Our history is what defines our character, shapes our social views, and gives us a sense of pride in how far we have come. The trouble with history is that it is presented to us as children through the interpretations of historians and textbook editors. This means that every few generations school children are introduced to “their particular version of America”, they focus on different events and ideas from the past, and develop their own way of thinking about our history and the world in general.
In “Rewriting American History” Frances Fitzgerald describes the differences between history books from her childhood and the newer ones from the nineteen-seventies; the examples show how the changes in content and perspective of junior high school history books affect the student’s view of the country and it’s annals. The message behind this comparison is that our image of history is shaped by the way it’s presented to us early on, which is why different generations of school children develop “their particular version of America.”
The first step in understanding this essay is to analyze the points of contrast and similarity that the author concentrates on. His focus is on the political views, pedagogical approach, presentation and content of the two generations of schoolbooks.
In the fifties American history was taught with “weighty volumes”, which “spoke in measured cadances: imperturbable, humorless, and as distant as Chinese emperors.” It seems like the textbooks were collections of generally agreed-upon facts with an emphasis on glorifying American heroes such as Columbus, John Smith and Daniel Boone. This choice of content reflects the conservative ideals of a united, postwar America in the fifties. It’s easy to see how the views of society can influence the interpretation of history in contemporary textbooks.
In contrast to the older books, the author gives examples of content from some of the more modern texts. The focus has shifted from old American heroes to modern leaders and ideas like conservation and the Civil Rights Movement. Newer books also “hint at a certain level of unpleasantness in American history.” This is of course the writers personal opinion, but it sparks the question: Is this unplesantness a form of bias or just the result of a change in content? Aren’t the modern books just focusing on a different, less flattering part of our history, which was not mentioned in the fifties? That would mean that publishers have gained more freedom in what they can include and discuss in their textbooks. This could be the result of a more liberal attitude in our society.
Another point of contrast made by FitzGerald is in the physical appearance or presentation of the textbooks. The books of the fifties, when compared to the modern ones, “look as naive as Soviet fashion magazines.” They were simple in design and had conventinal, unprovacotive photos and drawings. Newer books have sophisticated design and high detail pictures with historical significance. They are hard to find pictures of antique objects and historical events. The problem with this presentation of events is that the beauty and intricacy of the pictures emotionally seperates the reader from the significance of it all. The author implies that the reader is really looking at a pretty design and not the pain and suffering depicted in the picture.
The political views presented in the two generations of schoolbooks are also interesting since they mirror the political sentiment of the country at the time. In the fifties the textbooks presented America as the greatest nation in the world, the only place where freedom and democracy reign supreme. This view was uniform across all textbooks, and gave children a feeling of security and trust in their government. This unity is absent in the newer books. They discuss problems in America: pollution, poverty, race problems, drugs, etc. They have different portrayals of the same historic events, such as the Civil-Rights Movement and the Cold War. This can lead children to distrust their government and question the truths established by the textbooks of the nineteen-fifties.
What I found most significant in FitzGerald’s comparison was the difference in educational approaches used now and in the nineteen-fifties. He compares the modern books to the older ones by saying, “In these books, history is clearly not a list of agreed-upon facts or a sermon on politics but a babble of voices and a welter of events which must be ordered by the hitorian.” While the second part of that quote uses subjective language, it still paints a good contrast between the two pedagogical approaches. The textbooks in the fifties were solid and unquestioning, while the new books analyze and question history. The educational approach is significant because it influences the students view of America and its history.
A lecture of facts creates a static vision of America and a sense of permanence, while the new learning techniques teach the student to consider multiple interpretations of the same facts. I think that this is a huge step forward in the learning process because it uses a familiar subject like history to teach students real world tools like critical thinking and objective analysis. This means that even though history keeps getting revised for every generation of school children, the process is moving in the right direction toward a better and more clear understanding of our past.
“Rewriting American History” opened my eyes to a very real and significant problem of “slippery history”. It shows how the content and presentation of history books shapes our view of America and the world as a whole. The light in which we see our country as children shines on it through our adulthood. The only comforting evidence is that educational material is improving and creating smarter, more open students. What this means is that improvements in our society are reflected in how we teach our children, and subsequently shape the views and realities of the next generation.
“What I Tried To Do”
I wanted to show how my idea of whats important changed as I examined and ranked more evidence. I started by looking at some of the general ideas and the evidence that supported them. This led me to examine the real world implications of what the author is describing. This kind of outside of the box thinking led me to develop the evolved thesis in the last paragraph.
FitzGerald, Frances. Rewriting American History, The Norton Reader Pp.
463-471. 10th Shorter Edition, New York 2000. Peterson, Brereton, Hartman.