Social Education 58(1), 1994, pp. 41-44
National Council for the Social Studies
The study presented in this paper was designed to elicit secondary students' attitudes towards one of the most well-regarded and widely used textbooks used in high schools over the past two decades and to compare and contrast their views with the existing literature. Adult critics have called Daniel Boorstin and Mather Kelley's A History of the United States one of the most well-written and appealing textbooks on the market, although they disagree over whether the authors' biases or political perspectives result in a balanced presentation of the past (Sewall 1988; Gagnon 1988; Davis et al. 1986). Do secondary students find the textbook as clearly written and appealing as do critics? Do they believe the textbook is a balanced account of the past, as some critics contend, or do they find the account biased, which other critics argue? To the extent students' attitudes towards the textbook differ from existing critiques, what implications does this finding have for changing the textbook's contents or design or for altering its use in class so that students' understanding of the subject matter is enhanced?
As part of a larger study conducted during the 1989-90 academic year in which a class of eleventh-grade United States history students worked with a traditional textbook-based history curriculum and a primary source-based history curriculum, seventeen students who remained in the class throughout the year participated in oral interviews at the end of the school year. The seventeen students placed themselves in a non-honors, college-bound curricular track class in a suburban high school in the metropolitan area of a large northeastern city. The placement represented a middle track between an honors and a non-college-bound track.
For homework throughout the school year, students read sections of the 1986 edition of Boorstin and Kelley's A History of the United States. During most of the school year, the classroom teacher either asked students questions about the reading they had done the night before or elaborated upon the information in the textbook. During five two-week intervals interspersed throughout the year, students worked in class with a primary source-based history curriculum and interpreted historical narratives, oral histories, paintings, photographs, songs, or stories created during the period under study. While working with the primary source-based curriculum, students continued to read for homework the pertinent sections of the textbook.
In May 1990, each student participated in one fifty-minute standardized open-ended interview. Students answered thirty questions, many of which asked them to compare their attitudes towards the traditional and the primary-source based history curricula. Six of the questions asked students to discuss their attitudes towards the Boorstin and Kelley book. The six questions were:
1.What do you think you learned about history from using the textbook?
2.Do you enjoy reading the textbook?
3.How would you change the textbook? What advice would you give to the textbook authors to improve the textbook or to your teacher to improve its use in class?
4.Do you believe the textbook? Is this what really happened in United States history?
5.What sense of democracy do you get from your textbook? Do you believe this?
6.Should history textbooks point out the mistakes of government? Does your textbook do this?
I conducted the student interviews, created the primary source history curriculum, and worked with the classroom teacher in presenting the curriculum to the students. I informed each student that the purpose of the interview was to solicit his or her responses to the primary source curriculum and to the traditional curriculum. I assured each student of the confidentiality of their responses (Bogdan and Biklen 1992). All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed.
The data were analyzed by using a cross-case inductive analysis approach (Patton 1990). All students' answers to a common question were grouped together, initial responses were recorded and counted, and emergent themes were identified, coded, and refined as the data were analyzed. In answering question four, for example, all seventeen students initially responded "yes" when asked if they believed the textbook. When elaborating upon their answers, however, three distinct themes emerged that detailed differences or qualifications in students' beliefs. In the discussion below of students' responses to each question, I elaborate upon their differences or qualifications by including illustrative examples of students' statements (Bogdan and Biklen 1992; Patton 1990).
The study has several limitations that may limit making generalizations from its findings. First, the study reveals the attitudes of one group of predominantly white, middle-class, non-honors, college-bound students whose attitudes may not be typical of the attitudes of students of different races or classes or in other tracks. Second, this study represents students' attitudes towards one specific textbook. Although adult critics generally agree it is one of the best available, adolescents' attitudes towards this specific textbook may or may not be representative of their attitudes towards other texts. Third, students' attitudes towards the textbook were shaped by their experiences with the primary source-based history curriculum, and for most students, the textbook came up short. Finally, because I played a role as both a part-time teacher and interviewer, students may have skewed their responses to fit what they imagined I wanted to hear. To ameliorate this possibility, I informed students that I would code and categorize their responses anonymously. In addition, I held the interviews at the end of the year when I had no influence over their final grades.
Results and Discussion
Students' attitudes towards the Boorstin and Kelley textbook were, for the most part, similar to adult critics' attitudes towards the text, but with one important exception. Unlike adult critics, 71 percent of the students considered the textbook to be, at worst, a compendium of facts about the past and, at best, a chronicle of what happened in the past but not an explanation of the causes or consequences of historical change. In addition, students in the study were divided in their judgment of the authors' objectivity in presenting the past. Fifty-three per cent of the students in the study, like some adult critics, noted the conservative political perspective or, as students remarked, the "pro-government" stance of the authors, while another 35 percent believed the authors objectively or accurately presented United States history. These findings are discussed below.
Learning from the Textbook
When students were asked what they had learned about history by reading the textbook, they answered uniformly, as if in one voice: "the facts." All seventeen students said the text contained the facts about the past. When asked what they meant by this, students described two distinct kinds of information. First, all students noted the text contained numerous names or numbers or descriptions of famous figures or of important battles. In general, all students believed they learned "basic information about the past" or "what happened in the past."
Although all students believed the textbook described what had happened in the past, twelve students believed the text told little, if anything, about why events occurred or why they were significant. The students said they came away from their experiences reading the text without an understanding of why historical events or processes occurred. Ten students commented that the textbook contained too many unimportant details about past events. One student expressed a common sentiment in saying, "It [the text] gives you a lot about what happened, but it doesn't really get into why things happened or why anyone should care."
Fifteen of the seventeen students stated the text focused on national political figures and nationally significant political and economic events such as the causes, consequences, and vicissitudes of war. In short, most students commented that the textbook's contents featured nationally prominent people or events. One student summed up the text's content succinctly by stating, "Basically it's about big names, big people, and big power."
Ten students also commented upon the information the text did not detail. In comparing the textbook to the primary sources they interpreted throughout the year, ten students mentioned that the text told little about "the people." When asked what they meant by this, students referred to the text's references to big or national events like wars or presidential elections or the passage of laws, but they believed the text rarely noted the effects of such events on average people or the role of average people in making or shaping national events. The students, like adult critics (Davis et al. 1986; Fitzgerald 1979; Gagnon 1988; Nash 1989), noted or expressed disappointment in the textbook's paucity of information about the roles and contributions of ordinary people in the making of the past.
Enjoyment in Reading the Textbook
All of the students in the study said they did not enjoy reading the textbook, although fifteen students commented they needed to use the textbook to learn basic historical information. Unlike critics who have praised the Boorstin and Kelley textbook for its literary style, the seventeen students alternately described it as boring, hard, or difficult to understand. In comparing the textbook's narrative with reading, viewing, or listening to the primary sources included in the text or studied in class, thirteen of the seventeen students commented they preferred interpreting the primary sources to reading the textbook either because they found the primary sources more interesting or easier to understand and remember.
Suggestions for Improving the Textbook
Three students accepted the textbook as is and offered no suggestions for improvement. The other fourteen students had a variety of suggestions. Fourteen out of the seventeen students believed the language of the text was too difficult for them to read easily and suggested the authors simplify the prose (Davis et al. 1986). Twelve of the fourteen students, like several adult critics (Davis et al. 1986; Sewall 1987, 1988; Tyson-Bernstein and Woodward 1986), recommended the textbook authors eliminate the endless stream of details. These same twelve students suggested the textbook authors improve their explanations of the causes and significance of events.
Thirteen of the fourteen students recommended the authors include additional primary source materials that explored the historical experiences of ordinary people. Six students specifically recommended the textbook include historical narratives of ordinary people. Unlike many adult critics (Kennedy 1990; Sewall 1988; Tyson-Bernstein 1988), students were not distracted or annoyed by the insertion throughout the textbook of paintings, photographs, and other primary sources. Rather, they, like other adult critics (Nash 1991; Sewall 1987; Scott 1991; Tyson-Bernstein 1986), believed learning about the past from primary sources is an educationally beneficial experience.
Objectivity or Believability of the Textbook
All seventeen students initially responded they believed the authors' historical account. When asked to elaborate upon their answers, six students said they unequivocally believed the text objectively presented the past. The students made comments like the text tells "what really happened," or the narrative is "all flat out and straight," or the authors, in telling what happened, "don't really say what's right or wrong." One student stated his belief definitively, "What it says, it says, and no ifs, ands, or buts."
Nine students, like some adult critics (Davis et al. 1986; Fitzgerald 1979; Gagnon 1988; Rigberg 1991), qualified their belief in the textbook's objectivity by commenting on the bias or inevitable perspective-taking stance of the authors. The students remarked that although the authors had attempted to give "both sides," they still detected the authors' one-sided or "pro-government" stance. As one student noted, "I believe it as much as I believe anything. When I read it, I think, 'What's the other side of this?'" A final remark reflected students' general sense that the authors' perspective or personal voice influenced the narrative:
I have to believe the facts but sometimes they present them in a way that America is always right and never makes mistakes. They make it sound like whatever we did was for the right reasons. Sometimes I disagree with this.
Of the nine students who qualified their beliefs in the text's objectivity, three students gave specific examples of the authors' biases. One believed the authors' explanation for American involvement in Vietnam was biased and did not adequately account for the mass protests that arose in response to the war. A second student who said he believed the authors were "pro-government" used the example of the electoral college: "The founding fathers did not completely trust the people and they gave the government more control. This is never criticized in our textbooks. It's never stated this is not a full democracy." A third student, in referring to the text's interpretation of historical figures or events, said she did not like the fact that the author "editorialized" by rendering judgments about people or events. "Show me the decision," she commented,
and I'll decide if it's great or not. For example, the way they dealt with Eisenhower when he sent troops to Vietnam and then promised to take them out but didn't. They [the textbook] said he showed courage. If he said he would withdraw the troops and then didn't, don't tell me it was a great American decision.
The remaining two students who initially stated they believed the textbook later qualified their statements by giving contradictory responses. For example, one student said she believed the text but then went on to say, "It's just written history. It doesn't get into how it really was." Another student said that he believed the text, but the "authors put it together from what other people say. . . . they don't really know what happened because they weren't really there." A third student commented that he believed the textbook "even though it might not be true." He then said, "I figure it's true because it's in the book."
Perception of Government
All students believed the text portrayed a positive view towards American democracy or government. The same six students who unequivocally believed in the text's overall objectivity also unequivocally accepted the textbook's account of the role of American democracy and government. One student underscored her belief by comparing the American system of government to others: "In this country, we can change laws and in some countries you can't."
Eleven students assessed more critically than others the textbook's perspective on government. These students included the nine who answered the fourth question by qualifying their belief in the textbook's overall objectivity as well as the two students who gave contradictory responses. They believed the text was biased and referred to the "pro-government" or "pro-American" or "nationalistic" stance of the authors. One student became quite passionate in expressing her critical view: "They [textbook authors] look at America as great. . . and we're &Mac222;ghting for democracy and we're making the world free for everyone. You can't just rush into little countries and take them over and make them like us."
Authors' Responsibility to Mention Government's Mistakes
All seventeen students unanimously agreed that part of authors' responsibility is to mention the government's mistakes. The six students who had an unqualified belief in the text's overall objectivity and in its presentation of American government and the one student who gave a contradictory answer about the text's objectivity and a critical response about its perspective on government also believed the authors pointed out America's mistakes. One student, an immigrant from Romania, said, "In the United States they do that. They want kids to learn. You can read about Watergate and that was a mistake." Four of the six students mentioned that by including mistakes, the authors enabled people today to learn from mistakes or problems in the past.
Eleven students commented that although they believe a textbook author has a responsibility to mention mistakes, the authors of this text had not done so to the extent the students believed necessary. The students included the nine who questioned the text's perspective on government and its overall objectivity and the two who gave contradictory answers about the text's objectivity. They commented that although the authors made some attempt to point out America's mistakes or problems, they tended to "gloss over" the problems, "glorify" the United States, or present a "nationalist" perspective.
The study on secondary students' attitudes towards the 1986 edition of Boorstin and Kelley's A History of the United States reveals students' attitudes are similar to those of adult critics, with one notable exception. Unlike critics who cite the textbook for its clear analytical style and clearly articulated explanations, 71 percent of the students believed the textbook told little about the causes or consequences of historical change. Rather, they perceived the text as more or less detailed information about what-but not why-things happened in the past. From the study, it is not clear whether the problem lay in the authors' sophistication or subtlety of style, the lack of care or direction students exhibited when reading the textbook, or in some other area. In any case, the fact that college-bound students of various abilities cannot grasp from a clearly written textbook the analytic or explanatory nature of the historical narrative leaves history teachers with the task of instructing students in the interpretive or explanation-seeking nature of history as an academic discipline (Holt 1990; Novick 1988; Ward 1985).
Second, although 71 percent of the students explicitly commented they could not detect the authors' explanations of why events occurred, 53 percent of all students and 60 percent of the students who answered the question did detect the authors' political perspective or "pro-government" stance. Although most students had a rather naive understanding of the historical narrative or text simply as a compilation of facts or chronicle of events, somewhat more than half perceived the authors' political perspective.1 Students' abilities to detect the authors' political perspective or perspective-taking stance provides an avenue for their coming to comprehend the inherently interpretive nature of any history textbook or historical account (Novick 1988, Scott 1989). To the extent a teacher or the textbook itself enables students to grasp the subject's interpretive character and forever-changing content, students' understanding of the discipline is enhanced and the history textbook becomes a resource, rather than the one and only authoritative source.
1 The nine students who commented consistently on the authors' conservative stance were those whose own philosophies or political leanings, as evidenced in class discussions, were more liberal than the rest of the class. Conversely, the six students who consistently commented on the accuracy or objectivity of the historical narrative displayed political perspectives in class that were more closely aligned with the authors'. It is also interesting to note that there was no significant difference between the two groups' academic achievement. Of the six students who believed in the accuracy or objectivity of the authors' account, the distribution of their final grades is as follows: one student received As, two students received Bs, and three students received Cs. Of the nine students who detected the authors' political perspective, the distribution of grades are as follows: two students received As, three students received Bs, three students received Cs, and one student received a D.
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