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The Betrayal of History

A History of US
by Joy Hakim
Oxford University Press, 10 volumes pp., $10.95 each (paper)

Build Our Nation 

Houghton Mifflin, 704 pp., $38.34

America’s Story 

Harcourt Brace, 718 pp., $36.96

Our United States 

Silver Burdett Ginn, 656 pp., $39.00

United States: Adventures in Time and Space 

Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, 765 pp., $51.96

1.

Columbia University Professor Jack Garraty was surprised to open the latest edition of the eighth-grade textbook he had written in 1982 and learn that a Spanish explorer named Bartolomeo Gomez, and not the Englishman Henry Hudson, was credited with being the first European to discover the Hudson River. Garraty, who had taught history for thirty years, had never heard of Bartolomeo Gomez. After some research, he learned that Gomez was in fact Portuguese and not Spanish and that his claim to have discovered the Hudson River was based on extremely slender evidence: he had sailed along the Atlantic Coast and made a map that described three rivers, one of which might, or might not, be the Hudson.

“The map didn’t even include Long Island,” Garraty said. “He certainly didn’t sail into the river.” But the publisher of the book, Holt, Rinehart, anxious to create a new multicultural hero and to cater to the substantial Hispanic populations of Texas and California—the largest markets in the nation for textbooks—had elevated this obscure Portuguese explorer into the Spanish discoverer of the Hudson and inserted him in Garraty’s book without his permission.

The American history taught in schools has been rewritten and transformed in recent decades by a handful of large publishers who are much concerned to meet the demands of both the multicultural left and the conservative religious right. In 1994, when Texas announced that it wanted to purchase new social studies textbooks for fifth-grade students, major publishers competed to produce history textbooks that would not be offensive to political and cultural pressure groups in the state. Four textbooks by different publishers were formally adopted as suitable for Texas last year; and children throughout the country will be reading one or another of them during the next five to ten years.

They will be doing so because the states of Texas and California taken together account for 20 percent of the textbooks sold in America. They are the biggest of some twenty-two states that review and choose textbooks on a state-wide basis, and their choices therefore have disproportionate influence among the fifty states. Approval of a textbook series in Texas or California guarantees millions of dollars in sales, while rejection will almost certainly mean financial failure. Textbook publishers spend much time answering angry letters from Christian fundamentalists and counting the illustrations in their books to make sure that they have the requisite number of women and minorities. “We would sometimes joke that we should just leave some of the presidents out of the book so that we could make our fifty-fifty male-female quota,” I was told by a woman who worked as an editor of one textbook.

To satisfy the religious right, many textbooks have largely banished the words “imagine” and “feel.” According to an editor at McGraw-Hill, who did not want to be identified, “We were told to try to avoid using the word ‘imagine’ because the people in Texas felt it was too close to the word ‘magic’ and therefore might be considered anti-Christian. Instead of saying ‘Imagine you were sailing across the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus,’ we were encouraged to write ‘Suppose you were…”’ Some editors told me that they had taken out most references to Halloween (even in music textbooks, Halloween songs were removed) because these could be construed as encouraging belief in witches and hobgoblins and lead to satanic practices.

Spokesmen for the religious right and other conservative groups vigilantly criticize any critical references to America’s traditional heroes; they equally oppose harsh accounts of slavery and positive descriptions of the “socialistic” policies of the New Deal or the charter of the United Nations. At one of the Texas hearings, a representative of the Daughters of the American Revolution congratulated the four principal textbook publishers for including the Pledge of Allegiance in their books but then took them to task for failing to capitalize the word “nation” in the phrase “One Nation under God.” “You publishers know who you are and shame on you.” On noticing a poem and photograph of Langston Hughes in one book, she asked: “What is a known Communist doing in a Texas third-grade textbook pertaining to heritage and culture? Did he ever come to Texas?… Black is not always beautiful.”

 

Over the years, such constant pressures have had an effect. “I can definitely see improvements in some areas,” says Mel Gabler, who for some thirty-five years has led the campaign to make the Christian conservative point of view prevail in textbook adoptions. “Our state has a law that the students must be taught the benefits of free enterprise. They have tended to take a collectivist or statist view of things…. The books now do teach the benefits of free enterprise.”

On the other hand, to forestall criticism from the multicultural left, publishers have drawn up new lists of taboos. The words “tribe” and “Indian” are out, in favor of “group” and “Native American,” even though many Native Americans use and prefer the former terms. The word “slave” has been banished, replaced by “enslaved person,” on the grounds that slavery was a temporary condition that was imposed upon people, not part of their essence as human beings. But “slave” is a far more stark and powerful word, expressing much more accurately the horror of the owning, buying, and selling of human beings. The term “enslaved persons” sounds like a bureaucrat’s euphemism.

Even “African-American,” until recently the most politically correct of the current labels, has come in for criticism: some activists have insisted that the word should not be used to apply to the period before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, since only then did blacks become American citizens. “This is ludicrous,” says one editor who worked on one of the current social studies texts. “It’s one thing to refer to a man who has just stepped off a slave ship in the seventeenth century as an African, but it’s absurd to refer to someone living in 1860, whose parents and even grandparents may have been born in this country, as Africans.”

The Harcourt Brace history book, America’s Story, goes a step farther, referring to the black troops fighting in the Civil War simply as “Africans,” even though they enlisted after the Emancipation Proclamation. This robs the men, for a second time, of the right they were fighting for: to be recognized as full American citizens.

“In trying to avoid anything that might be offensive to either the left or the right, we were reduced to producing totally bland, middle-of-the-road pabulum,” says one Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill editor who, unsurprisingly, was not eager to be identified.

Before submitting their books to state adoption committees, publishers try to anticipate possible objections by privately soliciting the views of various pressure groups. “Before, we used to send the books out to scholars,” a senior editor explained. “Now we also send them to one reader for the Islamic point of view, to a feminist, an African-American, an Asian-American, a Native American, and a Christian fundamentalist so that they are carefully screened.”

Many of the changes urged by this or that pressure group can be justified and defended, but the overall result is what has been aptly called a “conspiracy of good intentions”; the need to please or not offend every possible constituency has paralyzed textbook writers. Each paragraph is a carefully negotiated compromise, making it virtually impossible for a textbook to have a distinctive voice, not to mention humor, moral outrage, or evocative prose.

“It is a process that is destined to produce a dumbed-down product,” says Byron Hollinshead, the head of American Historical Publications, and formerly president of American Heritage and Oxford University Press. “The Harvard Education Letter,” he told me, “once compared textbooks to pet food. Pet food is not really concocted for pets, it’s meant to appeal to pet owners. Textbooks are not written for children, they are written for textbook committees who flip through them to make sure they have the right ethnic balance and the proper buzz words.”

2.

Hollinshead recently entered the children’s textbook field by editing a maverick series of American history texts called A History of US, published by Oxford. The books, written by Joy Hakim, an independent writer and grandmother from Virginia, are a refreshing exception in the otherwise bleak textbook scene. A former schoolteacher and journalist, Hakim was appalled by the dullness of the textbooks she saw and decided she could do a better job herself. As she began writing her first book, she tested it on children at a local Virginia elementary school and she paid them to comment on her manuscript, marking passages that were interesting, dull, or unclear.

Even though she was only circulating computer printouts, other classes that were using regular textbooks began asking to use her book. While virtually all the other textbooks are written by committees in as neutral a tone as possible, and do little more than present a series of events, dates, and people, Hakim tried to make story-telling central to her work. Her books have a distinctive personal voice and are enjoyable to read. They have been praised by, among many others, cultural conservatives such as Lynne Cheney, back-to-basics educators such as Diane Ravitch, liberal teachers in inner-city schools, and prominent professional historians. (“I was impressed by the accuracy and the depth of her research,” said James McPherson, a professor of American history at Princeton University.) And while Hakim’s books contain more of the traditional subjects of American history than others, they also include more about women and minorities. In this respect, McPherson told me, “I thought her book did a good job of inclusiveness without being obtrusive.”

It is not politics, however, that sets A History of US apart, it is its prose. Hakim believes in the value of narrative history for children. She was impressed by a study showing that children retained far more of what they read when the texts were written by professional writers rather than education specialists. Three pairs of writers—composition instructors, linguists, and Time-Life journalists—were all asked to rewrite the same passages from a widely used history textbook. The texts by the education specialists produced no improvement in students’ comprehension, while students retained 40 percent more from the passages written by the two professional journalists.1

 

Whether or not standard textbook publishers have heard of this study, its lesson has been sadly ignored. Perhaps more disturbing than the new politically correct orthodoxy is the astonishing decline in the literary quality of textbooks: their skimpy, superficial treatment of events, the increasing proliferation of pictures and graphics, and the use of oversimple language. Indeed, the most striking difference between the current textbooks and their predecessors is visual. The older textbooks are mainly composed of text—with engravings or photographs appearing from time to time. During the last few decades, illustrations have become more frequent and elaborate. The most recent textbooks appear to be designed on the debatable premise that they must compete with Nintendo video games and MTV. The books bombard the reader with images, maps, charts, broken-out quotes, and a rainbow of colors and typefaces, as if the average ten- or eleven-year-old child suffered from an attention disorder. There are sometimes twelve or thirteen pages of illustrations and filler between chapters, while the chapters themselves—dealing with long periods of American history—have been reduced to four or five short and heavily illustrated pages. Although recent textbooks have gotten bigger and bigger—generally about 700 large-format pages, weighing a few pounds each—the historical text itself has shrunk.

The authors seem to have so little confidence in their ability to interest readers in their story that they interrupt it constantly with such features as “response activities”—little boxes that ask, for example, “Why does it matter?”—and sections on “Making Social Studies Relevant.”

In the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill fifth-grade history, United States: Adventures in Time and Space, there are one hundred and fourteen “time lines” charting the dates of different events as well as one hundred and thirty-five maps, sixty-five charts, graphs, and diagrams, twenty-one “skills lessons,” six lessons in “citizenship,” ten “infographics,” and fourteen illustrated questionnaires headed “Did you know?” Occasionally, such material can be helpful, but more often than not it is distracting, boring, and trivial, cutting down space for a more serious treatment of events. The hundreds of graphic presentations seem designed not so much to interest children as to sell the book to teachers and education administrators who are more likely to flip through a prospective textbook looking for “special features” than to read it. Many of the books devote many pages to homework questions, games, and suggested classroom activities that seem likely to bore most students; they may appeal, though, to the lazier teachers who want both to keep the class busy and to avoid working with longer and more detailed texts.

The worst offender in this respect may be the Harcourt history book, whose historical text makes up about one quarter of its roughly 700 pages. As if it is appealing to a barely literate child, it makes use of a “story cloth”: the reader is asked, for example, to “study the pictures shown in this story cloth to help you review the events you read about in Unit 2.” The story cloth consists of contemporary illustrations evidently intended to recall, as simply as possible, events from the previous chapter: Columbus arriving on San Salvador, a European trader buying a fur from an Indian.

Instead of having confidence in the interest of historical events themselves, most of the books include very short, made-up stories, generally extremely bland and banal, about fictional children. To describe Mexico the Harcourt book presents a wholly unreal and unhistorical story called “Save My Rain- forest,” about a little Mexican boy named Omar who hears a report on TV about a dying rain forest and decides to walk almost nine hundred miles from Mexico City in order to save it.

“Early one morning Omar and his father start walking,” the story begins, introducing Omar’s account:

We decided to go…to see the governor of the state of Chiapas, where the rainforest is. He is responsible for taking care of it. We need to tell him to save the rainforest so there will still be a rain-forest in Mexico for us children when we grow up.

To open a chapter on the Native Americans first encountered by the Spanish conquerors, the Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill book presents a boy who is said to descend from the Pueblo Indians. “‘Before dancing, I get a little nervous,’ says Timmy Roybal, a 10-year-old from the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico. ‘My legs start shaking, but they settle down once I am dancing. When I am dancing, I feel I am part of everything.’ Timmy is talking about the Green Corn Dance, in which Pueblo peoples give thanks for all that nature has given them.”

At the same time, photographs frequently crowd out texts. Houghton Mifflin’s textbook, Build Our Nation, devotes no more than thirty-three lines to the Great Depression and the entire Roosevelt administration, while giving over two full pages to Cal Ripken, Jr., the Baltimore Orioles shortstop who in 1995 beat Lou Gehrig’s record for playing in consecutive games.

Along with robbing the books of content, the shift from words to images in the books has had another drastic consequence: it has made the books extremely expensive to produce. To develop a new textbook series can cost more than $35 million. Moreover, because of the laws of states like Texas and California, publishers also must produce a Spanish edition (on which they generally lose money) as well as a special teacher’s edition and workbooks, not to mention promotional gimmicks and free handouts to help sell the books to textbook committees. A writer and a small group of editors used to be able to produce a textbook; now, more than one hundred people are involved.

The process is so risky and expensive that it has encouraged the formation of textbook conglomerates, with publishers swallowing one another at an alarming rate: Macmillan has merged with McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall has taken over Silver Burdett, Houghton Mifflin has absorbed D.C. Heath, Harcourt Brace now owns Holt, Rinehart. In the late 1980s, some twenty publishers were producing social studies textbooks; last year there were only five competing for the latest Texas adoption. This has increased the tendency toward homogeneity and intensified the search for a safe, bland book.

Take, for example, this passage on Abraham Lincoln’s first campaign for president in 1860 from Harcourt Brace’s America’s Story:

Abraham Lincoln ran as a member of the Republican party. He spoke out strongly against the spread of slavery. He promised not to stop slavery in the South, where it was already practiced. But he said that he hoped it would one day end there, too.

Many white Southerners worried about what would happen if Lincoln became President. They thought that the problem was far greater than the question of slavery. They believed that their whole way of life was being attacked. Some said that their states would secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected.

In these short and didactic sentences, Lincoln is described as “speaking out strongly,” but the paragraph about his doing so quotes no such language; its four sentences are carefully paired with four equally cautious ones giving the South’s view.

As one might expect from such examples, textbooks are now routinely scanned by computer programs, which measure sentence and paragraph length and also hunt down exotic words that are thought to be too difficult for the average ten- or eleven-year-old. The widely used Dale-Chall “readability” tests exclude words such as “treatment,” “protection,” “preparation,” and “sharpen,” even though the words “treat,” “protect,” “prepare,” and “sharp” are allowed. This process began in the 1930s when an educational psychologist, Edward Lee Thorndike, compiled a list of words and the frequencies with which they occurred in everyday American life. Textbook publishers began to test their books with the Thorndike list and a “good” score was one in which the fewest number of difficult words appeared. James Michener, who worked as a textbook editor at Macmillan, describes the consequences wreaked by the Thorndike list in his book, This Noble Land: My Vision for America:

We editors worked under the tyranny of that list, and we even boasted in the promotional literature for our textbooks that they conformed to the Thorndike List. In my opinion, however, this was the beginning of the continuing process known as “dumbing down the curriculum.” Before Thorndike, I had helped publish a series of successful textbooks in which I had used a very wide vocabulary, but when I was restricted by Thorndike, what I had once helped write as a book suitable for students in the sixth grade gradually became a book intended for grades seven through eight. Texts originally for the middle grades began to be certified as being appropriate for high school students, and what used to be a high school text appeared as a college text. The entire educational process was watered down, level by level.

Before we bemoan the decline of American history textbooks, however, we must recall how biased almost all children’s history books were until about thirty years ago. A look through a few dozen of the most popular grade school texts in use during the last hundred and twenty years shows there was never a golden age of textbooks. While some of the books published since the late nineteenth century are clearly written and a few can even be read with pleasure today, practically all of them are openly biased and extremely narrow in their historical range. Many barely mention the Spanish exploration of South and North America and jump right to the arrival of the English in Jamestown. The Indians are often referred to as “savages” who had to be removed in order to make way for civilization. Some books took a tolerant view of slavery, portraying Reconstruction as a time of black corruption and disorder, and praising the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Even the books that take a clear stand against slavery, the slaughter of American Indians, or the exclusion of women from public life rarely allow members of those groups to speak for themselves. Frederick Douglass, Tecumseh, and Harriet Tubman are rarely seen and almost never heard from. Political correctness used to favor a version of history in which oppressed minorities hardly figured; now it calls for a greater variety of historical actors, with a slight advantage given to the groups that were traditionally left out of previous histories. History books tended to get better in the 1950s and 1960s, and some of the books of the last twenty-five years, particularly for older students, are surprisingly good. They take account of the civil rights and women’s movements, and present what most people today would consider a much more balanced account of history, while including fairly substantial historical narratives.

By the 1990s, however, concerns about political correctness along with the demand for shorter texts combined to produce thin and distorted versions of history that in their one-sidedness are mirror opposites of the old racist texts. The standard histories of the Jacksonian Age, for example, tended to play down his brutal treatment of the Indians and had much to say about Jackson’s attack on the National Bank, the creation of the spoils system, the Nullification Act, and the crisis over states’ rights. Now, in the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill book for fifth-grade students, the entire Jackson era is treated in just 160 lines, 118 of which are dedicated to the expulsion of the Indians from Georgia and the “Trail of Tears.”

The chapter on the Civil War in Harcourt Brace’s history book, “The Long Road to a Union Victory,” begins with a section on “African Regiments” before introducing General Ulysses S. Grant. While it is certainly important to point out the long-neglected contribution of African-American troops to the union cause—38,000 of whom lost their lives—their military service, through no fault of their own, came relatively late in the war and can’t be understood without some knowledge of such major events as Grant’s victories at Vicksburg and Fort Donelson.

In the account of the Boston Massacre given by all four of the standard textbooks submitted in Texas, the principal historical figure is Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave, rather than Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, or John Adams. A dark-skinned man of mixed descent, part black, part American Indian, Attucks was indeed killed at the Boston Massacre. That a black man was among the first to die in the American Revolution is certainly worth attention; so is the fact that he had been ignored by previous textbooks. But the heavy emphasis on Crispus Attucks to the neglect of other important figures in all the new standard textbooks is a classic example of the current tendency to political orthodoxy and homogeneity.

3.

In the sorry state of current textbooks the achievement of Joy Hakim’s A History of US is all the more impressive. Hakim set out to write a series of books that would combine the best qualities of the earlier narrative histories with modern historical research. Convinced that history is inherently fascinating, she fills her books with anecdotes, quotations, humor, and well-described characters. Instead of talking down to children in simplified language, her books invite children to make an effort.

For example, Hakim describes Columbus’s voyage—one of the standard features of all textbooks—with a few vivid details.

In mid-September they come to what seems to be a meadow of grass in the middle of the ocean. It is the Sargasso Sea—an area of thick, green seaweed. The sailors have never seen anything like this. They are afraid the ships will get tangled in the green muck. But soon they are out of it and into the open sea again…. The sea seems endless. On October 9 they say they will go no farther. Columbus pleads for three more days of sailing. Then, he says, if they don’t see land they may cut off his head and sail home in peace.

Hakim’s description, closely based on Columbus’s own account, gives some sense of the terror and wonder of people making an uncharted voyage into an unknown world, and it avoids the mechanical recitation of names and dates that pervades in the other texts.

“Hakim has a feel for the ‘differentness’ of the past, that makes it real, and she conveys this through use of original documents,” says Gordon Wood, a professor of early American history at Brown University. It is precisely this sense of differentness that one potential publisher objected to when he tried to get her to remove from her book the account she quotes by a survivor of Magellan’s voyage, who wrote that the crew ate biscuits that smelled like rat urine:

We were three months and twenty days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuit swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats…And of the rats…some of us could not get enough.

These are the kinds of concrete details that are likely to make history interesting to a ten-year-old child. But had Hakim not been the sole author of the series, she would not have been able to resist the pressure to remove the offending passage.

Here is part of Hakim’s account of one of the early Spanish expeditions to Florida in search of the legendary cities of gold:

They were led by a one-eyed, red-bearded conquistador named Panfilo de Narvaez. Narvaez was rich, disorganized, and horribly cruel. He had lost his eye fighting Cortés. Narvaez marched his men up the west coast of Florida…. Indians “playing flutes of reed” serenaded the explorers. It was a traditional form of greeting. But Narvaez was no music lover. He had a few hundred Indians killed—for no special reason. Then he forced some Indians to take him into the interior of the land.

Hakim later describes the Spanish expedition’s disastrous departure:

The Indians were waiting for the right moment. It came when the conquistadors were in deep water crossing a lake. Poisoned arrows rained down upon them. The sharp arrows cut right through their suits of woven chain mail.

The surviving Spaniards couldn’t find their ships. They were starving and desperate. So they built five boats. Then they ate their horses, made the horsehide into water bottles and sails, and pushed off. Since they didn’t know much about boat-building, most of their boats sank.

Hakim uses the distinctive details of historical experience—the one-eyed conquistador, the men eating the horses and using their hides as sails—to suggest both the extraordinary cruelty of the conquistadors and the considerable bravery they showed in the face of appalling dangers. By contrast, here is the anemic account of the same Florida expedition in Houghton Mifflin’s Build Our Nation:

In 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez went to Florida looking for the Seven Cities. He left Cuba with an army of 400 men.

Native Americans in Florida defended themselves. They ambushed, or attacked by surprise, the army as it crossed a lake. In the end, only four people escaped. These men lived with the Yakui Indians and other groups for years before they were able to return to Mexico.

The second paragraph is confusing in its very simple-mindedness. Perhaps because of the lack of space and a concern to avoid saying that the Spaniards actually murdered several hundreds of Indians on their arrival, the authors simply write that “Native Americans defended themselves,” without indicating what they were defending themselves against.

Hakim is also the only recent textbook writer not to make Crispus Attucks the hero of the Boston Massacre. She chooses to concentrate on the different activities and ideas of Samuel Adams and John Adams. Samuel Adams gave a distorted account of the incident in pamphlets in order to promote the cause of revolution while John Adams insisted on defending in court the British soldiers who fired on a rioting crowd, and he won them an acquittal. Both believed in the cause of revolution, but John Adams wanted to make the point that the revolution must be based on the rule of law and not mob justice. Hakim describes what each of them did simply and elegantly and she manages to make a subtle point about deconstructing a historical myth, without being disrespectful to either Adams.

Hakim avoids the new hagiography of Crispus Attucks because she feels he had a part in provoking the massacre; but her books, in fact, contain many other important black historical figures. She not only devotes a chapter to Frederick Douglass and his struggle against slavery but describes in later chapters his principled defense of women’s rights and his opposition to the United States’ war with Mexico. Thus Douglass emerges not simply as a runaway slave and abolitionist but as a leader of moral and political stature who understood that the opposition to slavery was part of the larger cause of freedom and human rights.

Well before the recent Steven Spielberg film, Hakim had a chapter on the Amistad revolt, which is unmentioned in any of the other textbooks (although we can now expect it will be virtually obligatory). Yet Hakim’s book also has a sense of proportion often lacking in the standard textbooks. For example, in virtually all books dealing with the Lewis and Clark expedition, it has become the norm to concentrate on their female Native American translator, Sacagawea, and to mention the presence of a lone black man in the group. But the accounts are so skimpy that the purpose of the explorers gets lost and the mention of the African-American slave appears gratuitous. According to Houghton Mifflin’s Build Our Nation:

Lewis and Clark set out from the frontier outpost of St. Louis in May 1804. About 40 men went with them, including an enslaved African American named York. In addition to trying to find a water route across the continent, their goal was to learn more about the land, plants, animals, and people of the West.

York is not mentioned again, so it is unclear why he is mentioned at all. Hakim’s chapter on Lewis and Clark instead concentrates on the main purpose of the expedition—exploring the flora and fauna of the American West—and she conveys the excitement of their discoveries. Then, after several pages describing the explorers’ findings, she writes about the black member of the expedition; but when she does so, we have a strong sense of the impression he made.

A man named York was an important member of the Lewis and Clark team. York was Clark’s black slave. He was taller than six feet and an excellent swimmer, hunter, and trapper. The Indians were awed by York; most had never seen a black man before. Indian warriors often painted their bodies with charcoal. It was a mark of success in battle. So when they saw strong, charcoal-skinned York they thought him the mightiest of men. (York was freed when the expedition returned home. He headed back west and is said to have become chief of an Indian tribe.)

 

Even though Hakim’s books can be read by young children, they are surprisingly sophisticated in suggesting the complexity of moral choices. She points out, for example, that George Mason of Virginia refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t prohibit the slave trade; but he still remained a life-long slave owner, while South Carolina’s John Rutledge argued at the Constitutional Convention in favor of slavery—and then went home and quietly freed his slaves.

Hakim had a difficult time getting her book printed and distributed. All of the major textbook publishers, while praising it highly, said that it didn’t fit neatly enough into the textbook format. It was soon apparent that they did not want someone else’s new textbook competing with their own. In many ways, moreover, Hakim’s book threatens the entire textbook industry. Publishing companies invest several million dollars in a textbook, employing dozens of writers, consultants, and art directors; that a grandmother from Virginia could do something superior at a fraction of the cost calls into question their entire system. Eventually, Oxford University Press agreed to publish her books, contracting to distribute them through the textbook publisher D.C. Heath. After A History of US was published, Heath was bought by Houghton Mifflin, the biggest history textbook publisher. Houghton had its own competing textbook and made virtually no effort to distribute Hakim’s. She and Oxford sued Houghton for antitrust violation in a suit that explicitly raised the issue of the growing concentration in the textbook industry.

Moreover, the book has had some difficulties in breaking through the state “adoption” process. Of the five American history books presented for adoption in Texas, A History of US was the only one rejected. The reason, officially, is that because her texts were published in ten shorter volumes rather than one comprehensive one, they didn’t fit the state’s technical criteria. An organized letter-writing campaign to the Texas Education Authority denounced the books as “unpatriotic” and “socialistic.” But the books have been adopted in traditionally conservative states such as Tennessee and Virginia, whose education officials say they want to go back to the basic skills of reading and writing. They are even widely used by religious conservatives who teach their children at home and are anxious to give them more substantial material than they get in their local public schools. The books have also been used successfully both in inner-city public schools in several cities and in such private institutions as Brearley and St. Bernard’s in New York.

Although Oxford originally printed only 8,000 copies of each volume, the History of US books have now sold about one million copies.2 Hakim often receives fan letters from student-readers—something that is almost inconceivable for a standard textbook author. The remarkable success of her books shows that many children are starving for good storytelling and real history. And by showing the economic as well as the literary value of having a single author, A History of US suggests a possible way out of the dead end in which the textbook industry finds itself.

It is true that the series has only a small share of a market dominated by a few very large textbook companies. But the publishing conglomerates emerging from the latest round of mergers may turn out to be dinosaurs on the way to becoming extinct. Many teachers I talked to at the 1997 National Conference of Social Studies in Cincinnati said they were dissatisfied with standard textbooks and that they preferred to make use of various different books and sources to teach their courses. More than a few told me that they are making increased use of the Internet, on which there are a number of worthwhile American history sites. The decentralized Internet could encourage some teachers to move away from the highly centralized textbook format. But it would be foolish to be overly optimistic. The current infatuation with CD-ROMs and other high-tech gadgetry could simply raise the cost of textbooks, favor big publishers, and further increase the dominance of image over text, at the expense of history.

 

  1. “Could Textbooks Be Better Written and Would It Make a Difference?” American Educator, Spring 1986.
  2. A revised eleven-volume edition with color is to be published in October.
    —June 11, 1998
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