The start of the fall semester is an opportune time to examine the important role that textbooks play in student learning. Curiously though, taxpayers who are otherwise deeply involved in issues affecting public schools have little understanding of the process of textbook selection.
"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn serves as a case in point ("Howard Zinn and the Art of Anti-Americanism," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13). Despite an anemic initial press run in 1980 of 4,000 copies, sales have reached 2.2 million, with more than half of those sales in the past decade. Because American history is not on the list of subjects tested under No Child Left Behind, it has not received the scrutiny that English, math and science have. That's unfortunate because in a nation that is increasingly multicultural, knowledge of the past is crucial.
Therein lies the essence of the renewed focus on "A People's History." As I see it, the debate is about the purpose of studying history. Is it to indoctrinate or is it to inform? Critics claim that the book tends to divide, rather than unite. That's possible. Let's not forget that textbook publishers take great pains to avoid offending any group in order to boost sales. Accordingly, most American history textbooks tend to be bland. "A People's History" is anything but that. Predictably, it has become a lightning rod in the textbook wars.
Yet we claim that we want students to become critical thinkers. The devil, however, is always in the details. Are students in high school capable of recognizing ideology in textbooks? Do they understand that American history is subject to different interpretations? These are questions that are at the heart of the debate. When I was in high school, American history was one of my favorite subjects because the teacher used a textbook and original sources. I soon began to appreciate the distinction between the two. I think that students would be best served by employing the same approach today. But I doubt that will ever happen because emotions are running too high.