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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1999

Reviewing a high-school book in American history

America: Pathways to the Present
2000. 1,194 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-435100-2.
Prentice Hall, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.
(Prentice Hall is a part of Pearson Education. Pearson Education
is a part of Pearson PLC, a coorporation based in London.)

This Prentice Hall "History" Text
Is Essentially a Propaganda Tract

John Fonte

In every respect -- in the "big picture" that it paints, the facts that it presents, and the concepts that it teaches -- Prentice Hall's America: Pathways to the Present is unacceptable. Like most of the other American-history books that the major publishers produce for use in public schools, Pathways is essentially a propaganda tract that has been designed to inculcate young students with a particular ideological perspective. In attempting to promote ideological consciousness, Prentice Hall's writers distort and falsify the story of America.

Chapter 1 of Pathways is devoted to the notion that America arose from a blending of Amerindian, West African and European cultures. "In time," the Pathways writers say, "this cultural exchange would form the foundation for a new nation, the United States of America." The writers are repeating a familiar canard that was promoted several years ago in National Standards for United States History, a document produced by a team of left-leaning academics from the University of California at Los Angeles. National Standards for United States History was discredited as soon as it was published [see note 1, below].

What the Pathways writers are teaching is simply false. The American nation was not formed through a "cultural exchange" among people from three continents. Even Marxist historians recognize that the United States -- in language, law, government, philosophy and religion -- is a product of European, mostly British, influences. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the common language that unified America was English. American law was based upon British common law, the overwhelmingly predominant religion was Christianity, the most widely read book was the King James Version of the Holy Bible, the most popular secular author was Shakespeare, and the architecture of public buildings was consistently European.

The myth of blending and "cultural exchange" is repeated, either implicitly or explicitly, in almost all American-history books nowadays. Why? Because these books are dominated by "multiculturalism" -- a body of sociopolitical ideology that gives supreme importance to groups and to stereotypes, rather than to individuals or to the actions and achievements of real persons[note 2]. This ideology has been promoted by many academics. One such advocate is Joyce Appleby, who teaches at UCLA and is a close associate of the team that produced National Standards for United States History. Writing in the September 1992 issue of The Journal of American History, Appleby declared that the traditional narrative of American history, which emphasizes individuals and their accomplishments, impairs "our capacity to respond to the multicultural agenda."

Multicultural ideology and the multicultural agenda are pervasive throughout Pathways. The Prentice Hall writers reinterpret American history as a power struggle among racial and ethnic groups, and between men and women, much as Marxist historians interpret American history as a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In fact, the multicultural perspective closely resembles the Marxist perspective because it posits a struggle between two types of groups: the "oppressed" (such as Amerindians, blacks, certain other racial or ethnic groups, and women) and the "oppressors" (Europeans, Christians, and white males in particular). The oppressed groups are cast as victims of the oppressor groups and are portrayed in positive terms, while the alleged victimizers receive no such benefit and often are denigrated.

For some examples of how this works, look at how Prentice Hall's writers handle the topic of the Atlantic slave trade:

The writers' omissions are as bad as their falsehoods. They do not say that slavery had been universal throughout human history and that it continues today in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Nor do they say how the Atlantic slave trade ended: It was suppressed in the 19th century, largely by Britain's Royal Navy, because the horrors of slavery were offensive to the Western world's Christian religious sensibilities. This signal event does not rate even one sentence in Pathways.

In describing the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, the Pathways writers report that Cortés had support from some Amerindians (who first are called "Native Americans," then are called "Mexicans"). The writers tell us that these people "had been conquered by the Aztecs and now hated their rulers," but the writers don't tell us why. They don't disclose that the Aztecs practiced large-scale human sacrifice, obtaining most of their victims from societies that they had subjugated. This terrified other Indians and horrified the Spaniards.

Throughout the text, Indians are romanticized. That Indians indulged in human sacrifice, cannibalism or ritual torture is never acknowledged. When violence by Indians is mentioned, the writers typically resort to euphemistic language. On page 46, for example, they say that Anne Hutchinson and her family "were killed, victims in a war between Europeans and Indians" -- instead of clearly stating that Hutchinson and her family were killed by Indians, in what today would be called a terrorist raid. The writers' euphemism is analogous to saying that in 1939, many Polish civilians were victims in a war between Germany and Poland -- instead of saying outright that the Nazis killed Poles.

The review exercises in Pathways are often used to score ideological points. Thus, on page 105, students must undertake the task of "Recognizing Bias" in the Declaration of Independence by answering these questions: "What reference do you see to Native Americans? What attitudes toward Native Americans does this express?" Here we have an example of presentism -- the practice of looking at the past, and judging the people of the past, in terms of today's social and political orthodoxies. The Pathways writers apparently think that 18th-century Americans should have anticipated today's multicultural ideology and should have displayed politically correct sensitivity toward their Indian enemies [note 5].

Pathways repeatedly distorts American history by drawing false dichotomies between "good" groups and "bad" groups, and it consistently uses tendentious prose to impugn the motives of American leaders. On page 713, for example, in an end-of-chapter review:

World War II propaganda influenced the way many Americans viewed the Japanese. List two reasons that [sic] stereotypes created by propaganda may have affected the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

The implications conveyed by those two sentences are libelous. The writers suggest that American perceptions of the Japanese militarists were shaped not by real events -- such as the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March or other Japanese atrocities -- but by American "propaganda." They further suggest that President Truman used the atomic bomb not to save lives and to end the war but to satisfy prevalent American attitudes toward Japanese "stereotypes." And they imply, without evidence, that America would not have used the atomic bomb against Europeans. The truth of the matter is that our nation's leaders, during the development of the atomic bomb, had the Nazi enemy in mind.

Besides being riddled with factual and conceptual errors, from cover to cover, Pathways fails to analyze many concepts that are crucial to understanding American liberal democracy and its role in the world. There is no elucidation of the significant philosophical differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. There is no exploration of how the Founding Fathers' concept of human nature shaped the American political system. There is no explanation of how the Federalist Papers (described by Thomas Jefferson as "the best commentary on the principles of government ever written") exerted worldwide influence on democratic political thought -- and the Federalist Papers are not even mentioned in the book's glossary of "key terms."

During most of the 20th century the dominant political reality, throughout the world, was the specter of totalitarianism. After tremendous sacrifices and horrifying losses of life, the major totalitarian systems (German National Socialism and Soviet Communism) were defeated, in no small part because of America's global leadership and resolve. In Pathways, however, the concept of totalitarianism is relegated to a few meager paragraphs, and its significance in the history of the 20th century is completely missed. The origins of the Cold War are described chiefly in a context of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union (which had "conflicting goals"), rather than a context of Soviet expansionism.

A passage titled "The Cold War at Home" generally ignores the evidence of widespread espionage and treason within the United States, even though such evidence has now been available, in the form of Soviet documents, for almost a decade. The Rosenbergs are described as "a married couple who held radical views," not as Stalinists and spies. For any serious scholar of Cold War espionage, there is no doubt that both Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss were spies for the Soviet Union. But the Pathways writers obfuscate the facts by telling students that records released in the early 1990s "seemed to indicate" that those two were guilty.

The writers teach that both the Harding and the Coolidge administrations embraced "isolationist policies" (page 602). The writers are wrong. Under Harding, the United States organized the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922 -- which, in the words of the historian Walter A. McDougall, resulted in "the most severe armaments reduction in history." Harding also successfully marshalled support for an Open Door policy toward China, and he helped to stabilize the German economy in the early 1920s. Under Coolidge, the United States joined France in sponsoring the Kellogg-Briand Pact, by which nations agreed to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy. That may have been naive, but it clearly was not "isolationist."

Fake "Diversity"

When the eminent historian John Patrick Diggins reviewed Glencoe's book The American Journey for The Textbook Letter, he commented: "In the chapter on World War 2, we read less about the heroic D-Day invasion or about the strategic opening of a second front -- with its global military and diplomatic implications -- than about the ways in which women and minorities of every kind contributed to the war effort" [note 6]. Pathways adopts the same distorted perspective, subordinating GI Joe to Rosie the Riveter. The distortion is both qualitative and quantitative. There are only 20 pages about America's participation in World War 2 itself -- but there are 26 pages about the home front, with emphasis on discrimination against women and racial minorities.

Even the material about the war itself is rife with distortion and misinformation. On page 693, under the headline "Diversity in the Armed Forces," we read that "Americans from all ethnic and racial backgrounds fought during World War II." But we soon learn that the phrase "Americans from all ethnic and racial backgrounds" has a highly restrictive, highly eccentric meaning: The text mentions only Mexican Americans, Amerindians, Japanese Americans, and American blacks -- no one else. The student never learns that the American forces who fought in World War 2 included men of Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, English, Irish, Scotch-Irish, German, Armenian, Chinese, Spanish, Lebanese, Basque, Filipino, Finnish or Swedish ancestry.

Apparently, the real diversity of America's fighting men has never registered with Prentice Hall's textbook-writers.

Indeed, what passes for military history in Pathways is simply another device for promoting the writers' ideological agenda. A comparison between two photographs is particularly revealing:

On page 737, while purporting to discuss women in today's work force, the writers simply repeat propaganda generated by pressure groups. "Although women have made strides toward greater economic equality," the writers say, "they still experience wage discrimination." We are supposed to believe this because in 1996, "women's pay averaged only about 71 percent of men's earnings" and "Even female college graduates earn roughly 16 percent less than their male peers." Anyone who has taken a freshmen economics course should know that this line of argument is totally specious. It is based on bogus comparisons which ignore differences in educational attainment, work experience, and other measurable factors, and which also ignore women's and men's personal choices.

Moreover, the Pathways writers have presented "information" that is false. One of the foremost American experts on women's pay -- the economist June O'Neill, who formerly directed the Congressional Budget Office -- has told us this: If analysts compare men and women who are "similar in their experience and life situations," there is practically no difference between the men's pay and the women's. Data from The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth have shown that among people aged 27 to 33 who have never had a child, women's earnings approach 98 percent of men's. And a 1996 study by the Independent Women's Forum showed that women working in college or university administration, in engineering, or in economics earn as much as (and sometimes more than) men in the same fields. All of this evidence, of course, is readily available to anyone with minimal research skills.

Several decades ago the prominent author Tom Wolfe coined the term "radical chic" in describing how wealthy New Yorkers fawned over Black Panther leaders in the salons of Manhattan's Upper West side. The Pathways writers are still fawning. They acknowledge that the Black Panthers had some "violent encounters with police," but they convey the impression that the Panthers were known chiefly as activists who set up public-service operations, "such as day care centers and free breakfast programs," and who "wanted African Americans to lead their own communities." The truth is that the Panthers were involved in drug-dealing, extortion, arson, racketeering and assassination. They were not idealists who merely "wanted African Americans to lead their own communities." Once again, the Pathways writers have distorted the facts.

What Is to Be Done?

Despite all its failings, Pathways seems to be one of today's better high-school books in American history, if only because it goes deeper than most books go in describing the American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, and religious movements in American life. In that sense, Pathways merits a grade of D, while books such as Glencoe's American Odyssey, Holt's Boyer's The American Nation and West Publishing's United States History: In the Course of Human Events each deserve an unequivocal F.

In referring to Prentice Hall's deeply flawed product as one of the "better" books now on the market, I hope to underscore the imperative to improve our history books, for the sake of America's students and for the sake of our future as a free people.

Reformers talk continuously about "school choice." We also need textbook choice. Right now, teachers and school boards who must adopt American-history textbooks have little opportunity to make any meaningful choices. They can only pick from a flock of closely similar books -- exemplified by Pathways -- that conform to the same ideology and dispense the same propaganda. This condition must be changed.

Information issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has shown us that high-school instruction in American history is textbook-based and textbook-driven. That is to say, most teachers rely upon textbooks to furnish both the factual material and the organizing concepts that students learn in the classroom. The single most important thing that we can do to reform history education, therefore, is to promote the creation of good textbooks -- books that will be free of ideological baggage and will present real history, instead of using falsified history as a device for preaching political doctrines and social orthodoxies.

We are told that textbook-publishers respond to market forces. Let us test this theory. Historians such as Stephen Ambrose and David McCulloch are today writing trenchant books of history and biography, free of ideological claptrap, that are received with great enthusiasm by the American public. Surely, Americans who today are enjoying good history books written for adults will also want their school districts to use good history books written for young students. If these Americans will give attention to what is going on in their schools, and if they will rally against the use of propaganda tracts like Pathways, then schoolbook companies -- according to the theory -- should respond by developing new, legitimate history books as alternatives to their politically correct models.

Such books, no doubt, would be attacked by the education establishment, especially by the academics who teach in schools of education and who have led the conversion of history education into multicultural indoctrination. I can hear them now, claiming that any attempt to reform the teaching of history means a return to the old days when textbooks whitewashed America's past while ignoring racial minorities and women. That, however, is not what I am suggesting. We needn't and shouldn't return to the books of the 1950s, and we should enlist first-rate scholars to examine the new books and ensure that such regression doesn't occur. I have in mind such scholars as Stephen Ambrose and David McCulloch, of course, as well as Bernard Bailyn, John Patrick Diggins, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Paul Gagnon, Eugene Genovese, Harvey Klehr, Alan Charles Kors, Forrest McDonald, Marc Trachtenberg, Walter McDougall and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. These people disagree about various historical issues, and they could not be expected to develop any sort of seamless "consensus," but they could provide the reality checks that textbook-writers need.

Let us stop tolerating the use of Pathways and other heavily biased books in our public schools, and let us demand the creation of solid books that can help America to regain its historical voice.

Editor's notes

  1. See The Textbook Letter for November-December 1994 (page 1) and January-February 1995 (page 11). See also the reviews of West Publishing's United States History: In the Course of Human Events in The Textbook Letter for January-February 1997. National Standards for United States History became the focus of a scandal that undermined the entire national-standards program. That program collapsed in 1995 and was formally dismantled in 1996. There are no national standards in any subject, but some schoolbook companies make false or misleading promotional claims which create the impression that "national standards" exist. See, for example, the review of Glencoe World Geography in The Textbook Letter for January-February 1998. [return to text]

  2. For a description of this ideology and its system of stereotypes, see the article "An Insightful Examination of Perverted Schoolbooks," which begins on page 3 of this issue. [return to text]

  3. See "Africa: The Hidden History," by K. Anthony Appiah, in The New York Review of Books for 17 December 1998. [return to text]

  4. Victimists work hard to conceal the fact that the West African slave trade was run by Africans, and they continually promote the fiction that Africans were captured and enslaved by Europeans. See Sheldon M. Stern's two articles in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1998, as well as his article in the present issue. [return to text]

  5. The Declaration's one reference to Indians occurs in its enumeration of grievances against the king of Great Britain: "He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions." [return to text]

  6. See "This 'History' Text Is a Study in Sycophantic Salesmanship" in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1998. [return to text]


John Fonte is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute (in Washington, DC) and the director of the Institute's Center for American Common Culture. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago, has taught history at the college and secondary-school levels, and has served as a consultant to the Virginia Department of Education, the Texas Education Agency, the California Academic Standards Commission, and the American Federation of Teachers. He writes often about history, about citizenship, and about civic education, and his articles have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, SOCIETY, Boston University's Journal of Education and Commentary, among other publications.

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