- 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
The textbooks vary not only in their behavioral goals and content but also in their ideological perspective. During the twenties and thirties, they chronicled the doings of yesteryear with hardly a dip into the waters of economic interpretation, and with an overall assumption that all was well in the land, and growing better. The Depression barely had time to make a dent in this optimism but directed attention to industrial and social matters. In the fifties the books enlisted in the Cold War. In the sixties, they began to afflict the children with an overpowering sense of the problems that lay in store for them: inequality, exhaustion of resources, pollution, an unruly world of new nations, the threat of extinction. But the loss of nerve brought no sharpening of criticism. The discouraging problems were never attributed to mistaken decisions or fallible leaders. They simply seemed to occur like natural disasters. No one was blamed, and accordingly, no potential buyers could take umbrage.
Ms. FitzGerald makes no forecasts for the future. The textbooks of the eighties are being drafted now by authors and editors whose jobs and income depend upon guessing correctly what will appeal to the greatest number of the nation’s hundreds of school systems, each of which is independent or largely so in its choices. In the end, the products will, like detergents, be the outcome of market research.
As one contemplates this sad condition of things, there is a temptation to finger villains, but that is not easy. The publishing houses seem guilty, at first glance, of imposing their corporate will on individual historians, and sanctifying the bottom line at the expense of strong viewpoints in history. But they did not create the fragmentation of the content of history. They would, in fact, be pleased to prepare their competitive offerings to suit a nationwide standard curriculum, if there were such a thing. As it is, they are like automakers who can afford to produce only one model every five years, and must guess whether Volkswagens or Cadillacs will be in vogue when the showrooms open.
The professional educators, the curriculum “specialists” in the colleges that teach teachers, bear a share of the responsibility for trivializing and diluting the books. Yet even here there are few clear targets for indignation. The tasks of American pedagogy are enormous and varied, and the pressures on the classroom enormous. Big-city public schools are becoming increasingly the nurseries of poor and often nonwhite children. Rural and suburban schools are vulnerable to the priorities of their communities, and perhaps should be, if one believes in the democratic control of education. And educators now receive mandates, along with indispensable monies, from federal and state bureaucracies. There are few recognizable centers of authority, or specific moments of decision to which we can trace the offenses.
The overall problem is, in fact, collective. The telltale cultural fact unearthed by Ms. FitzGerald, like an unusual skeleton in an archaeological dig, is that our conception of history itself is no longer single, definable, palpable. A century ago, among educated Americans, there were two common notions about the past. One was that it was a repository of universally significant events, from which philosophy might teach by example. The other was that the people of the United States had some special role in history. These two ideas have suffered probably irreparable damage, and in the process, the official writing of history for children has been wrung dry of vitality.
When the artists of America’s golden nineteenth-century age of historical writing—Parkman, Prescott, Bancroft, Motley—sat at their desks, they conceived of history as an unfolding tale with direction, goal, and purpose. In its onward course, individuals of exceptional character led humanity toward ever higher stages of development. Though the flow of history was greater than the sum of individual wills, it did not dwarf individuals themselves, nor deny them their confrontations with moral choice. A small number of modern historians—Morison, Nevins, Commager—wrote in this spirit. For small children, however, the essence of this view was distilled, as Ms. FitzGerald points out, in a longstandard textbook written by David S. Muzzey, a Massachusetts-born descendant of teachers and ministers. His American History , first issued in 1911, was popular for many decades. It was full of confident judgments (slavery and Warren Harding, for example, came off very poorly); it disdained any substantive dealings with “unimportant” people like immigrant laborers; and it was certain that economic and social problems, even in an urban-industrial society, could be resolved by right thinking. Yet it survived, so far as can be told, because its prose was descriptive, dynamic, colorful, distinctive.
It is precisely the sense of momentum and linearity that is lacking in contemporary historical thought, however, and that deficiency makes it impossible to look on the past as drama. Muzzey, though a professor at Columbia for many years, might be puzzled if he were to return today to see what the academic guardians of our traditions have wrought. At the most recent gathering of the Organization of American Historians, the trade association of college professors of United States, these were among the subjects considered in formal exchanges of papers and discussion: