Undercover: Schoolbook Scandal–The Messy Truth (11/15/79)

Of all the articles to appear in the near-moribund New Yorker over the last year, three stand out: Calvin Trillin’s piece on the $200,000 parka he took to Minnesota last winter, Kenneth Tynan’s profile of the legendary silent-film actress Louise Brooks, and Frances FitzGerald’s study of high-school and grade-school American history textbooks. Chuck Berry once said he wrote songs about cars because “everybody has one”: FitzGerald’s essay on textbooks—now published as America Revised (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 240 pp., $9.95)—is entrancing because everyone has had to read them.

Reading FitzGerald’s quotes from numerous texts, you wonder how you ever reached a level of literacy sufficient to read anything more sophisticated: it’s the insistent blandness of textbook writing, its condescending stupidity, that’s so striking. Blandness, especially in the present day, when the commercial textbook houses have to contend with the demands of scores of well-organized pressure groups, at first seems the key: as FitzGerald writes, “The principle that lies behind textbook history is that the inclusion of nasty information constitutes a bias even if the information is true.” But actually the key is that for a long time, if not from the beginning, history has not even been the point. The texts, FitzGerald finds, were almost never meant to engage a student’s interest in history per se, or to encourage critical thought about one’s place in it. They’ve been constructed to satisfy specific economic or ethnic interests, make the present seem inevitable, and mold (or, as the phrase might be today, “open up”) the student according to the dominant values of the time.

This might mean, through the Fifties, one or another version of “citizenship” or “responsibility” (as time passes, those concepts lose their connection with “virtue” and are attached to something more like “orderliness” or “productivity”); in the Kennedy era, the organizing of all social facts around a cult of technique, utility, scientism and the struggle of Our Way of Life against Theirs; in the mid- and late Sixties, “fulfillment.” Today, it might mean a version of American history that shows the student he or she owes loyalty not to a coherent society, but to a hyphenated group: a version of American history that puts forth the idea that “American history” never existed in the first place.

That is, the purpose of the text-books is the advancement of socialization within the strictures of the profit system (textbook committees in Detroit or Mississippi can affect what children all over the country are given to read), and the theory behind the textbooks is that children are not to be trusted. “While the Puritans believed that children were naturally sinful and had to be educated to virtue, modern pedagogues tend to believe that children are mentally ill.” To back up this rather amazing claim, FitzGerald quotes one Paul Brandwein, a textbook mandarin: “Above all, a teacher heals.” And, “In the social sciences, if nowhere else, a consideration of the child’s development and mental health, within the purview of the meanings of civilization, is paramount.”

Throughout FitzGerald’s book, there’s a sense that the text writers not to mention their publishers, or the groups demanding the inclusion of this and the deletion of that—have always found American history too messy, and thus, as FitzGerald continually points out, they have labored hard to deliver an almost endless series of dull frauds. It’s not just that much of American history is ugly, which it is: it seems more that “America” as such simply cannot be contained within a textbook, cannot be made sense of. If there is a secret the text writers are desperate to protect, this is it—not the secret of the extermination of the Indians, or the shame of child labor. Those things, FitzGerald makes clear, can be integrated into new, progressive texts as easily as nineteenth-century writers once disposed of Benedict Arnold. They can seem exotic.

So we move from an American history that is bland and sanitized to an American history that, for the benefit of blacks, whites, native Americans, Chicanos, and others upon others, is broken into so many pieces that the task of putting it back together seems pointless—or immoral. If Paul Brandwein has his way, we’ll move from there to a world in which all education is reduced to a laying on of hands. Finally, it’s not just the kids who aren’t to be trusted; it’s history itself.

FitzGerald’s last book was Fire in the Lake, a best-selling history of Vietnam that won every award short of the Nobel Prize; she deserves a lot of credit for turning her attention to a far less spectacular subject. She also deserves credit for not ending her story with a neat answer: an answer that, coming from another author, would likely be that what America really needs to do is emulate the Europeans, whose sense of history, whose feel for the past, is so much stronger than ours. One thinks of, say, the Germans…


Rolling Stone, November 15, 1979

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