By MARGARET HEINZ, East Dundee, Illinois, the USA
History textbooks have often misguided students about the world in which they live, sometimes even claiming they are simply trying to protect them from ugly truths. For example, several US History textbooks present Christopher Columbus as an unquestionably respectable man and America's 'original founder', when in reality, he would torture Native Americans and cut out their tongues if they did not cooperate. The issue is not limited to US textbooks, however; several countries worldwide where students' sole and primary resources are textbooks also control how students think about their world - through biased eyes. These history textbooks are biased in the way they talk about race, religion, politics, gender, and war. It is understandably easier for history teachers to use the textbooks as the only resource, but students only get one side of the story if they do that. Instead, teachers should allow students to learn history through historiography and pedagogical exercises by providing more primary sources for students to compare, contrast, and analyze.
In 2015, in Texas, a controversy occurred: a student found a textbook image of African American slaves captioned ‘workers’, which “did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves” (Wong 3) as the McGraw Textbook provided in its apology statement. Alia Wong, head of the education section in The Atlantic, states that because of this incident, critics argue that teachers should be using primary sources and should be “encouraging kids to analyze how these narratives are written and recognize the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials” (4). This Texas occurrence was not a random incident. Laura Moorhead, doctoral student at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, states such bias is common: “In these printed [text]books, dominant ideologies and perspectives reign supreme, as other views -- notably those held by marginalized groups -- are often relegated to sidebars" (54). Too often, textbooks fail to adequately address any religion beyond Christianity or give perspectives besides those of male authority figures. They often talk about women only in terms of housewives and never address men as father figures. Instead of fully explaining the horrors of African slavery, they dedicate half a paragraph to saying that people were brought over from Africa ‘to work’ (Wong 1-3) so they can claim that they addressed 'the minorities.'
Solutions and Policy Recommendations:
History teachers should provide students with extra learning materials so that their view of the world is not completely shaped by textbook-makers who have to meet quotas and deadlines. School students' naïveté makes it dangerous to teach them inaccurate facts when they are still so young, because those inaccuracies have the potential to stay with them and shape their views well into adulthood. If textbooks continue to run the curriculum, students will forever be living in a world where Columbus was unanimously perceived as a great hero and women are nothing more than domestic housewives - neither of which could be further from the truth - without having ever considered alternative perspectives.
Many educators and critics realize this problem and have begun to propose solutions so that history textbooks do not have to be completely cut from the curriculum but also do not have to be relied upon to teach. In a personal interview, Allison Hurley, AP US History teacher at Dundee Crown High School, claimed: “Curriculum based off textbooks is giving too much power [to those textbook companies].” Textbook companies are designed to make a profit and are not written by historians (Lavere). When teachers rely on them as the only source, they lend them the power to teach students what they should think about history. Michael Conway states in a recent academic study, “American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story” (Wong 4). There is more than one story in history, so to only provide one source such as a textbook (the sources in which are also limited) is biased and implies the claim that that one history is correct. David Bruce Lavere, professor of mathematics and education at Clemson University, believes that "textbook writers and publishers should design pedagogical exercises to reflect the quality content and provide students with opportunities to engage in critical reflection” (3). For instance, some questions in high school history textbooks are ranked at the same level as an elementary school exercise (Lavere 5). Explaining the findings of his research, Lavere says: “It was not unusual to find questions among high school texts that were labeled ‘critical thinking,’ but were, in actuality, simple recall” (5). The solution can begin with textbook revisions: first, publishers must get rid of bias by providing more perspectives; second, they need to provide questions appropriate to the intended student reader's grade level to help him or her think critically. This will start to address the skills students should be learning in history such as critical analysis, instead of pure memorization.
Once textbooks are revised, teachers must take the text step. Teachers have the power to shape a young student’s mind forever. History teachers in particular mould the way students’ minds look at the world. Understandably, teachers cannot adopt an omniscience and simply reveal all the wrongdoings of the world to their students objectively, but can instead present different viewpoints on issues of racism, politics, war, religion and gender roles, all the while guiding the students' analyses of those sources. Hurley believes that teachers should “expose kids to different histories” and that a good teaching technique is to use primary sources to “represent people and allow kids to think.” This goes hand-in-hand with the critical thinking skills students will acquire when practicing analysing given sources from different points of view.
Moorhead opines that teachers need to incorporate “primary sources into the classroom with the hope of fostering and complicating emerging, historical thinking” (Moorhead 56). This practice is newly known as historiography. This use of primary sources provides yet another benefit: it engages students. “Student-authored content has, in fact, been documented to encourage engagement…[students] might experience some level of increased engagement as compared to their experience with a traditional world history textbook” (Moorhead 57). History class has been proven to be the least liked core subject among high school students because they believe it invaluable (Wong 6). In a recent 2013 Gallup poll that asked adults which subjects they valued most in school, “just 8 percent of respondents valued history most, while just 3 percent voted for social studies” (Wong 6). As enlightening, engaging, and valuable the subject can be, teachers must strive to excite students and ignite in them a passion for learning and uncovering truths about the world in which they live.
It is understandable that this is not a simple way to teach. Not only is it tedious work for teachers to find primary sources for students to analyze, but it is also sometimes difficult to allow these into the curriculum. As Laura Moorhead claims: “While historians have long complained about the tyranny of the textbook, teachers report having few easily-at-hand alternatives, particularly when faced with the state-mandated textbooks and standardized test that allow little time to deviate from test preparation” (57). Indeed, it may sometimes be hard to devote time to analysis when the class has to prepare for a test, but this is yet another way primary sources could help students: no longer would it have to be all about memorizing the material for every test but instead, the focus could be put upon actually picking apart sources and grading students on their critical thinking skills. Teachers need not stop using textbooks altogether; the textbooks should instead be redesigned to help teachers incorporate primary sources into their teaching. This would both help students develop valuable skills and aid teachers in finding sources.
By teaching children to analyze sources and spot bias in a book, teachers give them the competency to ascertain when something is influenced wrongly, which is a skill as applicable in the real world as it is in the search for historical truth. This leads to a wider issue, which is that students should be informed about what they are learning and through what exercises. Pedagogy and historiography through the use of primary sources give children a chance to understand different versions of history and teaches them to not blindly believe everything they read in a textbook, allowing students to control how they think about their world.
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