Down With Textbooks

They give students a poor understanding of what it really means to study history.
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Amy Conn-Gutierrez/AP Photo

When it comes to teaching history, nothing destroys student interest faster and more completely than a heavy reliance on textbooks.

During my first three years of teaching high-school history I would see students’ eyes glaze over as we reviewed from a 1,000 page textbook. Five years later, I don’t blame them. So much is wrong with history textbooks, I hardly know where to begin, but here is my short list.

  1. Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves.
  2. Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.  
  3. Without a thesis or any semblance or argument, textbooks don’t accurately reflect how most scholars (at least good ones) write and present history. Teachers should assign readings that model effective historical writing.
  4. Most importantly—and this merits repeating—textbooks are boring and intimidating.
  5. Textbooks can serve as a crutch for teachers who don’t know history or the historian’s craft.

I find affirmation from James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “The stories that history textbooks tell are all predictable; every problem has already been solved or is about to be solved,” he writes. “Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character. When they try for drama, they achieve only melodrama, because readers know that everything will turn out fine in the end.”

Loewen has a theory on why textbooks thrive, despite their deficiences: “They meet a need, but it’s a need that should not exist. It is the need for teachers who are not, first and foremost, teachers of history or social studies," he says. He adds that his own high-school American history teacher didn’t care how he taught American history, that the school system didn’t care about he taught American history, and that he was hired and fired on the basis of the basketball team’s record.This isn’t to say that textbooks don’t include information. They are chock full of information (however one-sided), but herein lies a serious problem. With so much dense, mind-numbing text, too many students give up trying to understand what’s really important.

Teachers who depend on textbooks are likely to test what is in the textbooks: long lists of facts. They tend to give long multiple-choice tests that evaluate students’ memorization skills, not what they have actually learned. To do well, students memorize mountains of facts. Worst of all, in my experience, success on these tests isn’t an accurate indication of what students will remember the following week, month or year.

I learned this lesson as a rookie-teacher, before rethinking my textbook-heavy approach. A returning senior asked if she could retake the United States history final. She had earned an “A” just three months prior, but after a long summer, she wanted to know how much she remembered. My once-shining star had devolved into an average student. Little deep or lasting learning had taken root, and I began to understand why. She really didn’t care about the content—at least not enough to put any real effort into retaining her knowledge. And why should she have? After all, doing so would have meant revisiting Alan Brinkley’s 13th edition of American History: A Survey, her boring Advanced Placement United States History textbook.*  

While I was earning my BA and MA in history, I never learned primarily from any one book, and certainly not any textbook. My professors made learning exciting, always assigning a diverse, thought-provoking array of primary and secondary sources. For me, that made my understanding of history more meaningful, and thereby lasting. I learned to internalize information, not merely store it in my short-term memory.

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David Cutler teaches history and journalism at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He writes regularly about education at SpinEdu.

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