Making history dull

U.S. and world history textbooks are fat, heavy, stuffed with disconnected facts, emblazoned with graphics and, above all, dull, concludes Fordham Institute’s review of high school texts, led by Diane Ravitch. Chester Finn writes:

The books reviewed in this report range from serviceable to abysmal. None is distinguished or even very good. The best are merely adequate. In the hands of a competent teacher, they could get the job done, but not much more than that. No textbook scored better than 78 percent overall—the rough equivalent of a C+ grade. Five of the twelve earned failing marks. Despite their glitzy graphics and vivid pictures, they all suffer from dull prose and the absence of a “story.” Is it any wonder that most students rank history or social studies among their least favorite subjects in school? What a crashing bore it must be to try to learn something from tomes like these.

The report recommends that schools or teachers be allowed to buy the textbooks they prefer, instead of adopting one book for the whole state.

This is no recipe for chaos so long as every school must attain state or district academic standards and be monitored by state or district assessments. Within that results-based accountability framework, a teacher or school history department should be free to choose whatever books, software, and supplemental materials they believe will assist them to get the job done. This will also liberate the textbook market from the handful of multinational publishing houses that dominate it today and encourage “boutique” publishers to bring more history texts (and other materials) to market.

. . . In addition, teachers should have the option of using their “textbook budgets” for alternative materials if they would rather assemble their own — from the Internet, from television, from a variety of publications, and from their own brains and knowledge base.

As long as publishers are trying to please all the state textbook committees, books will keep getting longer, heavier and more crammed with “mentions.”

About Joanne


  1. I find it almost impossible to believe that this still goes on in the states. Here in Tasmania each school from K-12 has been allowed to select its own texts and resources for the last 40 years. As long as the curriculum is covered, and the outcomes reached, school departments may use their budget to choose whatever resources they believe will best serve their particular students. This seems only logical as students come from such diverse backgrounds.

  2. Now if the Fordham Institute would only turn its gaze to the introductory statistics textbooks in college. They’re so dull I just weep.

  3. Does it have to be textbooks, even?

    I’m probably 15 years out of high school, and one of the joys of my adult life has been discovering pop-history books like “Only Yesterday” (a college course supplementary text), Simon Schama’s books or Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Everything” – books that try to tie *everything* together into a unified whole as best they can. I never knew I could like history til I discovered those and others like. Why not teach from them?

    ::sigh:: I know, I know – in another school system, in another universe…

  4. RIchard Aubrey says:

    James Burke’s “Connections”, either in book form or his tv series. Fascinating.

  5. When I was in high school, I was able to fulfill the state’s U.S. history requirement by taking a special course offered by the school that studied American history through constitutional law. Instead of a standard text, we were given a casebook of historical cases that traced America’s history from Revolutionary days through the Civil Rights era. I always thought it was a better approach than the state-issued textbooks.

  6. Skip – “Better than a state-isued textbook” is like saying “can outrun a dead moose.” Still, sounds more interesting than most high school courses.

  7. Maybe it could be made more interesting by including readings like this…

  8. Walter Wallis says:

    Develop a laptop that will run only school software so that it is worthless on the resale market, and the traditional publisher is eliminated. With a production cost of 5 cents per CD, inovative writers like our worthy hostess could deal directly with teachers.

  9. Walter – Easier way: develop a software package that has the same effect. Then cut a deal with Dell (or whichever other bidder somehow manages to outbid them) for their standard product instead of having to develop a new one.

    Out of curiosity, why does it have to be worthless on the resale market? If you must have a hardware solution, a unique DVD Drive running a proprietary codex specific to the educational software is probably easier to design than the whole computer.

  10. Ah, JimInNoVA, you’re such an innocent. How long before you think certain kids figure out that laptop they were just issued is worth money?

  11. Well,

    I read some of the most boring and dull technical stuff on a daily basis, and when dealing with this kind of material (information and internet security), I prefer it to be very accurate (though it can be very boring).

    I remember taking world history, US history, and US Gov’t in high school, our books weren’t any thicker than some of the stuff I have for tech books today (even 25 years later). I don’t know how interesting you can make a book on history, if you are trying to impart factual and accurate information (these books sound pretty bad, IMO).

  12. Burke is great. Goodall’s “Big Bangs” in regards to music history is fascinating as well.
    I’m inclined to think that history is taught the way it is in order to not offend people. Educating is the secondary goal.

  13. Jim Thomason says:

    “I don’t know how interesting you can make a book on history, if you are trying to impart factual and accurate information”

    As far as I am concerned, it is easy to make factual and accurate history interesting. Human interactions are endlessly fascinating. The amazing thing to me is how they seem to have developed a way to consistently make such a rich, engrossing subject seem dull, dry and boring.

  14. Walter Wallis says:

    While some editing is probably necessary, the closer the creator is to the user, the better. Kinda like “Sex in the City” is nice, but sex in the rumble seat is better.

  15. PJ/Maryland says:

    This study reminded me of a line from C.S. Lewis (Prince Caspian): “The sort of ‘History’ that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’ rule was duller than the truest history you ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story.”

    As long as we’re mentioning interesting History books, I recently read “Almost History” by Steve Tally. He looks at 20 or so episodes in American history, spends a few pages explaining the background, and then suggests how things might have happened differently. So it’s sort of an alternate history book, but with a lot of actual background. (Some of his choices are odd, and I didn’t agree with his alternate analysis in numerous cases, but I still recommend the book.)

    (P.S. I don’t know how to make the Amazon link pay Joanne a commission, sorry.)

  16. Wacky Hermit says:

    I really enjoyed “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen. He does an excellent job of exposing how the historical truth gets buried in the quest for bland platitudinality. Reading that book was my first step toward correcting my lack of historical knowledge through self-study. My only regret is having read it as an adult instead of as a teenager.

  17. It is at its worst in history and ‘social studies’ because of the central place that political (and the whole gamut of PC) topics are more at the forefront, but it is a problem with all textbooks.

    I saw an article lamenting the decline in political participation in the USA, despite a substantial increase in education for the populace (as measured by the percentages of high school and collge grads). However, it strikes me as funny (or sad) that with all of our degrees, we are not really better educated. For example, the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers were essentially written for upstate New York farmers – rural and largely ‘uneducated’ people. My law school classmates struggled mightily with them. Which group is really better educated.

    But the solution is not likely to be to give the individual teachers free reign over books. That will simply turn the high school classroom into a younger version of the college classroom’s PC indoctrination machine.

  18. Laura (southernxyl) says:

    “But the solution is not likely to be to give the individual teachers free reign over books. That will simply turn the high school classroom into a younger version of the college classroom’s PC indoctrination machine.”

    Well, it depends. My daughter’s had some history teachers who were quite conservative, and others who, though they had a liberal bent, were scrupulous to present both sides. During W’s campaign and inauguration she had some spirited conversations with her American history teacher, who disagreed with her politics but gave her As on her papers.

  19. Walter Wallis says:

    If you limit teachers to State approved books, let me sit on the book selection committee and I will elect the next governor. Assuming the kids read their books.

  20. PJ/Maryland wrote: (P.S. I don’t know how to make the Amazon link pay Joanne a commission, sorry.)

  21. As an one time professor of history (who also spent two years as a HS teacher) I am appaled by the books of today. A friend of mine who taught Advanced Placement History in a good high school would ofen show me the problems with the books they were reviewing for selction and I saw that also in my classes. The students (first year) were for the main part terribly unprepared both because of books and teachers. Books tended to present a biased, very edied view. I scrutinzed the books of my own kids very closely and was able to provide the missing balance. It is true books can be made more interesting but let’s not popularize them just to make them “interesting” and cute. No dicipline is “interesting when struggling through basics or some of the necessary fundamentals. They must shed light on background and how and why things happened.

    My son, today a teacher, has been contracted to contribute to high and middle school texts and the system is rotten. Until that is straightend out we can not hope for much improvement. In his case one guy wrote a couple of chapters and another a couple more and then someone across the country put the teachers guide together. They many not be all be like that but certainly some are. Publishers are aslo toblame because they want a sellable book first, quality second. And from what I have seen I question the quality of some of our so-called history teachers. Many can not even relate one event to another.

    And my last concern is that there MUST be some degree of rote learning. If a person does not have a reasonably good knoweldge of dates how can they organize their thoughts or critically evaluate events? Every discipline must have some sort of organization and with hitory a basic one is dates. I could also mention geography but this commentary is too long already. It was so bad that in our Freshmen classes we had to spend the first two weeks on a geography crash course.

    Without an historically aware electorate how can we expect improvement in our governement or elections that would focus more on issues than personalities and rumor?

  22. theAmericanist says:

    Don’t forget that academic historians have largely lost the important of narrative. A Ph.D. earned by diligent research into some deeply unimportant detail is far more valued in the profession than the ability to communicate effectively, even passionately, to those outside it.

    IMNSHO, this is a bigger contributor to the problem of lousy textbooks than even Loewen’s indictment that you have to sell to school boards in Texas. Get good story tellers, who tell good stories, and you will get students interested.

    It all flows from that.

  23. I don’t understand the need for history textbooks. I hated them in high school and they were hardly used in college. Instead we read actual books about things.

    There is plenty of good nonfiction out there, and any competent teacher can fill in the blanks with some lectures. Plus, competing views can be easily introduced, students will be exposed to a section of bookstores largely ignored by people under forty (outside of college bookstores), and they might actually learn something in depth.

    For math and science, the textbooks are valuable because they come with Q&As, exams, and worksheets. But for history, why try to cram all that into one behemoth book? Stick to the stories.

  24. It wasn’t until that “infamous” standard freshman college required course – “Dev of Western Civ.” That I came across a history teacher whose approach was not only “what” happend, but what were the surrounding economic, social, religious, and other factors that influenced, caused, inhibited the “what” – Made a difference, kinda like “Connections” only 30 years ahead of the program.


  1. Cronaca says:

    Making high schoolers hate history

    Why are the history textbooks used in American high schools so bad? The extent of that badness is the subject…

  2. How can history be boring?

    Joanne Jacobs, whose blog I’m reading for the first but not last time tonight, has a great post on boring history texts.