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Let's Talk about Textbook Bias

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In January the New York Times evaluated the narratives presented by eight US history textbooks  to explore the choices states make about history education. Focusing on California and Texas, in “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two Stories”  Dana Goldstein argues, “In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.”

As a full-time faculty member I have complete control over which textbook I choose for my community college students. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by the Times examination of the textbook question because what students learn in K-12 truly influences how they think about the world around them and the ideas of our national history that they bring with them to college. In most public schools history teachers are racing to cover dozens of topics in the span of a nine-month school year. For those whose states require standardized testing for graduation, the stakes are often higher and more complex.

The political differences evidenced by the topical choices made by textbook publishers did not surprise me. More conservative school boards choose textbooks that reflect their way of thinking and vice versa for moderate and liberal boards. What fascinated me most about the Times piece were the comments by readers. I’m assuming that demographically the average New York Times reader is both educated and interested in the world around him/her. Threads among the more than 600 comments, however, reflected readers’ short-sighted assessments of the quality of teachers who use textbooks. “Very Silly in Colorado,” for example: “I had incredible history professors in high school...none of them used textbooks.” “James from Boston,” a teacher, boasts the “use [of] zero textbooks” in his classroom. Other readers suggested the development of one textbook to be used by public school children nationwide would solve the problem of over-zealous school boards. “AJC in Paris” writes “If only we could have a National Curriculum researched and vetted by educators only.” 

These -- and many, many other -- comments concern me on a number of levels. The notion that a classroom teacher is somehow deficient or lazy because he/she uses a textbook needs to be dispelled immediately. I teach at a community college. My students range in age from seventeen-year-old high school students working towards college credit to traditional eighteen-year old freshman to middle-age parents trying to complete degrees or changing careers. We need a common place to start: a shared narrative to explore, which is what a good textbook provides. Are there students in my classes who disagree at times with the textbook publishers’ thematic choices or are critical of what they view as a political perspective? Absolutely. Nonetheless, the text is a central starting point for my teaching. Am I biased in my choice? Yes! Although I teach the general US surveys, I deliberately choose a textbook that focuses specifically on social and cultural history. No doubt a political historian would find my choice short-sighted.

The notion of a “national curriculum” is also problematic. The idea that such a thing could be created without bias is implausible. Historians are among the scholars best suited to convey to students a deeper understanding of the reality that all information is, in fact, biased: from the newspapers that we read, to the texts/emails/letters that we send, to the textbooks in all of our classrooms. In the classroom we make choices based on what we believe will work best with our student population and school boards do the same in their communities. Recent criticism of the The 1619 Project by prominent scholars should remind us that even historians do not completely agree when it comes to modern-day interpretations of America’s past. 

As historians and teachers, the best that we can do for our students is offer them a starting point for understanding our national past, recognizing that all interpretations are going to be influenced (in good ways and bad) by biased sources. Encouraging the students to find the flaws in the sources -- even in their course textbooks -- might be the most effective way to guard against creating a generation of students whose beliefs conform to only one idea or argument. Helping our students recognize and question bias needs to start in our classrooms with our textbooks.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.