Sunday, January 12, 2020

It's About More Than Just The Textbooks

24 years later this clip from Lone Star is stil relevant

There's an excellent Times piece making the rounds where they compare history textbooks between California and Texas. As you could guess, the study reveals discrepancies driven in large part by partisan politics.

We need to talk more about how history is taught to high school students, but way too much space is taken up in the discourse by textbooks. Examining them ought to be a starting point, and they are something that only tells us so much. Students tend to read textbooks pretty indifferently, what the teachers emphasize in the classroom matters a whole lot more. I also know from my time as a student that much of what is in the textbook gets stepped over, too. I only really use textbooks as a reference guide for my students, and we do very little reading from it in my survey class.

I am sure that there are teachers in Texas who are giving their students a very bottom-up version of American History that takes a critical and honest view of the nation's past. (I should know, I taught high school students in Texas once upon a time.) I am also totally positive that there are history teachers in California giving their students a traditional top-down narrative full of "America is the greatest country on earth." I am even more sure that in both states there are football coaches teaching history classes without even a rudimentary knowledge of the subject who don't bring anything to the material.

Of course, it's hard to know what all these teachers do in the classroom without some intrusive studies or potentially inaccurate self-reporting. Getting access to the course plans, syllabi, and schedules teachers use might be possible, however, considering the number of schools that require them. Just looking at the readings that teachers assign beyond the textbook would probably tell you all you need to know about the approach being taken by the class.

Or better yet, I have often thought that a survey asking teachers what movies (or movie clips) they show in class and how they use them would perhaps tell you the most, since most teachers would find this to be an inoccuous question. I got to thinking about this when a former student of mine tweeted about her rural Texas high school teacher, who would show movies like Dances With Wolves multiple times. I've seen others mention Remember the Titans as a favorite of football coach teachers (for obvious reasons) as well.

If a teacher shows films uncritically as secondary sources, and these films tend to confirm America's goodness and downplay any problems, that will say more than what textbook they use. If a teacher uses films to teach about the time they were made in, or examines them critically to get at popular myths of American history, that would tell you something else entirely.

If we are to improve the quality of history education in our schools, we need to get beyond the textbook wars. A good teacher incorporating primary sources, deep knowledge, and a critical perspective, will more than negate a bad textbook. On the other side, a teacher with little content knowledge who does not assign readings from diverse voices from the past and takes a completely uncritical approach will turn even the best textbook into hash.

So yes, we have now unearthed the textbook discrepancies. Instead of endlessly litigating this particular point of conflict, let's bear down and get deeper. That's the only way forward.

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