Publication Date

May 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • United States

John Anthony Scott’s thoughts on the teaching of United States history and social studies are a welcome addition to the growing debate on teaching history in the schools. Scott provides a valuable introduction to some of the lesser known materials that are available to teachers, such as the Folk Song in the Classroom newsletter and the Makers of America series of biographies for young adults. He also makes the case, with which I agree, that we need to weave into the teaching of history far more original source material so that students will hear authentic voices from the past and will grasp some of the drama and tension of different eras of United States history.

As Scott maintains, music, art, cartoons, autobiographies, letters, diaries, newspapers, and pamphlets are all materials that can enrich the teaching of history. Moreover, as he points out, the problems of reproducing such material within a single school may not be as great as it first appears. But the larger question to which his essay is addressed is much more complicated: namely, can we or ought we replace textbooks with such materials?

My answer is an emphatic “No!” My reasons are two: first, the most recent textbooks that are entering the marketplace are much better than Scott would have us believe; and second, a textbook (even an incomplete or unbalanced one) provides an essential integrating and synthesizing function.

Is it true that the new history–social studies textbooks are censored and rendered “pallid” and “lifeless” by “a publisher’s need to make a profit?” Scott believes so and identifies the villain as the American publisher. I believe that textbooks are gradually improving and that, in any case, Scott is aiming at the wrong target. Publishers quite sensibly try to follow guidelines set by states, especially large states. When states change their social studies frameworks and insist on better books (carefully specifying how they are to be better), then publishers respond. Or at least some do.

Take the case of California. The new History–Social Studies framework promulgated in 1987 called explicitly for presenting history “as an exciting and dramatic series of events in the past that helped to shape the present”; it called for the enrichment of history through the use of literature of and about the period under study and the repeated use of primary source material. “Poetry, novels, plays, essays, documents, inaugural addresses, myths, legends, tall tales, biographies, and religious literature,” it demanded, must be used to “help shed light on the life and times of the people.” The framework called specifically for a multicultural perspective throughout the curriculum so that students could learn “that the history of community, state, region, nation, and world must reflect the experiences of men and women of different racial, religious, and ethnic groups.” It demanded that the textbooks “present controversial issues honestly and accurately within their historical or contemporary context.” It acknowledged the importance of religion in human history and called for historical treatment of the major religions and ethical traditions in world and United States history.

Scott’s argument about publisher timidity gains some support from the fact that many publishers were scared off by California’s bold new social studies framework. They worried that if other states did not follow California’s lead, particularly in devoting three years to the study of world history and three years to the study of United States history, then books published for the California framework would have little sales potential outside that state. But some publishers did come forward, and their books were assessed at length by evaluation panels composed of teachers and scholars and by a tough-minded curriculum commission. Even many of the books that did not pass muster with these evaluating bodies are a far cry from the books that Frances FitzGerald examined in America Revised more than a decade ago. Women’s history, the history of racial and ethnic minority groups, and of working people—what some call the “new social history”—is now being carefully woven into the traditional textbook accounts of politics, the economy, diplomacy, and war. What is more, the ugly chapters of our history, including slavery, genocidal Indian policies, class exploitation, and violent race relations, are being addressed much more candidly. Of course each book differs in its effectiveness in overcoming the biases, distortions, and omissions of earlier books. But all, including Scott’s new textbook entitled History of the American People, have moved a considerable distance from the Eurocentric, male-dominated, and largely celebratory United States history textbooks of previous generations. This is not to deny that many further improvements are needed. But the call for multicultural approaches to history and social studies (and for textbooks that more effectively treat gender, religion, class, and region as well) is having an effect.

We should not regard textbooks, even the best of the new ones, as the sole resource for either student or teacher. Good teachers have known that all along. The textbook is a place to begin, a place to go back to, a place from which to launch a variety of teaching activities. It should be liberally supplemented by the kinds of materials Scott details. But it alone can convey, in orderly, chronological sequence, the foundational materials needed for an understanding of how American society changed over centuries and how societies and nations around the world developed over a vast period of time. The kinds of biographies, songs, and primary materials that Scott would have teachers rely on, if used in place of rather than in addition to a textbook, would leave most students with only the sketchiest understanding of the complex interrelationships of economic, political, and social factors that have produced historic transformations in American and other societies.

Moreover, the textbook alone can give new teachers, many of whom have only a few undergraduate history courses as background, a firm footing on which to proceed. It alone, in its teacher editions, can provide the wealth of teaching strategies, suggest a wide range of student activities, provide ideas for connecting historical materials with the arts and sciences, direct teachers to additional resources, and show ways to adapt lesson material to the ability levels of both advanced and sheltered students.

While the textbook should still be regarded as an indispensable tool for teaching the history of the United States, it is almost unthinkable that students or teachers should be deprived of it in world history. Consider again the California case, where the new history–social studies framework calls for three full years of study of world history: the history of the ancient world (sixth grade), the medieval world (seventh grade), and the modern world (tenth grade). Probably not one in twenty-five history–social studies teachers has had even one course in ancient history, defined in most colleges and universities simply as the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Those who have studied ancient China, Japan, India, and other parts of the non-European world are even fewer in number. Now, in the new California curriculum, teachers are required to teach sixth graders not only about prehistorical humankind, but about ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Kush; about the Indus Valley civilization and the beginning of Buddhism; about the Gupta Empire and early Hinduism; about ancient China, including the age of Confucius and the Han dynasty; about ancient Israel and early Christianity and Judaism. Can teachers really be expected to organize materials on a week-by-week and day-by-day basis for teaching such complex and unfamiliar materials to sixth graders? Can they really come up with the rich materials showing artistic and architectural expression in various societies as the best new textbooks in world history do? Can they ferret out the primary sources and literature selections that illustrate life, religion, and thought among the many societies to be studied? Do seventh grade teachers really have the time, resources, and background to organize materials for studying—to take a single unit of what the California framework calls for and has gotten in one new textbook—the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai; the organization of village society in West Africa in the medieval period; the causes and character of the Bantu migration; the rise of the West African coastal trading states and of Zimbabwe and the Kongo kingdom?

In sum, teachers should reject the either-or approach implicit in Scott’s argument. They should neither jettison textbooks nor teach entirely from them. They should begin with the best textbook available—and of those teaching American history some, perhaps, will choose the one he has published in 1990. They should work outward from that textbook, searching for new materials of many kinds and using these materials to enrich the textbook accounts, to delve into the local significance of large-scale phenomena addressed in the textbook, and to fill gaps in the textbook as they identify them.

Gary B. Nash is professor of history at UCLA, associate director of the National Center for History in the Schools, and history author of the new K-8 Houghton-Mifflin Social Studies series (1991).