Wednesday’s Book Review: “School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present”

School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present. By Joseph Moreau. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

The premise of School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present is simple, recent conflicts over the history curriculum taught students in K-12 education have a very long history extending back to Antebellum America. We see these conflicts as presently enacted and shake our heads, as I did when Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2006 signed the “A++” law aimed at reforming K-12 education in his state. A small but significant part of this legislation dealt with the teaching of history. Among other things it mandated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It also directed a “character-development curriculum [that] shall stress the qualities of patriotism, responsibility, citizenship, kindness, respect for authority, life, liberty, and personal property, honesty, charity, self-control, racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, and cooperation.” Finally, it directed an emphasis on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” It represented a blatant pursuit of a “one nation/one people” approach to history that strove for consensus and continuity rather than complexity and conflict.

Presumably, if critics of the current American educational system are to be believed, the nation’s teaching of history rode off the rails in the 1960s. This was stated rather matter-of-factly in Frances FitzGerald’s classic study, America Revised; but she should not blamed for originating this idea, it has been a standard trope on the political right for many years. This conclusion is not substantiated, however, as Joseph Moreau demonstrates in this fascinating book. He goes back in time to trace the debates over history curriculum to before the Civil War as writers argued over the nature of slavery, the meaning of America’s founding documents, and a host of other contentious issues. Moreau’s emphasis in this part of his book is really on the sectional conflict and the differing perspectives offered on it.

For example, such individuals as Andrew Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, emphasized the conflict as one over states rights rather than slavery. Union veteran Thomas Wentworth Higginson placed his emphasis on slavery as the cause of war. This should sound familiar; as such issues remain important to this day in discussions of rivalries between sections of the country. As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War underway between 2011 and 2015 suggests, there are still considerable disagreements on this score and some history textbooks have been produced taking an unreconstructed southern perspective on it.

Likewise, in the first part of the twentieth century debates over the characterization of the industrial revolution in the United States, the rise of big business, the organizing of unions, and the fight for workers’ rights brought to the fore the question of class and how it should be treated in historical classes. Americans have always wanted to believe that we live in a classless society in which anyone who works hard and has a good idea can succeed based on merit. Anything that calls that ideal into question finds itself receiving the brunt of a full-frontal assault. The Horatio Alger stories were all predicated on that ideal—although in reality it was essentially fiction—and these rags-to-riches narratives offer aid and comfort to the forces of conservatism. Moreau offers a case study of the career of Harold Rugg in the 1930s-1940s to show what happens when the emperor is shown to have no clothes. Rugg was an educator who developed a set of curricula that was overall quite positive toward American democratic and capitalistic principles, but challenged the dominant celebration of business. Rugg was essentially an old progressive and a committed New Dealer who focused on how Americans might alter their institutions to ensure equality of opportunity.

As Moreau commented: “Advocates of a government hands-off policy for the economy argued that laissez-faire was just to all citizens, so what troubled them most about Rugg was his tendency to demystify individual economic opportunity. If a reader did not believe in the ubiquity of opportunity, they realized, then poverty looked like a problem built into the American system and not the result of personal failures. They understood that discussion of material inequality without the corresponding affirmation of social mobility made America look like those old, class-bound societies of Europe. For conservatives of the 1930s and 1940s (heirs to nineteenth-century liberalism), faith in opportunity cemented the national union; without it, the specter of division, chaos, or collectivism loomed” (p. 246).

Much of the debate that played out with Harold Rugg as a target for conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s sounds remarkably liked early twenty-first century conservative/liberal fights over the economy and opportunity. Rugg’s efforts to refocus children on the need for a remaking of American society essentially brought his downfall. The rise of a new historical consensus in the period during and after World War II overturned much of Rugg’s efforts until similar themes were taken up in the new social history of the 1960s. In that context, the desire to incorporate more diverse viewpoints into the history curriculum touched off a renewed debate that has yet to subside.

School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present is a very interesting book, one that is a useful corrective to the lack of historical reflectiveness of culture warriors in our current time. Not everything began with the 1960s.

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3 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present”

  1. Michael Riggs says:

    Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a Unitarian Minister for awhile later a Transcendentalist. He along with Theodore Parker were part of the “Secret Six” who helped fund John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. During the Civil War Higginson was not only a Union officer, he lead one of the first troops of Black soldiers and wrote a book about it after the war. For Higginson (and for me) the war was about slavery.


  2. History is told by the victors, so needs to be rewritten after the cooling down period.


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