High school history books are racist, boring and ineffective. Here’s how I would fix it.

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History class is the epitome of high school boredom – a dark, flat wasteland of names and dates to memorize and toss on your way to graduation. Yet the real story is an incredibly controversial and violent political battleground, where adults yell at each other, march on and sometimes even kill each other over the same names and dates that amaze their children.

How can this be? How can the same subject provoke both paralyzing indifference and terrifying rage?

The answer is that the conflict over history is partly a struggle over whether we should continue to bore our children or whether we should actually educate them about the past in a way that prepares them to question the present. That’s why we need to talk more about textbooks

Textbooks are the primary source of information for students learning history. The problem is that they are often inaccurate and blind, especially on issues of racism and colonialism. They are just a deceptive and boring way of teaching history.

As someone who worked for a high school correspondence school for years and helped design and write teaching materials, I can say with certainty that history textbooks are basically designed to alienate students. Instead of enlightening them, textbooks prevent students from understanding history and why it matters.

That’s why it’s time to try something new. The College Board, in its curriculum recommendations for AP History, lists “access to a college-level American history textbook” as the first requirement — but also adds a mandate for “diverse primary sources and multiple secondary sources.” If we are to fix history teaching in the United States, we must rely on these primary and secondary sources, which compel readers to really engage with the content and ask questions about the author and the circumstances of his writing. To make way for real history teaching, we have to get rid of textbooks.

Why are textbooks so bad?

Textbooks are often wildly, and even offensively, inaccurate. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi saw again four of the most commonly used American history textbooks in 2020. He discovered that one book, The American Contest, referred to enslaved Africans brought to the Americas as “immigrants”. another book, A history of the United Statestalked about how wonderful Thomas Jefferson was without ever mentioning that he enslaved people.

These omissions and biases are not accidental. Conservative white religious activists were able to shape textbook content for the entire nation, thanks to their power in Texas. The Lone Star State is such a big market that publishers are desperate to shape content to gain approval from the state — and its Republican-led government. By extension, the curators have enormous influence over what appears in textbooks used across the country. Thus the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. is brought to light; his radicalism minimized. Social conflict is smothered in a bland patriotic bombshell.

A Colorado teacher looks at her outdated American History textbook in 2019.

Photo by Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Look at the contrast between textbook history and something like the New York Times‘s 1619 Project, the latter openly focusing on inequity, confrontation and social division. The 1619 Project was met with fierce backlash, including an effort to to forbid be taught in schools. But the rage isn’t just because it’s centered on black history and the toxic legacy of slavery (though there’s certainly a good chunk of it). This is because he treats the story as controversial and contemporary. Matthew Desmond’s chapter on the effect of slavery on capitalism, for example, argues that the enslavement of people led the United States to a tradition of crushing workers.

This dissertation forces students to think of history as an influence—and, indeed, a curse—on the present. He asks them to think about how the past might be relevant to, for example, their own part-time jobs. On the other hand, the above the American contest is filled with statements as moving and controversial as “The new century has brought astonishing changes to the United States” and “The talented Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, championed anti-slavery.”

What about things textbooks get right?

Textbooks often sound like a list of disconnected facts, spoken in an empty voice of bland decontextualization. They have no theses or arguments; they have facts and dates and endless throat clearing. “Most American history courses and textbooks operate in a gray emotional landscape of godly duty in which the United States has a good history, so studying it is good for students,” James Loewen wrote in his study. American textbook classic, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

It’s bad when the manuals are wrong. But it can be even worse when they’re right, because they’re right in a way that treats history as something that’s settled and done and can’t lead to conflict. “The talented Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, championed anti-slavery” is an accurate factual statement, but it has no real historical significance. In other words: “The talented sun came out today.

A better way to approach the legacy of the Grimké sisters might be to read what they wrote. The sisters’ advocacy for abolitionism was hugely controversial, not just because they stood up for black freedom, but because women weren’t supposed to speak in public at the time. The General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts published a denunciation of the sisters and their activism in 1837, to announce only when [woman] assumes the places and tone of man as a public reformer … she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural.

The sisters responded by developing a moral and theological defense of women’s rights and linking the oppression of women to the oppression of black people of all genders. Like Angelina Grimke Explain in a letter written in October 1837:

The investigation of slave rights led me to a better understanding of my own. I have found the anti-slavery cause to be our country’s moral high school – the school in which human rights are more thoroughly, better understood and taught than in any other … Human beings have rightsbecause they are moral beings: the rights of all men come out of their moral nature; and as all men have the same moral nature, they have essentially the same rights…if the rights are based on the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstance of sex does not give men higher rights and responsibilities than women.

Grimké’s words link abolition to human rights with a radical argument for universal rights and human worth. They demonstrate how the fight for black rights inspired the fight for women’s rights. But his writing also shows that the Grimké were radical not only for their time, but also for ours. To say that gender difference is “nothing” remains a controversial claim, as evidenced by numerous anti-trans discussions of the biologically immutable nature of gender.

You can’t teach that just by writing his name in a textbook. History is not just facts; it’s the context. That the Grimkés have talent makes no sense in itself. That their talent is controversial is what’s really important.

Fine. How would that work?

What if, instead of skimming the bullet points on anti-slavery activists, students were asked to read excerpts from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and carried away by the wind? They are both accessible and dramatic texts with very, very different narratives of slavery. Teachers could assign both and challenge their students to assess which account is more accurate.

This would trigger a series of truly meaningful historical discussions. Who wrote each work? When were the books written? Who is best placed to talk about the conditions described? What was the purpose of these books; who was the intended audience and what was the author trying to do? Are there other primary or secondary sources you can consult to determine accuracy? (There are!)

A teacher stands in front of his high school history class in Weaverville, California in 2020.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The point here is not to give both sides equal weight. It is about thinking critically about the past and its relationship to the present. Who is more likely to know if enslaved people were happy to be enslaved: an enslaved person or a white person writing about slavery decades later? It’s not hard to answer, but it’s a real question – one that forces you to think about timeline and evidence.

Many history teachers try to provide students with such sources to teach these lessons. They incorporate the 1619 project, or Douglass’s Autobiographyor the writing of the Grimké sisters, or Lies my teacher told me. But they can’t escape textbooks, which remain a heavy, numbing presence in the majority of history lessons — and a staple on tests.

History education is not meant to be a dull backdrop for vague patriotism. History textbooks make us a less intelligent, less educated, less historically minded country, less able to face the past and the future. People get bogged down in squabbles over what should be in textbooks, while the use of the textbooks themselves is a problem. It’s time to get rid of it.

Colin L. Johnson