentators alike miss in this debate, however, is the sale of history. Money over content.

I would like to be able to blame extremists for the bastardization of history. But I can’t, at least I can’t completely. Even those with whom I disagree, whose positions I abhor, are using an existing opportunity to put forward their values and beliefs. That isn’t the fundamental problem here. The content of textbooks is up for debate not because zealots have undermined history, but because publishers want or need to make a profit off of it, and worse still may be less concerned about content than contracts.

Textbooks will be rewritten because Texas represents an enormous market. And books that meet that market’s “needs” stand to gain enormous readerships, and perhaps lucrative ongoing contracts. Their potential influence and authority in schools and among pupils will not necessarily be based on their historical and intellectual rigor, but on their ability to sell to the Texas market. So, the problem might not be so much that history is politicized. That is, after all, why history is important. The problem is that politicized history is up for sale.

Further Reading:

For an overview to this issue see the History News Network roundup of coverage.

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2 Responses to “History Matters: The High Stakes (and Higher Value) of History”

  1. Sean Kheraj Says:

    This is a terrific post, Justin. You make a really important point about the business of textbooks. Sometimes we forget that the textbooks we use to teach are produced and sold by profitable publishing corporations.

  2. Justin Bengry Says:

    Thanks for the comment Sean! And my apologies for not responding sooner. I agree wholeheartedly that we have to consider all the stakeholders and their motives when thinking about the business of textbooks. And with ever more students attending post-secondary institutions, education (and its related industries like texts) is big business.

    The story continues…A California State Rep. has just put forward a bill that would require the Board of Education to watch for edits imposed by Texas’s demands, and forward them on to Legislature and Secretary of Education. More here: http://thinkprogress.org/2010/05/17/california-texas-textbooks/

    I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the recent postdoc issues in Canada I wrote about at: http://historycompass.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/the-strange-case-of-postdocs-in-canada/ What was the policy at UBC for example?

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