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Homogenized History

July 2024
9min read

Why the most fascinating of subjects is made to seem the most boring—and what can be done about it

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.

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:

Family Composition and Life Course

Hollywood’s Image of Women, 1900 and 1930

Student Activism in the 1920’s

Minorities, Radicals, and the Shaping of American Sports

Child-Rearing in Early Pennsylvania

The Politics of 20th-century American Science

Marxism and Afro-American History

Each of these subjects holds intrinsic interest. But each is also either abstruse or chosen from a “trendy” area of public concern. There is no overall pattern; only topicality binds them together. Where once it appeared to be the historian’s province to put the front page of the newspaper into the perspective of history’s great blueprint, now it is the headlines which dictate the course of next year’s research.

Another sign of this tendency in the academy is the proliferation of new and snappy courses, and the change in the composition of the major. Once it was thought that history was developmental, and humanity’s march through time had to be followed in sequence, with most attention on the vanguard. But the last two colleges at which I have taught permitted a freewheeling choice of courses in no special configuration or order of priority: Puritan America, Twentieth-Century Immigration, the French Revolution, and Victorian Cities stand on the same democratic footing. What was most important, the professors agreed, was that students be exposed to historical modes of thought.

Given this professional withdrawal into analysis and specialization, it is not surprising that American historians have not agreed on what schoolteachers and publishers should convey to teen-agers. Ms. FitzGerald chides the publishers for “casting away scholarly claims to authority,” but it is the majority of scholars themselves who have restricted their authority to miniature frameworks. They hardly speak to the adult members of what they call the “lay audience,” and when they do venture into writing textbooks that go beyond their “period,” they are persuaded to generalize only by their awareness that the performance will not be reviewed in the academic journals by peers. The unofficial rule is that one does not criticize a fellow academic who is earning his dollar.

It is not that the historians themselves are to blame for the situation; they did not create the events of this century that blasted away the progressive vision of history, or the new scientific disciplines that tend to reduce human choices to reflexes. But they did retreat, like many modern artists and writers, into abstraction, difficulty, and noncommunicativeness, and it is doubtful that if the publishers left them alone, a new Muzzey would emerge from their ranks.

The “Muzzeyan” view of history, of course, had its flaws. There was something grotesque about a story that excluded all but WASP males from important roles, all but Yankee values from sympathetic consideration. But there are tremendous difficulties in merely giving equal time to all perspectives. The message of such multicultural history, as Ms. FitzGerald points out, would be that “Americans have no common history, no common culture, and no common values … that the center cannot, and should not, hold.” That is a counsel of despair to all but the most convinced anarchist. And to overpower children with a description of problems, without also drawing on the past for principles to assist in finding solutions, is to reinforce cynicism and apathy.

It may, of course, be impossible to re-knit the threads of a lost consensus, or even to make sense of teaching the history of individual nations in a world as compact as ours is now. But if there is some excuse for the textbooks’ lack of focus, there is less for their dullness. Even with tidiness and uplift discarded, people still need poetry and drama, drawn from what we call the “real” past. History as saga may be dead on campuses, but not in the world at large. The enormous success of popular works of history and biography and the continuing existence of this magazine are both evidence of that fact. There is excitement in the sights and sounds of yesterday, and courage to be drawn from good examples, and identity to be forged from an awareness of continuity—that it happened here , on this spot, to people like me . The existence of an adult demand for good history proves that there are children out there—at least the lucky ones not destroyed by their surroundings—waiting to be kindled by the right kinds of stories from life, embodied in books. Books

No textbook could ever wholly fill that prescription. Even the old-fashioned ones lost out to the seductions of dime novels, even as the novels themselves eventually were jostled by movies and the radio. And there are more charges that can be brought against the schoolbooks of a bygone day. They tricked the students into believing that they were all superior citizens of a model republic. They embodied, it may be, a pack of lies agreed on.

But their trickery had some power to lift horizons. Their “lies” were at least artful. They clung to the conception of a story, the magic of “once upon a time.” They had what Ms. FitzGerald notes to be most important to young children, a direct appeal to the emotions. They did not treat the young, in her words, like laboratory pigeons. They respected the past they dealt with. These things are not beyond the reach of our time, however troubled it may be. We have to care enough to make a beginning somewhere. We owe ourselves and our children no less. That is the message of America Revised , and one can only say “Amen.”

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