26 June 2006

History Textbooks

I grow bored even reading the title of my post. Indeed, the term "history textbooks" is not one to fill a student with a giddy desire to discover the wonders of history. Instead, it fills the student with a sick dread of words bolded and definitions italicized by publishers that assume that the students are too stupid or too lazy to actually read and comprehend an entire paragraph. History textbooks are, by and large, awful. This is one of the two factors that lead so many people to hate history in high school. The other factor is the teacher.

For years I have struggled in vain to get my students to read their texts. I have assured them that there is vital information stored within the eye-catching pages of their hundred dollar tomes. I have tried pop quizzes, outlining, terms, questions, bonus points, oral quizzes, and concept mapping all with the same result: miserable failure.

The few students who actually read the text are unable to retain any meaningful information, and the vast majority figured out long ago that reading a history textbook may lead one to a fatal desire to insert round, metallic replicas of former presidents through one's eyes in hope of never having to read the abomination again, and, on top of that, one will learn little other than the fact that textbook publishing is a great gig. Recently, I have concluded that the best path (that is, the one of least resistance) is to teach students how to use their text as a reference work and to give up trying to force them to read it like a book since a thousand monkeys sitting at a thousand typewriters would quite likely create a book more interesting and informative than your average history textbook.

I bring this up because I am currently working on updating the reading assignments for my AP US History class. I am forced to complete this laborious task because we have had to update from the 5th to the 6th edition of Tindall/Shi's American: A Narrative History. It is a fine book and makes an excellent desk reference (I have a bunch of old editions for anyone who would like a free one).

The text is black and white, no words or definitions have been bolded, there are no review questions at the end of each chapter asking students who was the first oppressed minority to do something interesting, the text doesn't attempt to address the latest education fads with colorful sideboxs, little revisionist history finds it way into the book's interpretations of history, and it reads and looks like a decent book instead of a textbook. It also comes with the added bonus of being one of the cheapest AP US textbooks out there with a proven track record.

It is always interesting to see what cutting-edge historical research was deemed so important by the publishers as to warrant a new edition. So far, I have discovered that they have enhanced the brutal deprecations of white Virginia settlers against the Indians and themselves. Listen to this from page 54: "Severe even by the standards of a ruthless age, the code enforced a militaristic discipline needed for survival. When one laborer was caught stealing oatmeal, the authorities had a long needle thrust through his tongue, chained him to a tree, and let him starve to death as a grisly example to the community." Ouch. I don't remember that detail in earlier editions. And to think that some Americans today would be excited by such a punishment (the book doesn't report on the details, but I suppose it is possible the victim was wearing leather). Then the book describes an attack on an Indian village on the same page, "English soldiers attacked Indian villages and destroyed their crops." This is where a typical textbook would stop, but this one goes on: "One commander reported that they marched a captured Indian queen and her children to the river where they 'put the Children to death...by throwing them overboard and shooting out their brains in the water'."

The beauty of this book is that it does not focus merely on the sins of America [see Zinn, Howard], but also its successes. I know that by using this book I run the substantial risk of my students actually reading the book, enjoying it, and learning something. It is a risk I am willing to take. I look forward to what other gems they have inserted in this edition.



4BoyDad said...

Man, I hated History in High School. Some of it was me, some of it was the teacher (Coach something, as usual), and some of it was just the way it was taught.

But I love history now. Whatever else I'm reading, there's always at least one history book in the mix. If I find a good enough one (like "1491"), I'll drop everything else.

I think my appreciation of history now is because a) I'm older and now have a naturally broader view of life, and b) I can read good books about history, instead of formulaic textbooks. I mean, come on, they're stories, great stories. Who doesn't like a good story?

The school where our oldest two are going does not use textbooks at all. They have workbooks for math, grammar, spelling, and science, but they use story books for history, reading (and science, and grammar, etc.).

I wonder what would happen if, instead of textbooks, an AP History class instead read good history books, like Hanson or Ambrose? Fewer but deeper incursions (with some lectures on background), instead of a thin shellacking over the whole thing.

Seriously, though. Read 1491. Very good book.

And I'm sure you'll do fine with AP US History. Thankfully, you're a good teacher.

Splitcat Chintzibobs said...

Many parents that I talk to have much the same story. They hated history in high school but love history now. I think you are right about the reasons for that, though most parents that I talk to prefer the History Channel to books.

I have considered going textless for some time now. The three main drawbacks: many parents and some students "need" the security of a texbook; there is alot more work to be done by the teacher in prepping for class and little time to do that in; some teachers, sadly, wouldn't know what to do without a formulaic textbook. That being said, it is idea that I would like to try if I ever have the time.