Logo

This article was published in the "Editor's File" in
The Textbook Letter, November-December 1999.

Good Stuff for History Teachers

William J. Bennetta

What is history? What does the term history mean? Today's dictionaries offer two principal definitions: They tell us that the word history is the name of an intellectual discipline, and that history also can denote an intellectual construct produced by practitioners of that discipline. In Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary, for example, we see that history is the name of "a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events," and that history also can mean "a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or an institution) often including an explanation of their causes." Other dictionaries offer definitions that are closely similar to, or identical with, the ones in Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate.

While those definitions embody our generally accepted ideas of what history means, they seldom are reflected in the "history" that American students find in schoolbooks. Schoolbook history has little to do with any intellectual endeavor. Schoolbook history isn't real history, and it isn't written by historians. It is invented by people who deliberately conflate facts with myths and politically correct fabrications, who routinely dwell on trifles while ignoring significant events and phenomena, who routinely evade the business of explaining events in terms of causes and effects, and who resolutely strive to keep students from understanding what real history is or how real history is constructed.

Students can read a typical high-school "history" book from cover to cover without learning that real history emerges from the examination of evidence and the exercise of reason. Students can read a typical book from cover to cover without learning that the construction of real history involves a lot of detective work -- e.g., the appraisal of claims and counterclaims, the separation of supportable assertions from superstitions and folklore, the scrutinizing of documents and other kinds of evidence, the detection of counterfeit documents and artifacts, the resolution of conflicting interpretations of evidence, the rejection of unjustified inferences, and the demolition of unwarranted generalizations.

Schoolbooks don't tell about such things because schoolbook-writers have a palpable interest in keeping students from learning about real history, about how real history is constructed, and about the investigative methods and intellectual standards employed by historians. Likewise and for the same reason, the writers conceal the sources and origins of the "facts" that they present in their own books, lest bright students recognize that many of those "facts" aren't supported by evidence.

Schoolbooks, then, give no help to teachers who want to show their students what real history is and how real historians work, so teachers must turn to legitimate publications for information about these matters. Let me recommend two publications that seem particularly useful.

Pickett's Charge in History and Memory, by Carol Reardon,
issued in 1997 by the University of North Carolina Press

On 3 July 1863, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, two Confederate columns assaulted a Union force that held Cemetery Ridge. One of the columns was commanded by Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, the other by Gen. George E. Pickett. Their assault, now known as Pickett's Charge, is surely the most famous tactical engagement of the Civil War -- yet we know little about it. How many men were there in the attacking force? We don't know. What formation did the Confederates employ? We don't know.

The Confederates began their attack on Cemetery Ridge with a cannonade, before their infantry advanced -- yet we don't know how many guns were involved or how long the cannonade lasted. And as Carol Reardon tells us in her fine little book Pickett's Charge in History and Memory, we cannot depend upon primary sources to establish the answers. There are plenty of primary accounts of the Confederate attack, but they often are hopelessly contradictory: A Confederate officer of artillery recalled that the cannonade had continued for thirty minutes; but a Union colonel remembered being under bombardment for four hours -- and a Union private averred that the Confederates had fired for an hour and a half.

We can't say which of those recollections (if any) was accurate, but we know that many primary accounts of the fighting at Gettysburg were false. In various cases, soldiers described maneuvers and events that -- because of the terrain of the battlefield -- were hidden from their eyes. Their descriptions were, at best, syntheses of hearsay. At worst, they were exercises in imagination.

Carol Reardon is a military historian and a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University. In Pickett's Charge in History and Memory she shows that popular impressions of Pickett's Charge are based chiefly on myths and legends, rather than on historical evidence, and she tells how some of those myths and legends arose and evolved. As she does so, she elucidates some of the difficulties involved in constructing military history, and she offers valuable lessons about primary sources. Teachers and students who absorb those lessons will never make the mistake of imagining, as so many people do, that primary accounts of historical events must be taken as truth.

"Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out of Vietnam?" -- an article by
Sheldon M. Stern in American Heritage for September 1999

Sheldon M. Stern is the staff historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston, and the director of the Library's American History Project for High School Students. He begins his three-page article "Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out of Vietnam?" by telling us that he spends a great deal of his time in high-school classrooms, teaching about how historians use evidence. Then he writes:

Most students, of course, have limited experience with historical evidence. They are eager to express opinions about history but, asked to back them up, often cite "facts" from television, films, or the Internet. They get exasperated when I contest the validity of such sources and demand conventional written evidence. But they tend to be receptive when I tell them of the sad lesson that all historians must learn: Any evidence can be problematic. And I illustrate the point with a personal example.

The example is Stern's own effort to determine the meaning of a document that he found among the papers of President Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. The document, dated on 1 October 1963, was a carbon copy of a transcript of a phone conversation between Kennedy and Cyrus Vance (who was then the Secretary of the Army): During the conversation, Kennedy and Vance arranged to meet with Gen. Earle Wheeler, at noon, to discuss a "proposed withdrawal plan." The transcript seemed to have immense historical importance, and Stern was excited when he found it, because it apparently meant that the Kennedy administration, by October 1963, had drafted a plan for pulling American forces out of Vietnam.

But something was wrong: The transcript said that Kennedy would meet with Vance and Wheeler at noon on 1 October, but the White House's record of the president's activities on 1 October said that at noon he was in Union Station, greeting the Emperor of Ethiopia. Which was right? Was the transcript bogus? Had the White House record been cooked? Teachers who read "Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out of Vietnam?" will learn how Stern sorted things out, and they will be able to provide their students with an engaging account of a historian at work.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

----------

Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail