Recently my eleven-year-old son brought me a fifth-grade social studies homework assignment. It was on a single dittoed sheet, published by McGraw-Hill, and it contained drawings. While I find the idea of emphasizing cartoons and creative drawing as a way to teach history repellent in itself—a perfect example of the “history as a grab bag” that Bernard Weisberger describes in “American History Is Falling Down”—it was the text of the assignment sheet itself that made me angry.
The sheet was entitled “Colonial Cartoons” and indeed showed reproductions of some cartoons that had appeared during the American colonial period. The first one was a caricature of the British statesman Charles Fox showing him split between radicalism and royalism. Well and good. But the caption said: “This cartoon shows the problem of split loyalties. Many colonial leaders still felt loyalty to the colonies but at the same time felt loyal to the king of Great Britain.” As Fox was hardly a colonial leader, this caption does not relate to the cartoon.
The next drawing was titled “The Stamp Act” and showed a skull and crossbones. The caption read: “This cartoon was printed in a Pennsylvania newspaper. On October 31,1765, the cartoonist tried to show that the Stamp Tax was like poison because it was a threat to the colonial spirit of revolution. To avoid paying the Stamp Tax, the newspaper owner stopped printing his paper.” Is this information correct? Not really. In mideighteenth-century America the skull and crossbones symbolized death, not poison, a fact that the original caption for the picture, which had been omitted, makes clear. The Stamp Act had nothing to do with the “threat to the colonial spirit of revolution,” as the caption writer states. Rather it threatened the political and economic well-being and freedom of the publication, which is something quite different. The revolution itself was still eight years away.
The caption of the last cartoon was the worst. The cartoon was the original “ JOIN, OR DIE ” snake, which Franklin published at the time of the Albany Convention, when he was urging coordinated action against the French. The caption states: “Benjamin Franklin drew this cartoon in 1754 for his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette . He wanted the colonies to join together and help each other fight Great Britain.” Great Britain? Great Britain was not the enemy in 1754, France was. Other cartoons, inspired by this cartoon, did appear in the 1770s, but that does not make the caption about this cartoon true.
Bernard Weisberger’s article contains many truths about the teaching of history. I know my children are not getting a feel for the “story” of history, and they are not being taught history completely or accurately or interestingly either. I find all of this personally depressing because I loved history as a child and read every book and article on history I could find. Now I see homework assignments like this, and I wonder when our children will begin to learn history accurately.