Derrick P. Alridge: The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this study, I argue that American history textbooks present discrete, heroic, one-dimensional, and neatly packaged master narratives that deny students a complex, realistic, and rich understanding of people and events in American history. In making this argument, I examine the master narratives of Martin Luther King, Jr., in high school history textbooks and show how textbooks present prescribed, oversimplified, and uncontroversial narratives of King that obscure important elements in King's life and thought. Such master narratives, I contend, permeate most history textbooks and deny students critical lenses through which to examine, analyze, and interpret social issues today. The article concludes with suggestions about how teachers might begin to address the current problem of master narratives and offer alternative approaches to presenting U.S. history.

During my years as a high school history teacher in the early 1990s, I observed the extent to which history textbooks often presented simplistic, one-dimensional interpretations of American history within a heroic and celebratory master narrative.1 The ideas and representations in textbooks presented a teleological progression from ‘‘great men’’ to ‘‘great events,’’ usually focusing on an idealistic evolution toward American democracy. Reflecting on these years, I also remember how heavily teachers relied on these textbooks, consequently denying students an accurate picture of the complexity and richness of American history.

U.S. history courses and curricula are dominated by such heroic and celebratory master narratives as those portraying George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the heroic ‘‘Founding Fathers,’’ Abraham Lincoln as the ‘‘Great Emancipator,’’ and Martin Luther King, Jr., as the messianic savior of African Americans. Often these figures are portrayed in isolation from other individuals and events in their historical context. At the same time, the more controversial aspects of their lives and beliefs are left out of many history textbooks. The result is that students often are exposed to simplistic, one-dimensional, and truncated portraits that deny them a realistic and multifaceted picture of American history. In this way, such texts and curricula undermine a key purpose of learning history in the first place: History should provide students with an understanding of the complexities, contradictions, and nuances in American history, and knowledge of its triumphs and strengths.2

In his highly regarded book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen argued that ‘‘Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism’’ and that history is usually presented as ‘‘facts to be learned,’’ free of controversy and contradictions between American ideals and practice. According to Loewen, the simplistic and doctrinaire content in most history textbooks contributes to student boredom and fails to challenge students to think about the relationship of history to contemporary social affairs and life.3

Loewen’s argument is not new. In 1935, historian W. E. B. Du Bois also noted the tendency of textbooks to promote certain master narratives while leaving out differing or controversial information about historical figures and events. As an example, Du Bois noted,

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.4

The dominance of master narratives in textbooks denies students a complicated, complex, and nuanced portrait of American history. As a result, students often receive information that is inaccurate, simplistic, and disconnected from the realities of contemporary local, national, and world affairs. When master narratives dominate history textbooks, students find history boring, predictable, or irrelevant. If we continue on this course of presenting history to students, we risk producing a generation that does not understand its history or the connection of that history to the contemporary world. We also deny students access to relevant, dynamic, and often controversial history or critical lenses that would provide them insight into the dilemmas, challenges, and realities of living in a democratic society such as the United States.

In this article, I examine how textbooks present heroic, uncritical, and celebratory master narratives of history. In doing so, I illustrate the master narratives that history textbooks present of one of America’s most heroic icons, Martin Luther King, Jr. I illuminate how high school history textbooks promote King through three master narratives: King as a messiah, King as the embodiment of the civil rights movement, and King as a moderate. Having shown how textbook master narratives portray King, I conclude by suggesting how teachers might move beyond the limitations of these narratives to offer students a more complex, accurate, and realistic view of figures and events in American history.5


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