Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Whitewashed Textbooks Alter American History

How baby boomers remember the sixties often determines how they view the world today. If they’re nostalgic over the fortieth anniversary of the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco’s Haight/Ashbury district and believe that changes in American culture resulting from the sixties have been largely positive, they probably consider themselves liberal and vote Democrat. If they have a generally negative view of those changes, they probably consider themselves conservative and vote Republican. When teaching the sixties in my 20th-century US History course, I’ve often started with this observation.

In a word-association exercise, I asked students to say the first thing to come into their minds when I said: “The Sixties.” The usual answer was, “hippies.” I then instructed them to look up hippies in the index of their textbooks and they would discover that the word wasn’t there. The closest thing to what most people understand “hippies” to have been was a passage about the “counterculture” that went as follows:
Many young Americans became involved in the counterculture movement. Like the Beat Generation of the 1950s, members of the counterculture rejected traditional customs and ideas. Young people protested against the lifestyle of their parents by trying to be different. They developed their own lifestyle. They liked to wear torn, faded jeans and simple work clothes. Women wore miniskirts. Men often wore beards and let their hair grow long. Many listened to new forms of rock music. Some experimented with illegal drugs. Members of the counterculture adopted new attitudes and values. They criticized competition and the drive for personal success. They questioned some aspects of traditional family life.

Talk about soft-soaping history. The passage was so vague it was hard to know where to start critical analysis. First I asked students if they thought the textbook’s authors were describing hippies. They did. Then I asked them to read the passage over again and make a judgment about whether it was a positive depiction of hippies, a negative depiction, or a neutral one.

Most thought it was negative or neutral - negative because it said hippies used drugs. I pointed out that the passage actually read: “Some experimented with illegal drugs,” and I asked them how many times a person who “experimented” with drugs would actually take them. Almost invariably they answered, “Once or twice.”

Then I asked them if they thought their textbook’s authors were trying to give students the impression that only a few hippies used drugs, and then only once or twice.

At this, most students paused, thought about the question, and then suggested that most hippies used a lot of drugs quite frequently over a long period. I told them their assessment would agree with what I remembered having grown up at that time, and that most other people my age would also agree. I suggested that the textbook’s authors were purposely playing down hippie or “counterculture” drug use by claiming that “Some experimented with illegal drugs” when in fact, counterculture drug use was widespread, that it destroyed countless lives, and it has gotten so bad in the forty years since that all of us personally know people who are ruining their lives with illegal drugs today.

I could have taught for a month critically analyzing the rest of that passage on sixties “counterculture” but there wasn’t time. For instance: “[The counterculture] criticized competition and the drive for personal success.” Why? [The counterculture] questioned some aspects of traditional family life.” Talk about understatement. What aspects? Why? How have American families fared under counterculture influence? “They developed their own lifestyle.” What lifestyle? How has that lifestyle played out over the last forty years? Has it been good or bad? Why?

Sure, a lot of the music was good, but what about all the rest?

Our textbook, Prentice Hall’s The American Nation 2002 is exceedingly dull - just like every other US History text available for sale when I had to purchase a new set five years ago. It tries so hard to be inoffensive and has such a strong liberal bias that it can take heroic, tragic, appalling and inspiring stories from our nation’s past and make them boring. The only good thing about the book is that my teaching can sometimes appear interesting in contrast. It makes a great foil.

The textbook industry is very lucrative. Dull but very expensive history texts are specially tailored to an overwhelmingly liberal corps of teachers who think the sixties were wonderful. Teachers’ unions are the Democratic Party’s biggest constituency. This teacher an anomaly and an anachronism, but I’ll be back next year.

7 comments:

Garnet said...

*Garnet reads article*

"Hmm..." she muses, "Wonder how a fair and balanced '12 sentence summary of the 60s counterculture' would read?" *shudders*

"Well..." she says upon finishing, "Not all things to come out of the sixties were bad... Women's Lib was definitely a positive... Glad they can't turn back the clock on that..."

*fingers in ears, waits for explosion*

Anonymous said...

Talk about a bias look at history. You analysis makes the liberal democrats look great. Every critisism you make concerns a very small percentage of what really happened. All this says is that you lived in a rough neighborhood, and had to be rough in return to survive. This is classic bias. You are a classic bigot.

Tom McLaughlin said...

A fair and balanced summary would illustrate the negative as well as the few positive aspects of the sixties. A point/counterpoint approach would be effective, but the "point" would offend one side and the "counterpoint" another. Textbooks scrupulously avoid offending and render history bland. That's the point.

Women's lib was a positive in that sexual discrimination was outlawed, but what has been the numero uno issue for feminists since the sixties? Abortion. Too controversial for textbooks, but it's the one issue that drives Supreme Court nominations/confirmations - one third of our tripartate government - and completely ignored by the text.

It's not possible to sum up the sixties counterculture in 12 sentences. The feeble attempt by the text to do so doesn't engage students; it puts them to sleep.

Anonymous:
A bigot is someone who wins an argument with a liberal.

Geoff Hurst said...

Go invade Poland, Loser

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thank you so much for the thoughtful feedback Geoff.

DAve said...

Well I thought your analysis and post were insightful and delightful. You sure seem though to have a lot of morons reading and commenting here.
"Go invade Poland"
What is this, the Onion???
And I may be one too but I still thought both the post and the responses to comments made were very nice.
Something about Anonymous's comment makes me think that he/she wasn't actually there/aware for the 60's and we're just being lectured about something they were taught-

"The dog barks but the caravan moves on..."
Nothing like trying to teach in the liberal wasteland of public schooling- stay strong buddy- I loved that "I'll be back next year"-
haha my captcha is "cletis"

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dave.

Been thinking about retirement and I can go anytime. If there are any other anachronisms like myself out there, I haven't met them. I don't have input into hiring, so we'll just have to accept whomever comes.

There's hope though. Every year at CPAC, I meet hundreds of very bright and wonderful young people who are leading their generation in a different direction. It will eventually be cool to be conservative again. The lefties now dominating faculties everywhere in education are awfully boring. It can't last.

It'll take a while, but the pendulum will swing back.