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U.S. History Textbooks' Omissions


Because of what is missing from U.S. history textbooks, history teachers should ensure that their students understand their textbook's interpretation of events is only one possible perspective on what happened, concludes Michael H. Romanowski in a study of how those texts present the topics of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror.

Romanowski is an associate professor in the college of education at Qatar University in Doha, Qatar. He conducted a content analysis of nine U.S. history textbooks by major U.S. publishers, including Pearson/Prentice Hall and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Most textbooks that Romanowski studied did not provide clear information that would enable students to understand the complexities of the attacks of 9/11, according to his analysis.

He found, for instance, that only two of the nine textbooks provided a comprehensive explanation of why 9/11 might have happened, which he writes, "encourages teachers to raise questions that enable students to grasp not only 9/11 but also how American values, lifestyles, and policies are viewed by those outside Western culture."

Likewise, Romanowski found that most of the textbooks avoided providing a space for students to critique the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He writes that they simply stated "facts," or presented controversies as resolved.

He said that the key reason given for the invasion was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, though none was found. Here's an excerpt from Romanowski's study:

For several textbooks, the 'answer' to the lack of WMDs was that Bush overcame these criticisms to be re-elected, implying that the issue had been resolved or must be irrelevant.

In the conclusion of his textbook study, Romanowski writes:

History textbooks are imperfect educational tools that are still the dominant sources used to teach American history. However, textbooks should not be the final word because they are not written to present the 'truth,' but rather to put forth a politically acceptable position in order to gain approval from government agencies.

So what's a history teacher to do?

Romanowski urges teachers to support students in critiquing their textbooks and exploring perspectives beyond that of the texts. Teachers can ask their students, for example, to answer this question: "Whose viewpoint is presented, whose omitted, and whose interests are served?" Teachers can have them explore reactions of various Americans to a historical event, such as the attacks of 9/11, including that of the U.S. president, a member of Congress, a relative of a victim, and an Arab-American. Lastly, Romanowski recommends, teachers can use writing assignments to develop students' critical thinking.

It seems to me that these recommendations could apply to any lesson that teachers give using textbooks as a resource.

I read this study, by the way, in the spring edition of the American Secondary Education journal, which I found this week while cleaning off my desk.


My only issue with this study/post is that this type of critical analysis be limited to only one topic or subject. Not that this is being suggested by the authors, but this type of discussion should take place in all higher-level subjects and not just about 9/11.

In their study of history students go through a number of different levels of learning. They start with facts/dates/events, move into correlations between events, and on to analysis of how/why things happened? and will/could they happen again. The how/why/will perspective will always come from a particular viewpoint and worldview and should be contrasted with others.

The same should be true of other topics as well such as literature (why pick these stories/plays from among tens-of-tousands of others), science (how/why do the laws of physics exist), and even mathematics (i.e. why am I being asked to add/subract/multiply mixed-fractions)

LOL...the funny thing is, how many of us actually GET to the VIETNAM war muchless 9/11??

I'm a strong advocate for thematic approaches to history, but have yet to see a comprehensive way to achieve this end. Not sure if the textbook companies are researching this idea or not...anyone know?

This is great advice. Too often, humans think something in print is a fact. It would better serve students to study a few historical events in depth than to 'get through' all the historical events. A timeline is a great help to put things in perspective, but examining history in a true investigative way is a a greater gift to any informed citizenry.

This is good information for everyone. The study of history shouldn't end when school does. Making it relevant and interesting will keep people continue learning forever.

It's too bad that most history/social studies classes are taught almost exclusively using the bland textbooks which are put out by the big publishing houses and in which people's lives are boiled down to a paragraph or two. I think that, in general, textbooks should be used as a "side dish" but not the "main course" especially at the middle and high school levels. There are so many other sources for information and ways for the kids to make a connection with the material.

Why is anyone surprised by the lack of info about 9/11 in history textbooks? It takes 3-5 years to produce a new edition. In fact, the only way most teachers would cover this topic is as background to a current events story on why American troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anyone who actually uses the textbook for anything more than background reading is not teaching history.

Our textbooks are limited and I think most parents and administrators expect us to challenge our students with much more than textbook data.

As far as 9/11 goes, no one should think we have the full picture at this point in time. It will be years before all the details are known, if ever, and it is way too early to be making absolute statements unless you have a political agenda to push. Let's wait and see how details develop before rewriting the textbooks.

To agree with ChitownStu, fifty years have to pass before current events can become history. US documents take 20 years to release, British 50, French 100...then schools of interpretation need time to develop to sort out facts in multilayered context...I'm for putting events since 1960 or so into the US Government curriculum...

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