Publication Date

May 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • United States

A score of U.S. history and social studies texts dominate the high school market; they constitute required reading for millions of young people from the upper elementary level to the twelfth grade. There is among the American public a developing consensus with respect to these texts, thanks especially to the publication of Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised in 1979.

Texts, FitzGerald pointed out, are supposed to provide students with historical truth; but this requirement not infrequently collides with a publisher’s need to make a profit. Resolution of this conflict of interest is achieved through the elimination of subject matter which might arouse the ire of special interest groups and thus have a negative impact upon adoptions and sales. Censorship, therefore, accompanies the production of these books, and historical truth becomes the victim. The realities of slavery, for example, or the wiping out of Native American peoples are muted. The result is often a pallid, lifeless presentation.

The lack of vitality characterizing these books is accentuated by the failure to base them squarely upon the original sources which alone provide the historian with the means to illuminate history. Textbook writers typically and perhaps of necessity put together their material by relying heavily upon monographic literature—not to mention other textbooks. They tell of events that they have only read about in the works of others, but that they themselves for the most part have not studied from original sources. Books such as this are unsatisfactory.

There is, however, another way to go. Over the past thirty years teachers, historians, and publishers have begun providing some of the literature we seek. This work is characterized by, though not limited to, an effort to make original sources available to students in many varied forms. Such sources include artworks and artifacts; published and unpublished journals, reports, correspondence, and autobiographies; newspapers; folk songs, legends, and oral testimony. This new literature is still in a relatively early stage of development, but it thrives in some schools, especially where it is used by college-bound students. It exists side by side with the textbook leviathan.

Some readers may contemplate this alternative with skepticism: “Isn’t it going to be terribly expensive to publish all this material for large numbers of students?”

The answer is, yes and no. A school system that starts collecting documents needs only one camera-ready copy of each item in order to produce all the copies it wishes at trifling cost. The investment is cumulative. If steps are taken to make the material available—and this will be addressed in a moment—a first-class history archive ought to lie within reach of any school system that wants it, at a fraction of the sum that the taxpayer is obliged to pay each year for texts. This is the reason commercial publishers are not interested in promoting the sale of original source materials: there simply isn’t enough money in it.

To provide original sources cheaply for school use teachers will need to develop publishing and research arrangements of their own. This may be accomplished by setting up nonprofit educational centers in every region of the country. These centers would be staffed by teachers and students, some professional, some volunteer. Part of the expense would be covered by sales of materials, part by funds from state education budgets, federal grants, and private contributions. One example of a nonprofit institution of this type is the National Center for Curriculum in the Schools, in Los Angeles, whose director is Charlotte Crabtree.

To deprive students of source materials makes it impossible for them to have direct access to our past. Young Americans must read historical sources for themselves if they are to begin to know history. American archives and libraries are crammed with sources that await use. This material constitutes a foundation for the education of American youth and introduces them to the cultural legacy that is their birthright. This archival record possesses enormous diversity. There are, for example, dozens of narratives of African-American slaves and many volumes of recollections of life under slavery. There is a largely untapped treasury of the legends and poetry of Native Americans. And there are sources of great value for Jewish history in general and Yiddish culture in particular.

Not infrequently young people themselves have made valuable contributions to the record, as have others who witnessed youth’s experience and then wrote down what they saw and heard. The life of child workers in America’s mines, mills, and factories has been eloquently documented by Lewis Hine and the accounts of labor organizers like John Spargo. Mention should also be made of records created by battlefield soldiers and frontier women. These writings have a continuing fascination for young people. There is no better way for them to learn the power of historical literature than through the writings of other young people, dead and gone, who helped to make history and also recorded it. @

Today’s young people continue this tradition. Our schools need to be thought of not only as places where history is taught, but where it is written. Young immigrants in the process of learning English in California schools are writing how and why they came from Vietnam, or Pakistan, or Hong Kong, or the Philippines, and what experiences befell them on the way. Youth archives constitute a special form of the historical record. They need to be constituted, accessioned, and reproduced. In fact, the very concept of the youth archive may be viewed as central to the emergence of a new historical literature for young people.

From earliest times, men, women, and children in America have told the story of their lives and struggles through the medium of song. These songs are historical sources of depth and beauty. They provide evidence for American history throughout its span. The songs offer firsthand accounts of human life, experience, and struggle, and this is reinforced by the power of music. These songs are even studied in schools for the deaf by children with little or no hearing. This is no mean testimony to the human and historical truth conveyed by the lyrics even when divorced from the exquisite melodies to which they are often set.

Folk songs are now beginning to be disseminated to schools all over the country. Members of the Committee on History in the Classroom established in 1979 a newsletter entitled Folk Song in the Classroom. Laurence I. Seidman, a folklorist and professor of education at Post College, New York, helped launch this nonprofit venture. Issued three times a year, Folk Song in the Classroom has a circulation of close to 1,500, and it reaches an audience composed primarily of upper elementary, junior high, and high school teachers.

Some of the “new” historical literature for youth created in recent years has been historical narrative; but where this is so the narrative has been based from first to last upon original sources woven into the story. Forms of historical literature based upon such use and mastery of original sources include videotapes and biographies.

The short story was the art form of the nineteenth century; the thirty- or forty-minute videotape may be that of the twenty-first. Numberless episodes in American history may be enacted through videotape in the form of dramatizations that introduce students to a given topic. Such historical videotapes open limitless horizons for the cooperation of artists, actors, and teachers. They constitute an art form with a future transcending the instructional and documentary mode with which teachers today are familiar. Videotapes may be produced professionally; they may also be prepared in the schools with the participation of students, teachers, filmmakers, and scholars. One example is the tape recently produced by New England and the Constitution (a non-profit educational group) entitled The Other Boston Tea Party. Based upon a play by John F. Carroll, this charming one-hour tape is available to schools for $10. The presentation effectively dramatizes the struggle for the ratification of the Constitution.

Biography, many agree, is a highly effective literary form for inspiring young people with a love of the past. Unfortunately, serious biography for young adults is in its infancy: there are gaps on our library shelves where biographies ought to be. Biography awaits exploration as central to the new historical literature being discussed here. At the moment the principal contribution is the Library of American Biography, edited by Oscar Handlin. But more than half the books in this series deal with members of the elite—presidents, politicians, and lawyers. Only three women are included (Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt), two black men (Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington), and one Native American (Tecumseh). Champions of the cause of labor, with the exception of Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther, are conspicuous by their absence. There are no more than three writers or journalists—Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt. There are no explorers or inventors with the exception of Captain John Smith and Eli Whitney. Distinguished artists, musicians, scientists, philosophers, actors, architects, and activists find no place.

Thomas Y. Crowell’s Women of America series, edited by Milton Meltzer, contains about twenty volumes produced between 1960 and 1980. It includes writers (Pearl Buck, Harriet Beecher Stowe), artists (Mary Cassatt), scientists (Rachel Carson), activists (Lydia Maria Child, Emma Goldman, Mother Jones), singers (Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith), populist leaders (Mary Elisabeth Lease), and health workers (Lillian Wald).

This precedent has been followed in the Makers of America series, which Facts on File launched in 1988 with the publication of biographies of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Amelia Earhart. Lillie Patterson’s Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Freedom Movement, published in this series in 1989, may be cited as an outstanding example of the kind of young adult biography we need. Ms. Patterson is one of Maryland’s leading black authors. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Freedom Struggle won the Coretta Scott King award for 1989’s most distinguished contribution to educational literature concerned with the story of black people in America. Patterson’s book provides young adults with an introduction not only to Martin Luther King, Jr., but to the whole civil rights movement. Patterson weaves original sources into her narrative; this in no small part is the secret of her success.

Textbooks traditionally have provided students with an overview of the American past. Without texts will students be able to gain an understanding of the American story? Is there no danger that they will be left holding no more than colorful fragments of a jigsaw puzzle?

I think not: here, too, there is another way. It lies in the creation of a modern epic form based upon study of the traditional epics that constitute part of both the Western and the Native American literary heritage. Modern writers presenting reality in fictional form have already explored this path, especially Mikhail Sholokhov in And Quiet Flows the Don and John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Historians have also begun to experiment with epic. John Anthony Caruso’s series, The American Frontier, is a beautifully written multivolume epic. A few years ago the National Geographic Society assembled a group of historians, geographers, and artists to prepare a lavishly illustrated historical atlas and accompanying text: The Making of America was published in 1984. Not least remarkable was the mural that accompanied it—a five foot folk art bas relief expressing a vision of the American past.

Books such as these do not so much instruct students in factual detail as arouse wonder and delight in contemplation of the historical process. The reader is taken to the mountaintop to view the panorama. Then he or she may see the tides that run and the patterns that form and change. What is important here is not “coverage” but communication.

Teachers who use the kind of historical literature under discussion will need, in the fullness of time, to develop a new pedagogy. “Overview” will need to be understood not as something that the text imposes but that emerges from the classroom process itself. The historian possessing his or her own concept of history will provide materials from which both analysis and synthesis can emerge. The students themselves will thus be enabled to begin creating their own vision of the past based upon the evidence that they have examined.

Will history, approached in the ways sketched, leave too many gaps in the historical narrative? I do not think so. There are myriad themes that may be treated in other works—mini-series—prepared for the purpose. One example is Alfred A. Knopf’s Living History Library (15 vols., 1965–75). These books are studies of periods or topics in American history based from first to last upon original sources (including songs) interwoven into the narrative; they are written by distinguished historians and teachers, including Marion Starkey (known for her work on Daniel Shays’s rebellion and the Trail of Tears), James M. McPherson, Douglas Miller, Milton Meltzer, and Laurence I. Seidman. Dozens more such studies await authors.

The forms of historical literature discussed in this article share the same goal: to bring the past to life with the help of testimony enshrined in the enduring record. Let the people, at long last, be heard. Let them speak and sing from the grave; let them use their own words to tell their story and reach out across time’s chasm.

John Anthony Scott (co-chair of the Committee on History in the Classroom) was chairman of the department of history of the Ethical Culture Schools in New York until 1967 and subsequently taught at the Rutgers University School of Law. As editor and author he has contributed many books to the "new" historical literature, including A History of the American People published early in 1990. Many thanks are due to Professors Robert A. Blackey, Donald S. Detwiler, and Robert H. Ferrell for their help in the writing of this article.