Should we use Textbooks in the History Classroom?

Should we use Textbooks in the History Classroom?
This year we have seen more radical change and adjustment to education than we have in the past 40 years. We’ve moved towards digital and multi-faceted approaches to building understanding, we’ve adapted and adopted new websites, resources and methods to our classes, and we’ve changed how we think about student success, engagement and understanding in a rather dramatic fashion. There is no doubt education is changing, and at a rapid pace. The old systems and structures that form education are evolving, and we as educators need to change with the times. With such radical change, there is another question worth considering… are textbooks in the history classroom a relic of the past, or can they adapt with the times?

The Good
We are all too familiar with state and national standards. Even if you aren’t in the history department you know that we have state-mandated guidelines for how we teach is a pivotal piece of curriculum design and instruction. The content mandated to be required specifically in the history classroom is expansive to say the least, sometimes covering over 800 years in a singular course. With such vast content and curriculum, knowing and understanding the content that will be covered is not an easy task. Understanding the content is much different than glancing it over, and in a discipline that values facts and details so heavily, it is sometimes hard to build our own knowledge of the content.

Serving to this purpose, textbooks can be essential for teachers and students to build a foundational knowledge of events and eras from throughout our collective past. They provide a tertiary perspective on events and actions taken, and provide a means for building and engaging student understanding. On top of that, they frequently are written and built with the state standards for history in mind, providing a seam-less resource that teachers can rely on to aid in their instruction. The review activities, check for understanding questions, and end of chapter summaries can prove to be invaluable to both teachers and students.

… but is this enough?

The Bad
Having such a comprehensive resource to provide aid in teaching a wide variety of topics can sound incredibly appealing. I myself used the textbook as a crutch my first few years of teaching, and it helped immensely in structuring my lessons, my quizzes, and my overall instruction. But as the label of crutch implies, I found myself inherently held back in my own understanding and depth of comprehension of history. Too often, I and my students, found ourselves reading the chapter, answering the questions and leaving it there for our lesson. We rarely if ever pushed ourselves to ask more, or ask the question, “What are we missing here?”

You’ve heard the age-old adage, “History is told by the winners,” and this is no more apparent than in our understanding of history through a textbook. Yes, we learn that natives were displaced by Andrew Jackson on the Trail of Tears. Yes, we learn that the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War. Yes, we learn that Buddhism spread from India throughout the world. But many textbooks will leave it there, encouraging the memorization of information and details, rather than teaching our students how to be historically literate.

History should not be a discipline focused on the simple memorization of facts. While it may be valuable in the moment for students to remember that the Trans-Continental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869… how is that information useful to them after graduation? Textbooks inherently push students towards a one dimensional, linear perspective to history, rather than an understanding of themes, patterns, and human interaction. Stop teaching students the date the trans-continental railroad was finished, and teach them the importance of that event. Don’t teach where it was finished, teach students the perspective of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroad and the struggles they faced. This information will be far better served to provide students with longevity in their understanding, not just memorization.

The Ugly
While we like to pretend that our instruction is unbiased and completely objective, this is an impossible task to accomplish. But the error in presentation is not simply limited to our teachers. We are only human after all. The simple truth is that textbooks are inherently biased not only to those who are over-represented in history, but they can be influenced by state partisan politics as well. Just take a look at the image below comparing the analysis of the Bill of Rights in a book by the same publisher, released in seperate versions for California (left) and Texas (right).

Initially, these excerpts may seem pretty innocent, presenting the same information in the same manner for both. However, notice the fact that in the California publication of this book, there is an excerpt stating that the second amendment (The Right to Bear Arms) has some limitations placed upon it in the modern world. The text from Texas, presents no critical analysis of this amendment, opting to leave a blank space instead, aligning extremely closely with state values on gun ownership and gun rights.

The partisanship of textbooks doesn’t just end there. The same publication has instances in which the credibility and work of African American writers and artists is questioned in the Texas text and left alone in the California version. This presents some fundamental inequality in representation between states. By using textbooks, we are inherently adding more bias and errors into our instruction. We give up historical integrity for biased understandings and interpretations of historical events.

So what do we do?
There are several key things to consider within our instruction of history, however our first priority should be to teach our students how to read and interpret the facts of our past themselves. We need to provide them the skills to research and understand history in their own way. To do this, the following needs to happen:

We need to be critical of the texts that we are using in our classes. Many history texts are over 20 years old, and present an antiquated or outdated perspective on events of the past. To this right, teachers should fundamentally question is the textbook something worth using? If the answer is yes, to what capacity?
Teaching students how to use primary and secondary sources is essential for student growth and historical literacy. Students need to understand that history has many sides, facets, and understandings. The American Revolution was not just an American event. The Vietnam War has complicated but essential perspectives from all members involved.
Cultural and racial literacy is built through understanding of many perspectives and believing that our own experience of the world is certainly not the only one out there. By promoting students to consider those who may not be represented in textbooks, we can in turn build a compassionate and well-developed understanding of the world in the past, and the world we currently live in.
In the end, it is up to the teacher how they choose to use a textbook in their class. Some may choose to use it as the foundation for their class, some as supplemental material, and some not at all. But however we use these books in our curriculum, we constantly need to look out for the voices that are not represented. If we can do this, we will help our students grow not only in their understanding of history, but in their ability to be a responsible citizen of the world.