From the News column of the October 2004 Perspectives

Symposium at Library of Congress Focuses on History Textbooks

AHA Staff, October 2004

From India to France, from Japan to Germany, from the Netherlands to the United States, history textbooks—especially those used to teach middle and high school students—have been increasingly drawing the close scrutiny of professional historians, and politicians alike. What history should they teach? What role do they play in the schools? in making a civil society? How accurate are the textbooks? Do they reflect contemporary historical research? Who writes them? Historians, educators, and, interestingly, students as well grappled with these and many other related questions at a symposium held in May at the Library of Congress. Supported by the Spencer Foundation, the seminar (held May 12 and 13, 2004 and titled “Stories of Our Nations, Footprints of Our Souls”) was cosponsored by the AHA and the library’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The seminar opened with a discussion of the changing context of historical narrative by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord (executive director of Euroclio, the European standing conference of history teachers’ associations); Jean B. Elshtain (Univ. of Chicago); Patricia A. Graham (Harvard Univ.); Hugh Heclo (George Mason Univ.); and Romila Thapar (Kluge Chair for Countries and Cultures of the South). The panelists dealt with issues ranging from role of religion in history textbooks to the public purpose of history education.

The afternoon session was devoted to the different interest groups involved in textbook production—from publishers and writers to audiences and school boards. The speakers were Arnita A. Jones (AHA); Wolfgang Hoepken (Georg Eckert Institut); Casper Grathwohl (Oxford Univ. Press); Donald Ritchie (Office of the Senate Historian); Joseph Viteritti (Princeton Univ.); and Richard Cronin (Congressional Research Service). They explored, among other questions, the factors that shape the content and presentation of textbooks.

The third session, held in the morning of May 13, consisted of innovative discussions with history teachers and their students—the all-important end users of textbooks—which drew upon their classroom experiences to examine various topics, ranging from how students relate to history to strategies adopted teachers to capture and sustain students’ interest in the subject. A videofilm made by students (Kelsey Teeters, Dani Weinberg, Matt Vossekuil, Will Eaton, and Jody McCabe's Theory of Knowledge class) from the public schools of Fairfax County and their teachers (Eileen Noonan, Markus Rodarmel, Shawn Spear, Tara McCord, and Jody McCabe from James W. Robinson Secondary School, and Suzanne Savage, Sia Knight, Susan Robeson, and Gordon Leibfrom James Madison High School) set the session going. It was followed by presentations from Leslie Gray (Fairfax County Schools, online campus) and her student Kathryn Finegan; Robert Hines (Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, Md.) and his student Saul Carlin; Cathy Hix (Swanson Middle School, Arlington, Va.) and her student Hannah Bauman; Rawiya Nash (Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Washington, D.C.) and her student Kayla Johnson; and Julianne Turner (Univ. of Notre Dame). Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), also spoke briefly during this session, and discussed legislative efforts to encourage study of history.

A detailed report (by Leni Donlan, project coordinator of the Learning Page of the Library of Congress) on the seminar appeared in the July 2004 issue of the library’s Information Bulletin.

An archived webcast of the seminar is available at http://www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/storiesofournations.html.