“History is real simple,” Rush Limbaugh claimed. “You know what history is? It’s what happened.”
Tell that to the scholars currently arguing before the California Board of Education about what 6th grade history texts ought to include for India. As Argus Reporter Jonathan Jones covered in his front-page article last Monday, many groups have accused even recently revised texts of an “anti-Hindu,” “anti-Indian” bias. Should “Men had many more rights than women” be changed to “Men had different duties than women”? Should texts even mention the rigid caste system at all? One local activist argued, “The textbooks should highlight the positive aspects and encourage tolerance.”
Lest any of us too hastily smile with bemused condescension at such revisionism, we’d do well to recall that similar arguments have raged about virtually every topic in all our history textbooks for years.
For example, while teaching our children to “Remember the Alamo,” dare we mention that one of the Texans’ complaints with Mexican President (Dictator?) Santa Ana was he wouldn’t let the Alamo “freedom-fighters” keep their slaves?
Similarly, isn’t it odd that, in covering the Mexican American War (Abraham Lincoln derided it as a “trumped-up war.”), few United States texts honor the Children Heroes of Chapultepec? Rather than surrender to U.S. troops, the young cadets, Mexico’s last defense, wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves off the parapet to their deaths.
No, in order to survive California’s onerous textbook adoption process, publishers must excise everything that might offend anyone--liberal or conservative. The texts emerge incomplete, poorly written, and deadly boring.
On the other hand, at least our texts now treat India. Before we taught only Western Civilization: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages and—if the teacher got that far—the Renaissance. My current 7th grade World History curriculum includes as well Islam, Japan, China, Africa, and Mesoamerica. As a result, though, the ponderous text must give each unit but cursory coverage. There’s too much to remember. Most is too shallow to be interesting.
So teachers, at least good ones, have to make tough choices: Which topic will they just touch on? Which will they explore more thoroughly?
The very best teachers will be upfront about doing so, as one of mine was years ago: He played “52 Pick Up” with the class. Strewing a deck of cards haphazardly over the classroom floor, he explained that each card represented one historical fact, but the text couldn’t contain them all. He bid a succession of students to choose the ten most important cards for inclusion, then he ruthlessly criticized each selection: “Oh, you think only royalty or face cards matter,” he scoffed, disdainfully tossing the first ten back onto the floor. With the next, “Hmm, you’ve chosen more black cards than red, and only two diamonds. Are you prejudiced?”
Finally, he explained, “You see, no one can get it right. Each textbook author and every classroom teacher will make different decisions according to his/her own interests, beliefs, biases and passions. Your job as students is to mistrust all texts, all teachers, including me. Remember: there is no correct history; there are always other cards on the floor, parts of history told wrong or left untold. So, keep searching.”
He was a great teacher. And like most inspiring educators, he used textbooks merely as one of many sources for his course. His classroom burst with painful dilemmas, complex issues, colorful personages, patriotic heroism and shameful atrocities. More often than not he left me confused, but fascinated.
Which, frankly, reveals the futility behind textbook controversies (and most educational debates). Idiots like Limbaugh think the solution is simple: just get the right textbook or a new test--as if either could ever make a teacher great.
There is no panacea to education, save one: Recruit more of our best and brightest into all our classrooms, train and support them well, and then get the hell out of their way. They’ll challenge and inspire, no matter what the textbook says.