The Missing Key to the Texas History Textbook Debate


Kyle Ward is the Director of Social Studies Education at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, MN. He has a PhD in History Education from Indiana State University. His latest book is "Not Written in Stone: Learning and Unlearning U.S. History Through 200 Years of Textbooks," (The New Press, 2010).

In 1826, Joseph Worcester published his high school history textbook titled Elements of History and began trying to get it adopted in schools throughout the United States.  This rather insignificant historical fact is important today because, according to most experts who study American educational history, this was the first history textbook ever written specifically for secondary schools in the United States. 

This is not to say that this was the first time that history was taught in America’s schools, but rather this marks the first time that an author and publisher made a concerted effort to teach students about the nation’s past by creating materials specifically for that subject.  Before the late 1820s, students would have had the opportunity to learn about the country’s past, but these lessons were usually part of rhetoric courses (in which pupils learned about the great speeches in American history), in geography courses, or because an industrious teacher may have enjoyed history and incorporated it out of his own interest.  It also needs to be noted that although the textbook was written for students, Worcester and his publisher also knew, like everyone who wrote textbooks in the 1800s and early 1900s, that they were also marketing books to teachers who probably did not have any background in how to teach history.

Besides probably being the first high school U.S. history textbook in the United States, Worcester’s work typically gains little attention otherwise, but it is a great example of the kinds of history textbooks that American students would see for the next hundred years and of how history textbooks would help shape students’ image and knowledge of American history for many years to come.  For example, in his very first paragraph in the section he titled “America,” Worcester let students know that “the discovery of America was the greatest achievement of the kind ever performed by man; and, considered in connection with its consequences, it is the greatest event of modern times.”

 I’ve looked at many, many U.S. history textbooks from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I have found that writing like this was the norm.  Typically, the authors of these history textbooks, the publishers who distributed them, and the teachers who taught from them all had one goal in mind when teaching history:  to make every student a good, patriotic citizen.  Therefore, history textbooks in the 1800s and into the 1900s were usually written with the idea that Americans were a unique and special group of people.  These textbooks told a similar story:  that progress, democracy and the American people were all good; especially if said were white Protestants.

For the most part, the patriotic history narrative has been a perennial theme throughout American history.  Even so, as Joseph Morneau points out in his brilliant book Schoolbook Nation:  Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present, throughout our history not all Americans agreed to one single narrative about the American story.  Since the very foundation of the United States, it seems that historians, teachers, school boards, citizens and politicians have all debated what should or should not be in our students’ history books. 

Typically these debates centered on what should be put in or what should be left out of these high school textbooks, with the significant undertone of what sorts of social, cultural, religious and political implications this would have on students.  Although seemingly a simple set of questions, they’ve lead to a series of very serious debates in this country.  This brings us to the Texas State Board of Education today.

 The Texas State Board of Education voted along party lines in March to accept social studies curriculum standards that most would consider conservative; historians, politicians, and citizens from all backgrounds and ideologies have come out to either argue against these new textbook guidelines or to applaud the work that the SBOE has done.  The Texas standards are doubly important because of the fact that Texas is an all or nothing textbook adoption state, which means that not only are they impacting a number of students in a very populated state but that Texas (as well as California’s) textbook decisions usually impact textbooks around the nation. 

After having written/edited four books on the topic of history textbooks, I decided not to get on my soapbox and weigh in on this controversy by claiming what should or should not be in the history textbooks of Texas students.  Rather, I would like to have both sides step back and refocus their energy on the key component of history education that I have not yet seen anyone address.  After having spent a number of years teaching history to middle school, high school, and college students, I can honestly say that students rarely, if ever, actually read their textbooks.  Granted, in the past, I have assigned readings, used worksheets, and even had tests dedicated to getting students to read their textbooks, but alas to no avail.  True, they were forced to read from these textbooks due to these assignments, but it was rarely viewed as a pleasurable activity, nor was it one that most students benefited from in the long run.  In lectures I have given about my research on history textbooks, I usually start by telling the audience that they have the pleasure of meeting the only person who has ever sat down and actually read a U.S. history textbook

With that said, the debate in Texas needs to move away from what is included in the textbook to what is being taught in the classroom.  You see the missing key to this whole debate is the history teacher in the classroom, not the behemoth history textbook that no student is ever going to read.  At the end of the day, it is not the history textbook that educates students about America’s past, but rather the teachers who develop the lesson plans, organize the instruction and assess students on what they know about history.  In actuality, the textbooks in these classrooms could make nearly any claim they want to about our past, but if the classroom teacher ignores or refutes this part of the textbook, then students will learn something different then what their textbook tells them.

Today, I have the pleasure of teaching a university methods class for future history teachers and what I have learned from them—and my own experiences teaching—is that the history textbook has less to do with the student then it does for the novice teacher.  We ask our new social studies teachers to be highly skilled in the areas of civics, world history, U.S. history, geography, economics, sociology and psychology, all by taking classes for four years at a university.  What I have come to see is that the real impact textbooks have is on these new teachers who are often stereotypically one chapter ahead of their students.  Since too many of our new teachers do not have the breadth of historical knowledge when they start out teaching, they often rely on these textbooks, and the supplemental material that go with them, to help get themselves organized, develop ideas about instruction and help create assessment. 

With that said, I think the debate in Texas, and indeed across the United States, should move away from the details of what is or is not in our history textbooks and begin debating ways to better prepare and support our history teachers.  What we need to do is to prepare and support our 7-12 history teachers by helping them find the resources and gain historical knowledge they need to better prepare our students.  With a strong knowledge of both pedagogy and historical content, these teachers will be able help create students who will understand historical perspectives, learn how to do historical research, grasp the concept of historiography and conduct historical debates.  In the end, that’s what every history educator strives for.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Joseph Worcester gave Americans their first true history textbook knowing only one thing for sure:  the teachers who were going to use his book had little to no real training in teaching history.  Sadly, while we continue the debate today over what should be included in the pages of textbooks, we are still missing the big picture and continue to ignore the biggest key to improving historical knowledge in this nation:  our underappreciated history teachers.

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