History textbooks a cultural battleground

Some say minorities don't get enough space; others say they get too much due to past errors

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2001

School Textbooks: making lessons modern and accurate

A history textbook from the early 1990s included a photograph of the explorer John Wesley Powell standing in front of an Indian at the Grand Canyon. The caption didn't mention the Indian and said few people knew about the canyon's beauty until Powell wrote about it.

After a textbook-adoption committee in California complained, the publishers changed future editions to include the Indian's name - he was Tau-Gu, chief of the Paiutes - and amended the caption to say that few white people had known of the canyon before Powell.

But the adoption committee also complained about a historically accurate illustration of a barefoot slave, saying it made him seem like an animal. A later edition replaced it with one of a well-dressed black abolitionist.

Considering how many experts work on history textbooks, they sure contain a lot of mistakes, some critics say. But different critics find different kinds of mistakes.

Marie Olson, a Juneau resident who is co-chairwoman of the Alaska Indigenous Literary Review Board, said it's a gross understatement to say that textbooks omit information about Alaska Natives and other minorities.

She said textbooks generalize, such as mentioning only Eskimos in Alaska, or make mistakes, such as referring to igloos in Alaska. They tend to portray Native Americans as being in the past, she added.

Kristine Harder, a Juneau parent who is examining prospective textbooks for the social studies curriculum committee, said multiculturalism was the first thing she looked for because "I thought it should be everyone's history."

Each of the three fifth-grade texts she reviewed had a big section on Native Americans, but there were mistakes, Harder said.

One map of Alaska Natives omits the Yupiks and might lead students to think only Aleuts live on the western Alaska coast. The map mentions Tlingits but not Haida or Tsmishian.

"You recognize the mistakes in your own area," Harder said. "I might not know to recognize mistakes in a different part of the country."

Howard Miller, an associate professor of education who has written about multiculturalism, faults textbooks for treating topics briefly.

It leads to stereotypes or short, heroic sketches of members of minorities whose role is to represent the entire group, he said from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

Textbooks are trying to be more culturally diverse, Miller said. "But what I'm saying is much of what is being published is at a very superficial level."

He's looked at some recent textbooks.

"So far I'm terribly unimpressed. The focus is truly the history of white America, with very little serious mention or discussion of other concerns," Miller said.

"It's in vogue to reflect a little racial sensitivity now," said Native educator Dennis Demmert of Juneau, "but the real needs are not being met."

Demmert and Mike Gaffney, retired professors of Alaska Native studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, are writing a history book to supplement textbooks' presentations of Native issues.

"They're taking legal and political events going back to pre-Russian, Russian and American occupations and linking them to the themes that are reflected in the existing text," said Ray Barnhardt, co-director of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

"It's not going to be without its detractors and controversy with people who don't want to hear the other side of the story," he said.

Nationalism is the culprit in why textbooks are false, said James Loewen - now a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont - in his 1995 book "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Textbooks exclude what is interesting, which is conflict and suspense, leave out anything that reflects badly on the national character, and are full of information but don't include what students need to know, Loewen wrote.

For example, he faulted textbooks' sections on Columbus for not mentioning earlier explorations of the Americas from other continents, and for not providing causes for the European conquest, so that it seemed inevitable.

Many of the textbooks didn't say much about what Columbus did once he got to the Americas, such as enslaving natives, cutting off their hands as punishment, and hunting them for sport.

The new editions of textbooks aren't any better, said Loewen in an interview from Washington, D.C. Nearly all of the textbooks he looked at recently shy away from using the most famous and harshest photographs of the Vietnam War. They include almost no quotes about the war except from presidents. They still fail to give the antiwar movement a voice, he said.

The flaws don't stem from a lack of space, but from how the authors choose to use it, Loewen said. "They just don't want to say anything bad about anybody."

Other critics fault textbooks for portraying minorities and women only in a rosy light or giving them more weight than is appropriate.

"The concept that Africans and Native Americans played an equal role with other settlers in settling the North American continent is off the mark," said Gilbert Sewall in his recent report, "History Textbooks at the New Century."

Textbooks' portrayal of nonwhites favorably or as victims contrasts with their depiction of whites, the critics of multiculturalism say. Many of the textbooks say American slavery was different from and harsher than other types of slavery such as was practiced by Native Americans, black Africans or Arabs.

Sewall said slavery gets at the heart of the nation's history from the 17th century through the Civil War. But he also said textbooks should teach an affirmative view of the United States.

"I think that element of multiculturalism in which some kind of vast, all-encompassing national guilt is part of the curriculum - I don't think it's appropriate or accurate," Sewall, who directs the nonprofit American Textbook Council, said in an interview from New York City.

American history is also the story of the establishment of responsible government, extension of democracy to blacks and women, and a rising standard of living for most, he said in his report.

The three high school American history textbooks Juneau is considering have obvious flaws because of multicultural bias, according to William Bennetta, president of The Textbook League, a Sausalito, Calif.,-based nonprofit organization.

"The people who write American history books have embraced racism with both arms and legs," he said from his Petaluma, Calif., home. "Multiculturalism is the left-wing version of racism."

Bennetta, for instance, faults "American Odyssey," which the Juneau School District may buy, for saying the American slave system was the first in which slavery was passed from parent to descendant. Some Native American tribes and the ancient Romans also had hereditary slavery, he said in a review for The Textbook League.

He derides the textbook for saying that slavery hadn't been permanent and ineradicable before. It's well-known that some enslaved people in America, including George Washington's slaves, became free, he pointed out.

Gary Nash, who wrote "American Odyssey," said he wanted it to be a book "which told the story of all the American people, which was inclusive - which meant paying attention to some groups in American society who haven't been paid attention to in textbooks until the 1980s."

He said, "I take pride in doing more to be as inclusive as possible, and to try to present history so kids see people like their parents and grandparents in the national story."

His textbook starts chapters with pictures or vignettes of people who aren't famous. The New Deal chapter starts with a photo of an electrician working on a Tennessee Valley Authority dam, rather than one of FDR jauntily chomping on a cigarette holder.

"We're trying to send a message in the book that all sorts of people count in creating a society and shaping it and changing it," Nash said.

Paul Boyer, author of the high school textbook "The American Nation," said textbooks in the 1950s portrayed slaves as happy and masters as gentle and kind. The old textbooks' treatment of race relations, African Americans and slavery was "appalling," he said.

The new textbooks broaden, not distort, American history, Boyer said. Andrew Carnegie is still in the books, but so are the immigrant steelworkers he employed, he said.

Then there are the factual errors, unburdened by multicultural controversy.

Charles Paul, a professor of humanities emeritus at San Jose State University, said he has found hundreds of errors in textbooks, including in "World History: The Human Experience," which the Juneau School District may buy.

For example, the paragraphs about religions in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s ignore a large Eastern Orthodox population, Paul said in a review for The Textbook League.

The book gives three locations for Flanders, none of them correct. It provides the wrong words as the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. It credits Galileo, rather than Newton and Descartes, with discovering the correct law of inertia. It wrongly includes the writers Racine, Milton and Dryden, who lived before the Enlightenment, in a section on the impact of the Enlightenment.

A special section by the National Geographic Society shows a modern recreation of a Galileo experiment in which objects of different weights are dropped from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But Galileo never performed such an experiment, Paul said.

The inaccuracies add up, he said from Gilroy, Calif.

"It's like going to a date with spinach in your teeth."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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