Rethink That History Textbook!

If you have ever wondered about the durability of racism and white supremacy in America, why these odious evils have persisted for so many years, Donald Yacovone has an provocative answer: we have been teaching them for centuries.

Yacovone is a scholar, researcher and writer with long-standing ties to two important Harvard University centers, the W.E.B. DuBois Institute and the Hutchins Center for African and African America Research. While researching a book about abolitionists, Yacovone started looking at history textbooks written before the Civil War. The tomes he found avoided any discussion of abolitionism and were rife with racism. This ignited Yacovone to go further on the research, and he eventually looked at more than 3,000 textbooks spanning American history up through modern times. The results of that study is a powerful book with a distressing message: Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity. Yacovone’s agenda is more than providing a listing of bad textbooks. It is a reading of textbooks through a racial justice lens, examining how these many books promoted particular theories of history. In the vast majority, the influence of white supremacy looms large.

The evidence is overwhelming. Historian after historian and writer after writer misrepresented slavery, advanced racial categorizations, ignored major conflicts and challenges, and emphasized white leaders and the importance of whites being in control. Yacovone describes how it was presented in the early 1800s and tracks its variations over the coming decades. For those interested in shifting historiographic trends, the re-evaluation of Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, offers a powerfully effective litmus test on author’s commitment to a racially just nation. Sadly, there are precious few writers who put forward textbooks that presented anything akin to multi-racial history.

Yacovone’s focus does not include much about the publishing business, who and how textbooks were purchased, or the connection between the messaging in these books with broader political or social trends. That is where my curiosity went, thinking about the networks and markets, after getting a handle on the recurring racist themes. The book’s argument is so compelling, it is difficulty not to wonder more about the how’s and why’s. In fact, I would have welcomed more speculation by Yacovone. His data is so compelling that it calls out for more consideration.

What have been the policies and practices over the years when it comes to textbook adoption? Did some states and/or educational leaders promote particular textbooks? And if so, when, under what circumstances, and why? It is often a contested topic and most certainly is so today.

My teaching history has been at the college level. While history textbooks are common, historians are far from one mind about the appropriateness and efficacy of history textbooks in general. With so many primary sources available, along with a wealth of monographs and more focused studies, it is possible to create a rich and robust learning experience that is more engaging than the traditional chronological presentation of periods and eras. More than a few professors use a history textbook as a back up, a reference point, but not as the only source of information. Primary sources offer provocative correctives and demonstrate the complexity of historical analysis. Real history is not memorization. It calls for research, assessing data, and crafting arguments and narratives of understanding. If one omnipotent source of truth about the path existed, we would not need historians or the discipline.

Students in the K-12 system often experience little but history or social studies textbooks. Yacovone reminds us that most history textbooks were not about making arguments or investigation: “history texts served as reservoirs of values, patriotism and a national ethos. As other studies have shown, from the start history textbooks sought to create unity through storytelling.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge the impact of these “myth-making” endeavors. What is clear is that these textbooks have played a critical role in perpetuating the racist theme of white supremacy in American history.

Yacovone’s Teaching White Supremacy is a needed addition to the study of what we teach as American history. It is a corrective and reminder for us to look closely at what is often passed as “history.” And to history teachers, current and future (and I count myself among them, looking forward to an opportunity to get back in the classroom one day), if you assign a textbook, read it critically!

David Potash

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