Down with Textbooks (or at least one of them)!

My school has a lousy United States history textbook. Professors Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty are both well respected and lauded historians, but that does not mean that The American Nation is a good book.

Okay, maybe “lousy” is a bit too strong, but I can confidently say that the book has numerous problems. Some of these complaints are probably somewhat minor.

For example, the book spends two full pages on the 1997 movie Titanic (pp. 614-615), but only two sentences (and a painting!) on the actual 1912 sinking (p. 618). The two-page insert on the movie attempts to make a connection to changing sexual values at the time, but is rehashing Leo and Kate’s tryst the best way to do that?

Other issues range from completely puzzling to annoyingly humorous. One passage equates Afghanistan war veterans suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with World War I veterans who suffered from “shell shock” (p. 610). These conditions are not the same, and it does a disservice to our students to conflate the two and remove the historicity from “shell shock.”

Less harmful, but much more boring, in an earlier chapter the textbook contains essentially a full page on “Higher Education in [Colonial] New England” (pp. 70-71). My first thought was to question why this is valuable to students (I still do not know). After reflection, the section seems to be no more than an excuse to praise Harvard as a shining beacon of intellectual achievement while dismissing Yale as a lesser institution (at least in its origins). Coincidentally, Professor Carnes did his undergraduate studies at Harvard. Hmm.

Some of the book’s problems are more noteworthy, however. In particular, I have significant problems with its treatment of the black experience in U.S. history. Early twentieth-century lynchings are not even mentioned in the text (only in a photo caption on p. 579), and Ida B. Wells is not included at all. Contrast that with the five paragraphs on “Crack and Urban Gangs” in the 1980s.

The fact that a section on “Crack and Urban Gangs” exists at all is troubling (p. 837), especially considering crack did not become a problem until a few years AFTER President Reagan declared the War on Drugs (see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 5). Spending several paragraphs talking about drive-by shootings and how “Black on black murder had become a significant cause of death for African Americans in their twenties” is not just problematic—it is a problem.

Why is that worthy of inclusion in such detail (no less the wrong details, in my opinion), but lynching basically goes unmentioned?

The two-page insert on President Obama (pp. 824-825) probably bothers me the most. The two photos it uses are: (1) Obama, at 2 years of age, being held by his mother; and (2) Obama smoking marijuana in college in 1980. Now, do not misunderstand me—I actually sort of adore the “pot-smoking Obama” photo. I do not, however, think it is the best photo for inclusion into a textbook, especially considering other presidents are not portrayed this way at all. (They are essentially telling us that they could not find any photos of Ronald Reagan other than his charming cowboy look (p. 819). The man spent how long in Hollywood and there are not any photos of him drinking and carousing? Hmm.)

The worst part of the section on Obama is that one of the “Questions for Discussion,” after making sure the reader knows Obama had mixed-race parents, asks students, “President Obama identifies himself as black. Do you agree?” This is truly an awful question not only because it does not MATTER whether students agree about Obama’s racial self-identification, but because it makes students think that it is their right to question persons of color, necessitating those people to authenticate their racial identity. I squirm just thinking about trying to moderate that discussion in class.

And, as an environmental historian (I will admit my axe to grind), I am a bit surprised that the environment gets largely left out as an explanatory factor in U.S. history. I did not expect the book to be driven by environmental history (such as in two excellent U.S. history surveys: Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg, and Republic of Nature by Mark Fiege). But I did hope, several decades into the field’s existence, that a textbook might include the field in some real way by cutting down on its seemingly excessive economic history. (Or the textbook could have removed one of the SIX chapters, out of thirty two total in the book, that essentially cover the years 1878-1914. By comparison, the years 1914-1960—two world wars, the Great Depression, the beginning of the Cold War, etc.—also get six chapters.) Environmental history is not a fringe sub-discipline anymore, especially considering the flagship journal, Environmental History, had the second-highest impact factor from 2000-2010 of any history journal!

All that said, I will admit that, in general, I am not a huge fan of textbooks. I think that, while they are the most economical way to deliver large chunks of information to students, they are frequently boring, expensive, overly focused on details, and any number of other undesirable things. Textbooks seem to teach our students that learning history is like preparing for bar trivia—memorize enough names and dates and you too can be a historian. (Non-sequitur: I love bar trivia.)

Perhaps the biggest problem with a textbook, however, is that it is difficult for students to realize that textbooks have perspectives and biases too (just like we all do). The textbook presents itself, by its very existence, as an unassailable tome of knowledge. It is perfect. And thus when the students get to a three-quarter page photo of a sixty-year-old John Garraty running a marathon in 1980 (why is this included in a section on aging Baby Boomers? p. 845), they do not question why Carnes and Garraty found space for that but not any number of the other things they omitted.

Perhaps the one the textbook does get right, in the end, is that I have ample opportunities to point out to my students how some historical interpretations are not as good as others.