Toss Your Textbooks

One of my favorite bloggers, Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory, posted today about the possibility of discontinuing the use of textbooks in his 11th grade U.S. history class. (For those of you unfamiliar with Civil War Memory, I recommend that you check it out.) Of his textbook of choice, he writes:

While it is brief it is an absolutely boring read and my students are at their wits ends. … The text is difficulty to follow and it seems to me that it doesn’t have to be. It’s as if the writers of these books intentionally write in a way that will alienate or bore their readers. Why can’t I use books that are informative and entertaining to read?

He continues by saying that for next year, he’s considering replacing the text with several books, each of which will cover a specific period of American history, which will hopefully “push a deeper more meaningful understanding of the historical method as well as content.”

For me, this is both refreshing and incredibly encouraging. I should say at the outset, the ability to do this sort of thing is one reason I plan to teach in a private school setting. I loathe standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing, and I hate the fact that too often history education becomes a mindless string of names, dates, and facts. For history classes taught in that way (as several of my high school history classes were), I’m not sure I could provide a satisfactory answer to the inevitable student question: “Why does this matter?”

I’m much more interested in teaching students about the complexity of history. Too often (even in graduate-level classes) I hear the tired old Santayana phrase: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This is not so much wrong as it is misleading. It gives the impression that there are a set of absolute lessons we can draw from the study of history as we continue on our merry way along an enlightened path toward even greater heights.

As the present (which is, after all, tomorrow’s past) continues to show in a variety of ways, that is simply not true. We could master all the history there is to master, and we would inevitably make the same mistakes that someone has made in the past. History, in my opinion, is about understanding the complexity of human events—the intersections of people and places and things and ideas. Rather than attempting to draw a set of guidelines for the future, students should be pushed to question the past on its own terms. Why did certain people make certain decisions? What impact did the actions of this group have on that group? Do we see changes? Continuity? How does our understanding of the past directly impact the way we make decisions today? Does history really matter?

Too often, textbooks fail to encourage these kinds of questions. Instead, they tend to provide a fairly simplistic “master narrative” of history, one which places an overwhelming emphasis on political history, often to the detriment of other approaches. I, for one, applaud Kevin’s decision to shoot for a deeper understanding of history and of the method of history, and I think it is very much in line with the recent report of the AHA on “The Next Generation of History Teachers.”

I’ve actually thought quite a bit about this, and while I won’t say that textbooks have no use, I do believe they’re a crutch. I also won’t say that I’ll never use a textbook in my future classes, but I do hope to organize my classes in much the same way that Kevin describes: an emphasis on acknowledging historiography (at the very least, pointing out that it exists!), on using primary sources and doing history, and on understanding the complexity of the past and its relation to the present. Textbooks are not completely useless, but I say: if they’re expensive, boring, and not all that well-suited for your purposes anyway, why not toss them out? At the very least, set them aside.

Like Kevin, I welcome any and all responses. I’d love to hear other perspectives.


5 Responses to “Toss Your Textbooks”

  1. March 24, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    I’m lucky in that I teach in a building where my principal believes in letting the teachers do what they feel is best for their kids – so if that means I don’t always use the textbook, so be it. I do follow the standards, but there’s nothing in there that says I have to use a particular book..so hopefully, the three of us that teach 7th grade science next year will be utilizing some of the better books out there (we’re using the NSTA list as a guide) that are more interesting, and easier to read, than our textbook. Heck, it even bores me.

  2. March 26, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    I think it is possible to use a textbook and not let it become a crutch. For the course I’m teaching now, the first half of the 100-level U.S. survey, each week my students are assigned a textbook chapter, 2-4 primary sources, and a secondary source (an article or book chapter). We learn about historiography, we talk about the usefulness of primary sources, and my students get a chance to “do” history. I use lectures as an opportunity to expand on the textbook and not to reiterate it word for word. In my opinion a textbook (or a textbook-y type source) is essential when teaching at this basic level. I teach at a large state university (with basically open admission) where most of my students don’t know anything (and I mean anything) about history. I think if I were at a liberal arts college with stricter admissions standards I could maybe do away with the textbook…but in my current situation it is really essential for giving the students some contextualization to support their analysis of primary and secondary sources. And, in case you’re curious, I use James Henretta, David Brody, and Lynn Dumenil, eds., America: A Concise History, 3rd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006). It is actually fairly interesting, at least as far as textbooks go.

  3. 3 Jim
    May 19, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    The dark side of Kevin Levin is that he is too disinterested in traditional history because it doesn’t fit into his social engineering agenda. His blog tirelessly denigrates southern history, culture, and familial memory which stems from his own family’s unconnectedness to the Civil War. Watch him claim objectivity in sentence and then drop a personal political statement in the next. Quite amusing.

  4. May 20, 2007 at 9:57 am

    Thanks Jim, but I’m afraid if you continue reading Southern Pasts, you probably won’t agree with some (perhaps many) of the things I write. Personally, I don’t agree with everything Kevin writes, but more often than not, I do. I do think your comments are very interesting, though. One question for you: what exactly do you mean by “traditional history?” Also, how would you define Kevin’s supposed “social engineering agenda?”

    Regarding his “unconnectedness,” as you put it, let me state plainly that I don’t believe southern roots are a requirement for historians of the South. As a southerner, I choose to study and write about the history of the South because it resonates with me, but that does not make me more qualified to write about southern history than Kevin. Similarly, his lack of familial ties to the Civil War certainly gives him a different perspective from, say, a member of the SCV, but it does not make him any more or less qualified to write about the war.

    Finally, Kevin has firm political beliefs, as do I, and his blog is clearly not altogether apolitical. I don’t want to speak for Kevin here, but I doubt he would ever claim that his blog is 100 percent objective. Of course, the fact that his political beliefs come through in his blog does not diminish in any way the quality of his historical research and writing. Furthermore, given the tone of your comment, I’m going to assume that you yourself make no claims to objectivity.

  5. 5 Jim
    June 25, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Southern, don’t be afraid rather embrace and prepare to learn from differences of opinion. Simply put, Kevin Levin only knows the South through textbooks rather than something deeper such as a sense of place with deep familial roots and culture. He tries to be a moral authority on the South and its people, which is understandably demeaning and insulting as if noone else had ideas of racial harmony. Levin shows the utmost inconsistency in claiming that any personal political leanings are outside strict deterministic historical interpretation, but then allows for the double standard when his “activist” comments are made, which usually consist of demeaning Confederate memory and ancestral commemoration.

    Let’s get specific…1) in response to condemning the Confederacy, I provided documentation of the North’s moral parity with the South concerning slavery. Levin actually stated that since the South had slavery in some states longer than the North, that the North was effectively unresponsible for slavery. 2) When I quoted Sherman’s favorable view of slavery and that Sherman thought the war was over economics, Kevin tried to convince me that I needed to read more books on Sherman because Sherman really thought that the South was responsible for the war. (Huh? is right. He actually thought that was a satisfactory answer.) 3) Levin also insinuated that state apologies for slavery above the Mason-Dixon were unnecessary or irrelevant when I showed him that states like PA, DE, RI, CT, NY, VT were considering it. 4) Kevin also tried to point out that recent educational desegregation clashes were limited to the South only. When I showed him evidence of similar issues in Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, and others, he said, as always, that I missed the point of his post. These examples are a sampling only.

    Basically, no matter what drivle comes out of Kevin’s mind, the South always ends up on the bottom, just the way he likes it. Now he’ll say that his heroes are southern, and that’s great if King, Taubman, Douglas, Parks and all are his heroes, but that does not mean that McCausland, Longstreet, Gordon, Watkins, and our ancestors (i.e. traditional history) can’t be equally celebrated. As I’ve said before, Kevin’s agenda is that select flags be closeted, certain monuments be removed, particular heritage groups should be discredited, and personal ancestral memories are irrelevant.

    To close, let me suggest that qualifications are no subsitute for fairness, objectivity, and unbiasedness within any profession. Thank God the South has Kevin to provide moral guidance 140 years after the Civil War – LOL! But seriously, too bad for the students at St. Anne’s Belfield where he teaches HIS-story.

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