Historical Perspective: Textbooks can instill hatred of history

By Jerry Kasten

It seems that whenever I have a conversation with someone for the first time and mention that I’m a retired high school teacher of American history, the other party often responds with, “Oh, I just love reading history, but I hated it as a child.”
If you too feel the same, I think I have a plausible explanation. It was those state-adopted textbooks we had to teach and learn from. They almost always were written by high school and college teachers (not historians), who were hand-picked by publishers, providing them with guidelines, suggestions, and previously state-adopted textbooks, so as not to contradict the usual conservative viewpoints of the state textbook adoption committee.
The primary aim of the publishers was, after all, to win the highly lucrative Texas state adoption contract worth millions, and not to provide a true historical narrative. Instilling patriotism and “feel-good” narratives takes precedence over sometimes controversial events, which are often omitted.
The result of this system is a boring, “learn these facts” approach to learning, making it easy for lazy or overworked teachers to follow the script and politically dangerous for those creative teachers who creatively went beyond the textbook with assigned readings, thought-provoking activities and films, guest speakers, debates, “extra credit” assignments, simulations, and committee work, all designed to make learning more interesting, meaningful, and closer to the truth.
Hopefully, you had a creative teacher who went beyond that state-adopted textbook.
In Texas, the selection of textbooks, especially in the area of history and economics, is based on the political priorities of the party in power. Since conservatives rule the roost, those individuals selected for the advisory adoption committees are usually considered “safe” because of their record of likewise conservative views.
Generally speaking, history aside, this committee is politically motivated to ensure what is presented are the conservative beliefs of events, not what actually may have occurred.
If you wish to read in more detail this troublesome aspect of textbook selection in the state of Texas and elsewhere, I highly recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.

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