- Historic Sites
Why the most fascinating of subjects is made to seem the most boring—and what can be done about it
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Those who had the pleasure, a few years ago, of reading Frances FitzGerald’s award-winning work Fire in the Lake should know that her strength is in what might be called cultural anatomy—the careful dissection of the webs of habit and belief that hold a people together. In that book she appeared to be talking about American warriors in Vietnam. But in reality she dealt with deep and subtle differences between the Vietnamese and American views of power and history, and how Washington’s policies foundered in that gulf of misunderstanding.
In much the same way, America Revised seems, on the surface, to be concerned simply with récent changes in the way that history is taught to our elementary and high school students. But before she is finished, Ms. FitzGerald has provided an X-ray of American culture that is not to be missed by anyone seriously interested in our national future or our past. My observations are intended mainly to extend and amplify her remarks (as the Congressional Record might phrase it), and only rarely to “revise” them from the perspective of having actually taught American history and written a junior high school textbook.
Since America Revised is full of sophisticated and tightly interwoven insights, it is risky but indispensable to summarize. To begin with, Ms. FitzGerald declares that U.S. history texts for schoolchildren, though they may carry on their spines the names of talented authors, are written almost entirely in a flaccid and vacuous “textbook prose,” guaranteed to destroy interest. This is because they are not so much written as blended, by a crew of editors and educational specialists (which may or may not include the author of record), whose task it is to prune them of all words and sentences officially deemed too difficult for their “age level,” and likewise to excise any ideas that are likely to prove offensive to community prejudices almost anywhere. (The overpowering forgettability of the end product is proven by the experience of anyone who has taught a college “survey” of United States history. Virtually without exception, the students retain nothing of the texts which they have been through, in some cases, only a year or two earlier.)
More distressing, Ms. FitzGerald believes, is the fact that while the textbooks are universally boring, there is no comparable uniformity of subject matter. Once, long ago, there was a certainty of meeting familiar faces and locales in any pilgrimage through a set of texts—Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington, the Louisiana Territory, President Monroe (and his famous Doctrine), the Alamo, the forty-niners, Gettysburg, the Panama Canal, Teddy Roosevelt. Now there is a mixed cast, changing not only from book to book, but often from edition to edition of the same work, with a life span of approximately five years. We now encounter Native Americans (formerly Indians), longunheralded blacks, a variety of once neglected women, a sprinkling of Hispanic-Americans (a label which, one editor told Ms. FitzGerald, his house would avoid “unless, of course, that becomes the way to go.”) However, if Estevanico, Chief Joseph, Susan B. Anthony, and César Châvez are belatedly receiving justice, their May-fly lives may only last as long as it takes for liberal fashion to unearth a new neglected group. (I myself gladly sought for blacks to include in a first edition of my own textbook; some of them may now have to be dispossessed if I am to fulfill a mandate for the third, which is to “get more women in.”)
The adventures of this newly de-homogenized American people are set forth in pages sometimes decorated with enough four-color illustrations to make them individual works of art. The narrative is surrounded, moreover, by summaries, prefaces, questions, and definitions (sometimes marshaled in boxes or sidebars), whose job is to introduce “concepts” from the social sciences—a major selling point—or possibly to lighten the onerous chore of reading.
And along with the books go teachers’ editions, filled with information correctly styled as “reductive” and “manipulative” by Ms. FitzGerald. These define the “behavioral objectives” of each lesson, and the “cognitive and affective skills” that are slyly being slipped into the youngsters’ intellectual diets. They make it clear that the books do not merely inform the children of the content of the past but also teach them to think and act in ways deemed appropriate by boards of education and their hired experts.
There is no universal consensus, either, on what these objectives should be. Ms. FitzGerald defines several schools of thought. There are “fundamentalists,” who call for a return to basics (that is, Bunker Hill and Barbara Fritchie), without any inconvenient questioning of values. There are “progressives” who want to instill community cooperativeness through the underscoring of collective achievements, and there is a dwindling band of Rousseau-like radicals who want to liberate the natural person hidden within each child by focusing on role models and rebels. And, finally, there are “mandarins” who hope to train an elite of abstract thinkers. Their favorite tool is the “inquiry” textbook, in which the students are not told what happened in history but instead are given fragments of documents and then encouraged to identify and evaluate the conflicting ideas they contain, even as historians themselves do.