With the shift to presenting history from a multicultural point of view--where all cultures and values, including American, are treated as equally valid--history textbooks that present U.S. history to students in a positive framework are becoming less and less common. When combined with "dumbing down" on writing and skimping on content, the quality of U.S. and world history textbooks has become an issue of major concern to many Americans.
Historian and educator Gilbert T. Sewall is one of those concerned individuals. For the past 15 years, he has been director of the American Textbook Council, an independent national research organization established in 1989 to review and monitor the history textbooks used in U.S. schools. The Council's publications have criticized popular junior high and high school history textbooks for presenting "politically correct" but inaccurate information to students and for judging Western and non-Western cultures by very different standards.
For example, a 2003 Council publication, "Islam and the Textbooks," criticized textbook publishers for misleading students about the nature of jihad and sharia by presenting only partial and superficial explanations of those terms. Students are not informed that the traditional meaning of jihad is a religious obligation to bring the whole world under Islamic law, nor are they informed that Muslim law, or sharia, is where the state is the agent of the Muslim faith--a situation far removed from American society, where secular law is paramount and religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed.
"To become discerning and self-preserving citizens," notes Sewall, "U.S. students must learn how consensual government, individual freedom and rights, and religious toleration based on separation of church and state are their unusual birthrights."
Sewall, a former Newsweek education writer, is the editor of The Eighties: A Reader and is on the editorial board of Phi Delta Kappan magazine. He is the author of Necessary Lessons: Decline and Renewal in American Schools (1983) and coauthor of After Hiroshima: The U.S.A. Since 1945 (1978). He was a history instructor at Phillips Academy and on the faculties of New York University and Boston University. He recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.
Clowes: Could you tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in school textbooks?
Sewall: I grew up in California and I did my undergraduate work in history and economics at the University of California at Berkeley, followed by graduate degrees from Brown University and Columbia University. At present, I have a free-standing center adjacent to the Columbia campus, known as the American Textbook Council. Our raison d'être is to monitor and review history and social studies textbooks.
For a while, I was the education editor of Newsweek magazine, and it was there that I first did a long article on textbooks, reviewing Francis Fitzgerald's History Revised. During the 1980s, I wrote widely about education issues and became identified as a conservative, a word that I shied away from at first, but not for long.
In 1987, I was in an institute at Teachers' College that has since evolved into the Fordham Foundation complex. While I was there, I wrote a review of textbooks that hit a national nerve and prompted a foundation to suggest that I establish the American Textbook Council. I did, and I've been with the Council ever since.
Clowes: What is the mission of the American Textbook Council?
Sewall: The American Textbook Council is dedicated to improving instructional materials and civic education nationwide.
Instructional materials are important in history and social studies because they are where the curriculum meets the child. Textbooks are what teachers use as a basic learning instrument. More teachers than not go through textbook lessons pretty much mechanically: They take the book that is assigned to the course and teach what is in it. So, obviously, the textbook is very important.
The second aim of the Council is to improve civic education nationwide. By civic education, I mean not only civic understanding but also civic pride--feeling and devotion to the American nation and its accomplishments. Right now, we're trying to get funding to do a teacher guide and handbook on civic education that we're calling Foundations of the U.S. Republic. This handbook would divide civic education into three parts:
- An outline of the origins and nature of liberal democracy;
- A discussion of the principles of U.S. government; and,
- A review of the basic language of international affairs, or geopolitics.
That's what I'd love to get into more classrooms. The civics I would like to see in the classroom would emphasize what the United States does right and look closely at American consensus, principles, and values. Unfortunately, "civics" today can mean anything from a study solely of First and Fourteenth Amendment issues to so-called "street law," which is a kind of utilitarian guide to navigating the welfare system or the law courts.
Clowes: So it doesn't look at the underlying principles?
Sewall: Not at all, and it is a perfect curriculum for clients of the state. What I'm thinking of is something different, with an emphasis on principles. I also think civics should make a distinction between the United States and totalitarian regimes. We don't have the U.S.S.R. any more, but we do have plenty of scary regimes, from a number of Islamic countries to China and North Korea.
Perhaps a better term these days, rather than totalitarian or theocratic, is "dictatorships." They come in all varieties but the political outcomes are generally miserable in a lot of different ways. You see, I think Americans, including teachers and children, take a lot of things for granted. For example, I'd like teachers to do hard comparisons between the American legal system and sharia.
Clowes: In one of your recent publications, you quoted Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis as saying, "We live in a time when great efforts are being made to falsify the record of the past to make history a tool of propaganda." You commented that Islamists have succeeded in doing this very thing.
Sewall: Let me explain. When I published the World History Textbook Review report earlier this year, I mentioned Islam's special role in terrorism but otherwise didn't say much about it. That's because, when we issued a preliminary report on Islam last year, it generated a lot of heat. The Washington Times put it on the front page, and then Fox News interviewed me about it. The report was widely reprinted and I came under vicious attack from the Islamists, in particular in a written response from the Council on Islamic Education (CIE).
I want as many people as possible to read their response, because I think it's lunacy. The person who wrote it is CIE's chief propagandist. I've been asking hard questions about this organization for years, as have others such as Daniel Pipes, Diane Ravitch, and most recently WorldNetDaily. CIE has influenced publishers to keep certain information about Islam out of U.S. school textbooks.
For example, I looked at the textbook descriptions of jihad, sharia, Arabic slavery, and the treatment of women, and compared them with what well-respected scholarship said. I found there were great variations. There were obvious fabrications, whitewash, airbrushing--call it what you will. When I pointed these variations out in the 2003 report Islam in the Textbooks, and explained that it had taken place because CIE had intimidated publishers, then I came under attack.
The Council on Islamic Education has been as aggressive as any single group in getting its particular view of history into U.S. textbooks. And because of multiculturalism, they've had quite a wide channel to work in.
Clowes: How has multiculturalism influenced the treatment of the United States and its history?
Sewall: Just as radically, is the short answer. Multiculturalism has been around for about 25 years as a set of nebulous theories. Over those 25 years, the unifying idea in social studies has become "diversity." As a result, any group or cause that can present itself as part of the diversity coalition comes to the table and says, "We want more treatment." And since these people aren't historians and don't really give a hoot about history except as a vehicle to advance themselves, they want flattering treatment.
It doesn't matter who these people are--left or right, sometimes non-political--but they all have an agenda. They want textbooks to reflect their point of view and to mention their particular interest group. This is not something new, but something that has become structural in educational publishing--not just in history and in social studies but throughout the curriculum.
I come from California, which has statewide textbook adoption and so it has a huge amount of commercial power. As you can imagine, Sacramento is a magnet for many, many causes. It's not just the Native Americans, or the women, or the blacks, or the Hispanic groups that have been at the center of multiculturalism in California, but rather curious factions such as the Sikhs, the Ukrainians, and the nutritionists. They all want American history to reflect their point of view.
Clowes: What could be done to change the system so that we might get a better selection of textbooks?
Sewall: First of all, it's not enough to say, "Get rid of state-level adoption." That doesn't cut it. As I say in the World History Textbook Review, even publishers themselves would like to get rid of state adoption because it's costly for them. State adoption is a sham in most cases because the number of major publishers has shrunk to four and the states are adopting pretty much everything that comes to them from those publishers.
It's the publishers and their editors who are to blame. They are captives of the special interest groups. The publishers have become more defensive and more resistant to change as some of the best historians and educators in the country have criticized their textbooks.
Clowes: Your review mentioned that the content and style of textbooks has become very bland as the result of all the pressure from different interest groups.
Sewall: Textbook quality is another aspect of the issue. I try to explain to people that we're looking at two collateral problems--dumbing down and reduced content. They're not the same.
"Dumbing down" is a scarier problem, in some ways. It's the superficial treatment, the lack of gravity, the loss of narrative, and the development of a moronic kind of picture book or activity book approach to the material. It's something that American citizens of all political views should be worried about.
There are left-wing books--books with content problems--that are not dumbed down, that are elegantly written, that are, in some ways, estimable textbooks. I may not buy what they have to say, I may not buy their interpretation, but they're not dumbed down: They're rich, they're verbal, and they're literary. But these are college textbooks. You don't see anything at the high school level that's acceptable from a literary standpoint.
Clowes: Are there any older history and social studies textbooks that schools could go back to?
Sewall: I address this very issue in the last pages of the World History Textbook Review. There are two possible responses. One would be an abridgment of existing textbooks, some of which are adequate. They could be improved by distilling them and taking out most of the graphics and sidebars.
A second response would be to re-tool and bring back into print some older textbooks. I can look across at my work desk and look at five textbooks printed between 1961 and 1987 that would be excellent candidates for reprinting. We should not forget there should be a difference between social studies and current events, and this notion that a textbook that was written in 1980 is totally out-of-date is nonsense.
The publishers, of course, have big, aggressive sales forces whose aim is to convince teachers that they have to be up-to-date, that new is better, and that these new books represent advancements. But my gut tells me that there's an expanding audience for well-written, solid, no-nonsense, traditional textbooks that emphasize political and economic history.
It's important to remember that 25 or 30 years ago, there were many, many independent textbook companies. These companies have become absorbed by large multi-media companies, and now there are only four major publishers left in the circle. The way the market is organized is antithetical to quality because it is so hard to break in.
For example, I could get a foundation grant, obtain a copyright, and re-issue a wonderful old textbook that's been brought up-to-date. But who's going to print it? Who's going to sell it? The barriers to entry are substantial.
Clowes: And you would still have to get it adopted within a particular school or school system.
Sewall: That's done locally, but it's done with the help of the publishers' sales forces, which are really extraordinary at working the grass roots. These sales forces penetrate into schools and, over time, the textbook reps become familiar sights in the schools and the central office. Friendships build up and educators become dependent on the program, which provides workbooks, backup, and Internet support.
The publisher becomes like a full-service purveyor of curriculum, and the local rep becomes the embodiment of the company. They're like the techie you call about your computer. They're there, 24 hours a day, to help. Being able to put together that kind of army is something that can only be done economically by a few huge corporations. That's what I mean by barriers to entry.