Professor Calls For Balance In Textbooks

Correction March 24, 2010

In reference to race riots in Tulsa, Okla., we incorrectly stated that they were in 1923. They were in 1921.

Conservatives on the Texas school board argue that changes they've proposed to the social studies curriculum will provide "balance" to a "liberal paradigm." Jonathan Zimmerman says conservatives are correct — many history books lean left. So he proposes a middle ground.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Earlier this week, we talked about the changes made to the social studies curriculum by the Texas school board. One board member argued that current standards are rife with leftist political periods and events. In today's Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Zimmerman writes that most of his fellow liberals won't admit that he's right. So let's revisit the textbook discussion. If you teach social studies, do your textbooks tilt?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of history and education at New York University, author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," and joins us today from Audio Post in Philadelphia. Nice to have you with us.

Professor JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN (History and Education, New York University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what in the textbooks lead you to believe the conservatives in Texas are right, that their textbooks tilt left?

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Well, they're right insofar as the textbooks, the narrative, is a small-P progressive one. It's a story of change over time and indeed, improvement over time. There have been lots of misdeeds, and the textbooks are clear about that. We enslaved Africans and displaced Native-Americans and oppressed women.

But the story the textbooks tell is that different groups put pressure on the state, that is, the government, to change our laws and institutions and bring us ever closer to our founding promise. We haven't gotten there yet, but we're getting better.

CONAN: All right.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: I think that's a liberal narrative.

CONAN: In the great national drama, you wrote, our leaders are supposed to harness the power of government to the principle of social justice, and when they don't, we take them to task. So that belief in the power of government as a force of good.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. And also of the social protests, that's the engine behind the change, right? So Frederick Douglass and Jane Addams and Martin Luther King, Jr., etc., they're heroes of these texts because they put pressure on our institutions to change, to progress.

CONAN: And that is a liberal view - and one, you say, you agree with.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. Yes. Indeed. I mean, it's one I learned as a child, and it's one that I still believe.

CONAN: And have you checked out textbooks lately? Because when we did the show earlier this week, we got calls from some teachers in some parts of the country who said when they were presented with the possibility of textbooks to buy, all the ones they saw had been published in Texas and reflected views like the country was founded on Christian principles.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think that there are some books that say that. Obviously, the books themselves vary. Texas, as I'm sure your listeners realize, has an inordinate effect on the process because they have statewide adoption, and they have so many people. But I do think that the majority of the textbooks tell what I call a small-P progressive story. The idea of the United States as, quote, a Christian nation, that would appear in a minority of textbooks -indeed, probably mostly in textbooks that are published for Christian academies.

CONAN: So to your knowledge, those are not available to public schools, or not used in public schools? Because that's not what teachers told us on the program.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: I mean, I one of the difficulties in studying American education, it's so irreducibly diverse. There are 15,000 different school districts, and so I'm always loath to generalize. But I don't think that many public schools have textbooks that say directly that the United States is a Christian nation in the way that many people on the Texas school board, by the way, want the textbooks to say. There are plenty of people who want that, but I don't think that a large number of public school textbooks say that yet.

CONAN: And by the way, if you weren't with us when we talked about this, the vote last week was one part of a long process, and it's as yet unclear what's actually going to emerge in the textbooks that reflect the new curriculum, whatever that new curriculum may be, because it may be changed as well before the decision date on the textbooks. In any case, what you argue in this piece is that since, you know, historians by their nature are going to be presenting arguments and have an agenda, why not present more than one?

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. You know, I think that one of the things that really frustrates me as a historian is that our kids aren't exposed to what historians actually do. We are not perfect encapsulators of the past because we didn't live in the past. What we do, through the best of our ability, is to try to reconstruct the past, but we do that imperfectly. And most of all, we disagree with each other in the process of doing it. That's what I find so exciting about history - is that it's a series of question marks.

Unfortunately, I think, it's rarely presented that way in the classroom, so we have very fervent debates amongst ourselves as a society about what the history books should do and say. We're having one right now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: But unfortunately, I think that debate rarely enters into the classroom. It's as if we don't want the kids to know. It's impolite, when the kids are in the room, to let them in on the great secret, which is that we don't actually know what happened.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University, author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and in Memory." So history teachers, social study teachers, do your textbooks tilt? Give us a call: 800-989-255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Tracy(ph), and Tracy's on the line from Oklahoma City.

TRACY (Caller): Hi, Neal. I nearly choked on my lunch when you said what the subject was going to be today. I'm a U.S. history teacher. I'm an Oklahoma history teacher. Oklahoma is near Texas. And the new textbooks that they come out now have - leave out a lot of the other side of the history.

For example, in U.S. history, it's the same way as when I was growing up. There's no mention of Emmett Till, Malcolm X, civil rights - they give a sanitized version of civil rights. As far as Oklahoma history goes, it leaves out the Tulsa race riots, which happened in 1920, '21...

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were in 1921.

CONAN: '23, I think, yeah.

TRACY: ...and theyre still the worst race riots in the country. The kids didn't know anything about this. The land runs, they're referred to as, you know, the great land runs. No mention of who lived here before, no mention who was kicked off. Andrew Jackson, Louisiana Purchase, there's no other side to that.

And so, my mission when I teach class, I'm not conservative or liberal, but I think that they deserve to know the other side of history, and I think it's still the majority and the winners who write history. And it's kind of my personal mission to let them - I've learned a lot in teaching that I didn't know, because I didn't - my Oklahoma history and U.S. history was much more sanitized even back then.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TRACY: But it still is very sanitized, and they don't know all the stuff, and they're eager to learn the other side. And so...

CONAN: Do they go to the Internet to look stuff up, too?

TRACY: Yeah, they do. They do. In fact, when we were discussing Emmett Till, somebody had an iPhone, and we got a picture of him at his funeral. We went back - we were - actually, we were talking about the civil rights era, and then we had to go back to - we - in the discussion, we went back to Reconstruction because you can't just take one little bit of history. And all of that history, in this year's history book, is left out.

And it just mentions a little bit about slavery. It doesn't really - it's just the same thing. I think with history, if you go visit a plantation, like I have -I visit historical sites - the plantation told the white point of view, and then it had a shack out back; this was in Tennessee.

CONAN: Right.

TRACY: And it had a shack out back where the slaves lived. And they're - the tour didn't go back there. And so, I walked back there, and it's just kind of rundown. And it should be half the part of the tour, I think, so...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right, Tracy...

TRACY: ...I just think - I think your guest - I want to get - I want to read his article but liberal or conservative, I think he's way off base, effectively.

CONAN: All right. Well, there's a link to his article on our Web site, so just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And thanks very much for the call. And, Jonathan Zimmerman, I'm just wondering whether this isn't a phenomenon of - it depends on where you are. I mean, those liberal textbooks might be on the coasts and maybe not in the middle too much.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. Again, you know, U.S. education is a - irreducibly local thing. It varies across not just time but obviously, space. First of all, more power to Tracy for doing what she's doing. One of the things I'm uncomfortable about in a discussion like this, focusing on textbooks, is of course, it leaves out the most important factor, who are the teachers themselves.

CONAN: Right.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: And none of us should assume that because something appears in a textbook, liberal or conservative, that that's what's being communicated or the only thing that's being communicated. But I think even within Tracy's narrative, you do see a kind of progressive narrative. You'll note that she said that when she was a child, her textbooks were, quote, even more sanitized, unquote, than they are now.

No doubt the Oklahoma textbooks tell a different story than one, say, in New York or California. But unlike, say, textbooks 50 or 100 years ago, they don't simply ignore the African-Americans, or as happened everywhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, demean and ridicule them as less than human. They are inaccurate and imperfect in the ways that the caller describes, but they have changed. And indeed, the story I'm telling right now, ironically, is a progressive story about the development of progressive textbooks.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from Oakland.

KEVIN (Caller): Oh, thank you. Yes, I was a teacher of political science for many years. I'm retired now. And I believe it is incumbent upon the teacher to sort of square the record. And so, for instance, we bring up facts like John Adams' attempt to outlaw, essentially, outlaw his political opponents opinions by making them illegal and, you know, to jail them.

CONAN: The Alien and Sedition Acts.

KEVIN: That's correct. And on the issues like labor, I think, need to be covered in greater depth than most textbooks will deal with because labor has - and labor rights, individual rights, you know, basic - the basic things that take -we take for granted, things like the eight-hour day.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: Things like...

CONAN: And you're saying...

KEVIN: ...I'm talking about child labor.

CONAN: Excuse me, Kevin, are you saying it's the teacher's responsibility no matter what the textbook is?

KEVIN: I believe it is, because no matter - because you cannot fit the whole history of this country into one textbook - or even two textbooks.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: And you have to bring your own perspective, to some degree, to this whole issue...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: ...to enrich the students' perspective. And I have to emphasize that perspective is very important because if you never knew that employers fought tooth and nail to keep the eight-hour day from...

CONAN: Being enacted, yes.

KEVIN: That's correct - then you wouldn't understand what we're up against today. Why are we having difficulties today?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right...

KEVIN: ...labor in trouble in some ways today.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking about the textbooks, social studies and history projects, and political science, as he just mentioned. Do they tilt? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Keith(ph), and Keith with us from Ann Arbor.

KEITH (Caller): Hey, Neal, longtime listener, first-time caller, love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

KEITH: Listen, I just want to offer a different perspective. First of all, I'm a social studies teacher for 20 years, mostly world history, some U.S. history. I think these textbooks are, if anything, they hue the kind of middle-of-the-road approach, and they're very superficial. Sometimes, I wish the books were more liberal or more conservative, or both. It might elicit more discussion.

But the comment I really wanted to make is that these kids don't read the textbook. Even if you force them to in class, with some sort of activity, they come - hunt and peck. I've just grown increasingly surprised at all the hand-wringing over textbooks and all the money that's put into them. And my wifes a college professor. Shes seen the same thing. We're...

CONAN: When there are tests, aren't they tested on what they learned from the textbook?

KEITH: No, they aren't. And if I give them reading quizzes, where they fail the reading quizzes because they haven't read, then they get low grades. And then, of course, that's all the teacher's fault. And so you have to end up -it's kind of...

CONAN: We're back to the discussion of labor now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: Well, I'm caught between a rock and a hard place, you know. If the kids don't do well in my class, the dominant attitude today is it's my fault. If they don't read, even if I attempt to hold them accountable, it's my fault. I just think all this hand-wringing over textbook reading - and I've seen it at the college level, too - I've taught some at the college level - they do not read the textbooks.

So in a way, it's all this hand-wringing over this kind of, you know, the textbooks and what do the textbooks include? And the people who really care are these school boards and maybe people like ourselves, who are participating in this conversation. But for the kids, these textbooks, they just don't read them.

CONAN: All right, Keith, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And we wish you better luck.

KEITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And it's interesting, one of your suggestions, Jonathan Zimmerman, you point out that people are passionately interested in this, indeed, that on the best-seller list recently are two books of American history with diametrically opposite opinions.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: That's right. Yeah, you have Howard Zinns book People's History of the United States, which of course, he wrote many years ago. But after he passed away in January, it inured a spike in popularity. And then Glenn Beck, of all people, pumped the book called "A Patriot's History of the United States," which was in some ways a retort to Zinn. And that, too, entered the New York Times best-seller list. So they're both on the list, at numbers 12 and 15, respectively.

And I have two adolescent kids and I would much rather, in their history class, that the textbooks be both A People's History and A Patriot's History than any single textbook, because I think that if they - that is, my children and others - were forced to compare these interpretations, I think theyd get a better idea of what history actually is and does.

Think about the way that we teach, say, math or science.Even the worst math teacher, the worst math teacher on the earth presents a puzzle, some kind of equation. You couldn't teach math without a puzzle, even if you wanted to. Of course, history is a puzzle as well, and yet we don't let the kids in on that secret, typically. And I think...

CONAN: The difference is that in math, most everybody agrees that two and two equals four.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: That's true. I think people more conversant with math would say that there's a lot of disagreement about how we get to those answers and ultimately, what the answers mean. But, yes, there is a correct answer. And in history, often there isn't.

CONAN: Hmm. Nor is there often time. This email we'll finish with, from Doug(ph) in Kensbury(ph) Port in Massachusetts. When I was in high school in the '80s, U.S. history only had time to get up to World War II and then it was summer. I learned all about our Founding Fathers and our heroic actions in World War II, then learned nothing about the Middle East and relevant economic principles, like the U.S. invention of planned obsolescence, until I got to college. I'm floored to hear from my niece and nephew this has not changed one iota, and have come to question how much of this is a deliberate avoidance of political nuance, and not simply a calendar issue. Anyway, thank you for that comment, Doug. And thank you, Jonathan Zimmerman, for your time today.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red School House in History and in Memory." His op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles Times. And you can find a link to it on our Web site, at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is NPR News.

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