"The Founding Fathers believed in freedom and liberty.”
“Rosa Parks was a tired old woman.”
“Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator.”
My undergraduates were discussing a YouTube video that they’d been assigned to watch for class. In it, the author spoke about the dangers of whitewashing history, and this was particularly relevant for the course that I was instructing: “Teaching Race." The stated goal of my course was to "relearn an American history that centers the voices of Black, Latinx and Indigenous populations; voices that have been historically erased." The students and I were discussing some of the historical "facts" that they’d learned during their K-12 schooling that had been formative in their understanding of American democracy. Where does that history come from? Who chooses which stories get told and which stories are erased?
Many public schools in this country teach history and social studies curriculum straight from the textbook. What many students (and even some educators themselves) don’t know is that textbook choice is a highly politicized process in different states with arguments over everything from the tone of the texts to what content is included or excluded. There is no single story of American history; as James Baldwin wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” But it has become increasingly evident in our current racial reckoning that the erasure of particular stories in American history has dangerous and wide-sweeping consequences.
In January 2020, The New York Times published a robust analysis of the differences in history and social studies textbooks from two politically distinct states — Texas and California. Discrepancies in textbook content can be attributed to different state standards, curriculums, laws of the state and textbook review panels who assess the curriculums and submit recommended changes to the publishers. In this analysis, national education correspondent Dana Goldstein pointedly refers to the differences of the panelists, both in terms of ideologies and expertise. The California review panel was comprised of state board of education-selected educators, all appointed by the former Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Texas panel was also appointed by the state board of education, but the panel was made up of “educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician." This assembly may sound surprising, but as the varying levels of educational expertise represented in the Texas panel shows, there is often undue political influence over what content is included in textbooks and what information is valued in the K-12 curriculum.
Where does that history come from? Who chooses which stories get told and which stories are erased?
The historical content in the California textbook and the Texas textbook differed in minor, yet significant ways. For example, Goldstein points out that in the Texas textbook, a discussion of the literature produced during the Harlem Renaissance includes the caveat that some critics “dismissed the quality of the literature." Pearson, the publisher of the textbook, argued that this language added nuance to the lesson. But another interpretation of this statement is that it undermines the extraordinary creative contributions of Black American writers during the Harlem Renaissance by calling into question the caliber of their work. Goldstein points to this as the “sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.”
Sol Rheem, a high school social studies teacher in Massachusetts, said that she rarely uses her textbook as the sole arbiter of information. “Textbooks are just a version of text, just like every single document that we read to learn about the past. Students should know and understand that the textbook is a source of information, and therefore it has a writer and a context that it was written in and a moment in history that it was written in.”
Christine Caulfield, a retired high school U.S. history teacher who taught in Maine, echoed these sentiments: “The reliance on textbooks differs for every teacher. For me, it was a way to engage students in how to read critically, and it served as a baseline from which we would look at various issues in depth. I would take the textbook and, in essence, rip it apart. We would think about whose voices were missing. What was left out was just as important as what was included.”
"Students should know and understand that the textbook is a source of information, and therefore it has a writer and a context that it was written in and a moment in history that it was written in.”
But many K-12 teachers are required by state educational standards to adhere to the state-mandated textbooks. As Caulfield points out, “Some teachers in other states don’t have the ability or the bandwidth to teach outside of the scope of the curriculum. Essentially, their state board of education says, 'By Oct. 15, we expect that every single 10th grade class will be on this chapter of the state-mandated textbook.' So the textbook is the center of the instruction, and the limitations of the textbooks create an even greater ignorance, because what the students are being taught is a gloss-over.”
The "differences in ideologies" can have far-reaching consequences, even beyond the scope of individual states. Texas has frequently faced scrutiny for its state curriculum standards (called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS). In 2014, NPR reported on some of the curriculum controversies, one of which included listing Moses as one of the original Founding Fathers. But because Texas has one of the highest populations of public school students (approximately 5 million) it carries undue influence on national textbook publishers and the content that they include — or do not include — in their textbooks. The narratives that they feature, which are then taught to millions of middle and high school students, have at times come under fire for being racist and xenophobic.
In July 2020, students petitioned Texas’ Board of Education to revise its educational standards in order to adopt an anti-racist curriculum. An article from Houston Public Media about the petition drew attention to a particularly egregious incident where a McGraw-Hill textbook referred to enslaved people as “workers” and compared the Atlantic slave trade to other “patterns of immigration."
Rheem points to the undue damage caused by this kind of rhetoric and links it to the discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement. “There’s so much institutional structural racism that is harder to identify and understand, but that students both want to know and need to know," she said. "So when you have a curriculum that doesn’t teach critical-thinking skills, that doesn’t talk about power, oppression or resilience, you rob these students of the ability to understand what’s happening in their own life in this moment.”
So when it comes to choosing the history textbooks, who decides? The answer is a whole host of people, many of whom have distinct political agendas. If K-12 students are only taught a one-dimensional history of America — and, in particular, one that erases our history of human rights violations against Black, Indigenous and Latinx populations — they won’t be equipped with the knowledge to change the future.
“If you teach historical context and narratives of resistance and resilience and why things are happening now, people need that foundation to understand what they’re living (through), what they’re seeing and to feel empowered to make an impact," Rheem said. "And that’s why I teach history outside of the narratives of the textbook. It’s not just being able to identify oppression, but also understanding that people have been fighting and creating and transforming forever.”