In a 1999 essay for H-Net I explored how scarcity is the “ruling assumption of our teaching.” Textbooks provide a crucial case in point. U.S. surveys share the following characteristics. They have thirty-one chapters in the single-volume editions; in the two-volume versions each has sixteen, because both include the chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Each chapter is approximately thirty pages long, except in the shortened versions. This means, with the addition of appendices listing the presidents and reprinting the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other standard features, the texts run about a thousand pages. Market considerations determine the number of illustrations, maps, and other graphics. The publisher needs to bring the book out at a certain price and with a certain profit margin. Four-color images are nice but expensive. This means, for example, that a text may contain a painting from the Hudson River School but not more than one. That one is the Hudson River School, so far as the student is concerned.

Since textbooks cannot exceed a stipulated length, revisions involve zero-sum tradeoffs. If there is exciting new scholarship on native peoples, for example, the authors can include it only by reducing their coverage of some other topic. Hence the complaint some register about how these books downplay “traditional” political, military, and diplomatic history. Scarcity plays as much of a role as changing scholarly interests. The same need to get topics to fit within rigid constraints also reinforces the practice pejoratively known as “dumbing down.” Authors and publishers assume that the less information and analysis they provide, the easier the reader will find it to understand. This assumption is entirely gratuitous. It is possible to overwhelm students with information. It is equally possible to underwhelm. Quite often, things do not make sense to students because they do not know enough detail.

In 1999 I asked: “Is there a great mystery about why textbooks are so similar despite the best efforts of both publishers and authors to produce a different product?” One text might omit the Hudson River School altogether, I answered, and instead use a Hiram Powers sculpture. Another might leave out the 1863 Dakota Sioux Uprising to allot more space to the battle of the Little Big Horn. Some texts give more emphasis to politics, some to social developments, but all must treat a standard list of events and of important historical actors. As a result, the texts are different but in superficial ways.

What is true of texts is also true of our syllabi. We employ pedagogies of scarcity and zero-sum tradeoffs. We start with the number of classes. Then we cram in as much as we dare as we seek to supplement what the text covers. We must make space for quizzes and short-answer exams. This, since we are operating in a zero-sum environment, means that we have less time to “cover” material. All of this is so much a matter of course that we hardly bother to think about it.

Next: Pedagogies of Scarcity vs. The History Student's Need for Cognitive Flexibility