Textbooks & A Student’s History Education

By Griffin Monahan, SED 2016

Helen Keller was a socialist. Squanto was more heroic than Batman.

The statements above may surprise you. You may think that they are ridiculous and cannot possibly be true. Why do you think that they are untrue? If your answer is because you never learned these facts, then you are right. Fear not, it is not your fault: blame your textbooks. Major textbooks used in middle school and high school history classes paint history as a black and white picture, when in reality there are rather many shades of grey. Authors of history textbooks want their student readers to take their printed words as facts, thus removing the conversation to be had with historical events. Omitting some events or figures and overemphasizing others can shift how history is presented thus providing students with at times an inappropriate version of history. Here are two examples:

Helen Keller is known by many for her perseverance in overcoming her disabilities to become a productive member of society, but there is more to her story. Displeased with how women, workers, and people with disabilities were treated by early 20th century America, she joined the Socialist Party of America. Yes. that’s right– Helen Keller, American hero, was a socialist. This major feature of Keller’s life is often not included in textbooks because American heroes (in the eyes of the textbook’s authors) can only be freedom loving, apple pie eating, hardworking capitalists. By removing much of the story of Helen Keller, she is molded into a single dimensional figure embodying only the hardworking traits that we should value according to certain authors.

Illustration by Jason Gan

Illustration by Jason Gan

Squanto, the friendly Native American who helped the settlers who arrived on the coast of Massachusetts, was a great guide because of his ability to communicate with the newcomers to North America. How did he learn English? Many textbooks answer this question by stating that Squanto learned English by interacting with English fishermen off the coast of Massachusetts. In reality, Squanto’s history is far more interesting. English sailors captured Squanto in 1614 and he was sold into slavery in Spain. He then escaped slavery, made his way to England, and convinced Thomas Dermer in 1619 into taking him along on a voyage to Cape Cod. He escaped slavery and arranged a trip back home covering the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Why is this American action hero left out of our history textbooks? If he were included as he lived, then the underlying tone of Native American savages brought to civilization by the Europeans would be defeated. Throughout the tale of the Pilgrims, they are painted as the good guys who conversely need an inferior group, authors fill the void by using the Native Americans.

As a future history teacher I want to change how history is presented. First, I want to present a history with a wider spectrum that does not only depict the European side, but rather the history of all peoples. Secondly, I want to make history less black-and-white fact and more conversational. When you present issues that carry controversy, you encourage conversation. These conversations are essential to the lively and academic classroom that students deserve.

*Griffin Monahan is a junior at Boston University School of Education studying social studies education.

2 Comments

Charlie White posted on April 16, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Add to the mix the fact that what is included (or excluded) from history textbooks is heavily influenced by state textbook adoption committees, especially in the largest states. If Texas or Florida or California wants something included (or excluded), the adoption committees can fail to put a non-compliant textbook on the approved list. No publisher wants that to happen, so there is a lot of pressure to bow to the demands of these committees. (Some states, for examples, have tried to pressure publishers to give equal time in science textbooks to “intelligent design” on a par with evolution.)

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