Down with history textbooks

Long, fact-laden history textbooks are “boring and intimidating,” writes teacher David Cutler in The Atlantic.

Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves.

Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.

Without a thesis or any semblance or argument, textbooks don’t accurately reflect how most scholars (at least good ones) write and present history. Teachers should assign readings that model effective historical writing.

Teachers “who don’t know history or the historian’s craft” use textbooks as a crutch, Cutler writes. “Teachers who depend on textbooks are likely to test what is in the textbooks: long lists of facts.” Students memorize, then forget.  

“Kids don’t study history to ‘learn the historian’s craft’,” responds Robert Pondiscio on Facebook. “They study history so that they have some context in place and time for their own lives, and cease laboring under the misconception that the world was handed down to them in present form as they find it.”

And it’s just not true that teachers or textbooks present history as “a long list of facts,” writes Pondiscio. 

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  1. Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.


    Top-down is the best way I can imagine to do a general overview of history.

    And given the context of the Western World, it’s simply unavoidable that most of the main players are white males, because that’s how the history worked out.

    Pretending otherwise means ignoring history, or at very least greatly distorting it, to achieve a non-historical [or actively anti-historical] goal.

    (It’s like the people who complain that Philosophy is nothing but dead white men.

    The problem with that complaint is that if you try to even things out you’re ignoring almost everything important to elevate a historical minor fringe of thinkers*, in order to make the “diversity” stats look “good”.

    But the topic isn’t about those stats, it’s about the ideas. Which for contingent historical reasons almost all came from white men.

    * Not that some of them weren’t quite good – or that modern philosophy doesn’t have excellent contributions from people neither male nor “white”.

    But that the mass of the field is irreducibly, if contingently, made up of people who happened to be both.)

  2. I take this article as one more push to remove facts from the curriculum and replace them with opinions, particularly the opinions of the educational establishment.

    History has two facets: first there are the cold, hard facts that never change (absent major archeological findings). Athens did, in fact, dispatch a huge force to attack Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War. Secondly, we have interpretation as to whether this was a good idea or not. That interpretation, however, should not be driven by historical fads or academic attempts to shore up modern day arguments about race, sexuality, gender or other trendy topics.

    Taking history out of context was a cardinal sin for historians throughout history and up until about the 1950s, when it started to become vogue in the best academic circles. Now, in the twenty first century, it has become almost mandatory and that should be resisted by all well educated individuals. Unfortunately, as a result of articles just like the one linked, the category “well educated individuals” seems to have shrunk so far as to become almost invisible.

    I was watching an old movie about a month ago and one of the characters made reference to “the Ten Thousand”. From this, we can conclude that at least some movie goers of the 1930s or 1940s were, in fact, familiar with the Ten Thousand.

    These days, I would imagine that no more than 1 in 10,000 (accidental choice of magnitude) movie goers would have the slightest clue about the reference. Was history taught better then… or now?

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      It’s not just facts, though. The same thing is happening in math teaching, where schools and teachers are opting for creating their own curriculum based on an ad hoc collection of handouts and videos from the internet. The general philosophy seems to be that books are inherently bad, and printouts and websites are better; that a teacher who assembles a curriculum by googling a topic will do a better job than a textbook writer.

      I can’t tell if this is just an anti-authoritarian prejudice against having a single author (or more often in social studies, editor,) or if it is part of the move to make everything at school fun! fun! fun! Textbooks=boring. Mishmash=fun!

      Our 6th grade kid is caught in this right now in math at his school. There is no coherent, step-by-step curriculum. Instead, the teachers think they can do better than any textbook by printing hand-outs from the internet, making up classroom group activities, showing an occasional video, and once in a while assigning a 10 minute homework assignment. It’s dumbed down and dumb. He’s not learning anything.

      On the other hand, our 8th grader’s algebra teacher (at a different school) also doesn’t use a textbook, but his reasoning is that he can’t find one rigorous enough for the students. He gives solid lectures where he imparts information, has the class work out problems while he circulates to make sure kids are doing it right, then assigns substantial homework. He has an eye on the next year’s curriculum and on the track that kids need to be on to handle a real calculus class a few years from now.

      I guess the difference between the two schools is that one is trying to create a rigorous preparatory curriculum and the other is just marking time. Lots of teachers just want to pass the kids along.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I once taught with a guy who thought lesson plans and knowing the material were fascist. I kid. A bit. Whatever his excuse was, it excused him from a lot of work and his classes were free-floating lectures going noplace.
    At the very least, this is a labor-saving device/excuse.

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      I don’t get that part. It seems to me much less labor intensive to use a pre-made curriculum than to hunt the internet for things to entertain the students with every day.

      • Totally right. And the time saved can be used to modify the basic textbook/curriculum and devise discussion topics and activities that speak to the actual students in front of you.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        You’re presuming my acquaintance was interested in teaching the material instead of telling the students whatever came into his mind that he thought might be related.

  4. cranberry says:

    We don’t teach students history to create historians.

    I wonder how college history departments are dealing with the flood of students who have no clue about history? Could this explain the lagging popularity of the humanities? It’s hard to teach subjects which depend upon literacy and deep background knowledge.

    It’s hard to learn history when you can’t tell the Guelfs from the Qings. It’s all those hard, boring lists of dates and facts.

    My kids like history; they hated social studies. We do talk about the world and history at the dinner table. History is fascinating–once you know enough. Part of the problem is the image of the Teacher as Savior; he not only teaches the curriculum, heck, he IS the curriculum.

    • Yes, our history department certainly is. A professor at my institution laments that he used to use American history to help him teach Russian history (i.e. this was happening around the beginning of the Civil War). It doesn’t work any more because they don’t know when anything happened in the US either. But it is also their own fault, as they’ve removed any pre-requisistes for all of their courses, so can’t guarantee that a student in a particular class knows anything.