'The Ideal Head': Bizarre Racial Teachings From a 1906 Textbook

A hundred years ago, American geography students learned about a world in which "the brown people raise rice," "the black people … have no books," and "the red men are savages." 

I recently opened an online order and discovered an unexpected bonus: As a buffer against damage, the seller had included a 1906 elementary school textbook called Frye’s First Steps in Geography. Written by Alexis Everett Frye, an American who served as Cuba’s first superintendent of schools, the book was filled with facts that would now be considered false and even pernicious.

To the left, for instance, is an illustration from a chapter that explains the world’s five racial groups. Although this “ideal head” happens to look exactly like mine, its implications are troubling.

According to this textbook, the white race is the most advanced in the world. Most other races, schoolchildren were taught, tended to have a “savage” character, living in remote areas without industry and Western-style education.

As I read these century-old pages, I wonder how quaint and outdated today’s racial theories will seem in 100 years. What fundamental beliefs will have been long abandoned as advances in sciences and social sciences rendered them obsolete?

Let me venture a few guesses. Barack Obama, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Drake, and Halle Berry each have one white parent and one black parent. But by today’s definitions, each of them is generally classified as African American: The 2010 U.S. census form defines “black” as “having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.”

What does race have to do with geography? Plenty, it seems, especially when places and races are associated with one another, as they were in Frye’s First Steps in Geography. Then, as now, geography class teaches less about mountain ranges and savannahs than it does about the people who live among them.

What is the difference between a Mexican and a member of the Native American Papago tribe? Don’t ask me; the Papago have occupied what we call Arizona and Mexico for many centuries. Yet in the U.S., Mexicans are classified as Latino and Papago as Native American.

The U.S. census also includes a single category for American Indian and Alaska Native, even though most Native people I knew when I lived in Oklahoma identified themselves by tribe, not race.

A century from now, textbooks and census forms may recognize that dividing the world’s population into a few major races is a futile exercise. Each racial group we distinguish today includes people of many different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. I’m more or less white, for instance, but I have a Jewish father, and I know many Jews who fill in “Other: Jew” on forms asking for racial identification.

Over the next several decades, these distinctions will likely become less and less meaningful, perhaps even disappearing altogether. If you find it hard to believe that racial paradigms could change so drastically in 100 years, go back and take a look at that ideal head and see if you measure up.