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Why history texts flunk the inspiration test

By tradition, American history courses in public schools have been expected not only to teach the facts of our national story, but also to engender in students an attachment to democracy and the ability to judge complex issues in perspective. Most Americans believe that the study of the brave, ingenious, enduring spirits in our past inspires us to become caring and working citizens in a complicated democracy. But there is now a nearly unanimous agreement that the history books flunk the inspiration test, and they also fail to help children think critically about their world. An intensifying national debate about how textbooks should be changed is under way.

Critics say that current United States history textbooks are a confusing jumble of facts and tidbits, adrift from both values and context. The bright nuggets that helped an earlier generation fix events in the memory have been replaced by bland ``information.'' Pedestrian summaries have replaced the eloquent language of our past leaders. Conflict, so essential to both good storytelling and the truth, is shunned. The yeast that would make students think or patriots rise is simply not there anymore.

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Even the writing style has been shorn of those elements that once made history books engaging. There is a dearth of strong verbs, vivid adjectives, and felicitous phrases. Students find the books ``boring'' and ``hard,'' even though publishers go to absurd lengths to control the reading levels of textbooks.

According to Frances Fitzgerald, author of a stinging study of American history textbooks, ``America Revised'' (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1980), textbooks became dull in the 1930s. Between the '30s and the '60s, the books may have been boring and craven, but they still presented a coherent vision of America and its ideals. ``We were taught certain philosophical truths,'' says a textbook publisher friend of mine. ``We learned about our violent past in pastel worlds that were like the lyrics of a song. Now the rhythm is gone, and so are the pastels.''

The socially binding myths that infused those textbooks were shattered by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, especially the vision of America as a strictly northern European nation. The simple Anglo-patriotism -- Columbus sailing the ocean blue -- was gone. What would replace it?

So far that is still an open question. In today's American history textbooks, the national identity crisis about race, ethnicity, and gender has been only partly resolved. Stereotypes of oppressed peoples -- notably women and blacks -- have nearly disappeared; their contributions have been noted. But the transition has been awkward and inconclusive. Cameo appearances of once-obscure figures and silly inversions of reality have made a just cause easy to ridicule. Since the 1960s, the textbooks have slouc hed down into a half-baked multiculturalism, and in the process, the chest-thumping self-confidence and coherent assertion of values have gotten lost.

Dismay over the moral and ethical condition of our society has prompted a search for a new, ``centrist'' history. One can find this view in the Department of Education in Washington. It seeks to define a shorter list of those really important persons and events in American history -- with some modifications to accommodate the new pluralism.

The notion here is to build a more cohesive society around a commonly shared vision of the American democracy and its traditional ideals. There is resistance to this approach, however, from the many groups, both academic and political, whose causes will be sacrificed if the textbooks are focused on a simpler version of the story.

There are others who believe that our society is currently so deeply divided that a center cannot be found. In their view, students need to be equipped to handle difficult value questions through a progessively complicated exposure to them. David Grimsted, historian at the University of Maryland, makes this case:

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``Instead of getting some training in seeing the complexity of problems, the decencies and dangers of different answers, the contributions and limitations of expert information on topics, students are led toward little questions with fill-in-the-blank answers.'' Mr. Grimsted would prepare students for the frustrations of an untidy world through the careful honing of their hearts and intellects, something not now done in either textbooks or most classrooms. Textbooks should gently expose students t o the difficult issues. This more scholarly, dispassionate approach is being overshadowed by those who advocate a moral renaissance.

With their furious vitality, the new religious right has forced us to reconsider some questions that have been dormant for some time. Is the United States a Christian nation? Haven't we interpreted the doctrine of separation of church and state more stringently than the constitutional framers intended, and in the process, deprived children of a sense of the moral order? Are we an elect people with a special moral destiny in the world?

The current debate revolves around the intellectual vs. the moral approach; relativism vs. absolutes. Although our nation has debated these matters before, the current controversy will be difficult to resolve for reasons unique to our own time.

Most people believe the version of history they studied in school is the true history -- an oblique compliment to the textbooks despite their faults. Since books have changed every few years in recent decades, we have a Babel of historical viewpoints that will make consensus hard to achieve.

There are many more groups in society insisting that children should learn more things. New technology and scholarship create demands for new topics in textbooks -- part of the reason the publishers don't have much space for values and ideas. The textbook adoption process becomes more Byzantine with every passing year. Publishers are tied in knots complying with required bureaucratic rituals and new pedagogical fads. Their first imperative is to stay solvent, not to solve the national identity crisis.

It is frequently said that we cannot agree on what children should learn about our history. I don't subscribe to that view. What we find in today's textbooks is what we have already agreed upon. Evidently, we want our children to learn more facts than we know ourselves, and we would rather have no values than somebody else's. The current stalemate over conceptions of America, and the stale books, are likely to endure for some time.

Harriet Tyson-Bernstein is director of the Textbook Reform Project at the Council of Chief State School Officers, an information resource center for the states, in Washington, D.C.

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