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.
- Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves.
- Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.
- 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.
- Most importantly—and this merits repeating—textbooks are boring and intimidating.
- 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.”