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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1998

Reviewing a middle-school book in American history

The American Journey
1998. 933 pages + appendix. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-823218-6.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Despite Its Serious Lapses,
This Text Is Rich in History

Sheldon M. Stern

How should American history be taught in our schools? In 1994 the debate over that question erupted into the popular media, and then into the halls of government, after the publication of a booklet titled National Standards for United States History. The booklet had been produced by a California organization -- led by Gary B. Nash and Charlotte Crabtree -- which called itself the National Center for History in the Schools.

That organization distributed National Standards for United States History to educators throughout the nation, complete with a preface in which Nash and Crabtree gave the impression that their "standards" had been approved, and enjoyed some sort of official status, under the federal Goals 2000 Act.

Their implication was disingenuous. Although the Goals 2000 Act had established a mechanism for certifying national subject-matter standards, no standards had ever been certified. In fact, the certification mechanism had never been activated -- and it never would be. Soon after National Standards for United States History was distributed, the whole standards-certification program was scuttled by the Congress. Furthermore, there was a direct connection between those two events: The killing of the certification system was facilitated by Congressional disgust over National Standards for United States History -- a document that showed strong ideological biases against American history, American ideas and American institutions.

The story did not end there, however, for Nash and Crabtree had shown drafts of their material to schoolbook-publishers, well before the National Standards for United States History document was actually finished and printed. As those drafts were circulated, some publishers immediately began to work on new American-history books which would incorporate the "history" and the ideology that the drafts purveyed. Since then, several such books have been placed on the market.

[Editor's note: For detailed analyses of two of those books, see our reviews of United States History: In the Course of Human Events (in TTL for January-February 1997) and our reviews of America's Past and Promise (in TTL for September-October 1997).]

It is advisable, therefore, when one is reviewing any new American-history book, to assess whether and how the book may have been influenced by National Standards for United States History.

Commendable Depth

Glencoe's The American Journey, while it has some significant shortcomings, offers a solid alternative to those American-history books that persistently wallow in political correctness and presentism. The depth and substance of the narrative in The American Journey are particularly notable at a time when market pressures are encouraging the schoolbook-publishers to produce history books that are simplistic, faddish and ideologically "safe."

I am relieved to reach the conclusion that The American Journey teaches a great deal of sound, meaningful history, because three of the authors listed on the book's title page -- Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley and James M. McPherson -- are among our nation's most distinguished historians. It would have been deeply disappointing if these three had allowed their names to be associated with a worthless book.

It is unlikely that Appleby, Brinkley or McPherson actually wrote the prose that appears in The American Journey, since the vocabulary and style are geared to middle-school readers. However, the book's main text is so rich in historical ideas and details that it clearly bespeaks the thought and advice of professional historians.

The title page lists a fourth author as well: the National Geographic Society. But the items that are labeled as the work of the Society are minor and superficial, and they seem to have been pasted in as marketing devices rather than as contributions to the education of students.

Resisting Corruption

In The American Journey, Glencoe has resisted most of the ideological agenda that was promoted in the 1994 "standards." For example, the Glencoe writers have rejected the notion that the American experience has been forged from three equally influential traditions -- Amerindian, African and European. The American Journey accurately tells that "the English have been the dominant influence on United States history," although they have been "only part of the story."

Conversely, The American Journey reports many crucial facts that were ignored or obscured in the "standards." For example: The "standards" did not disclose that slavery and the ceremonial killing of human victims were prominent aspects of the great civilization of the Aztecs, nor did they tell that both the Aztecs and the Incas had built empires by conquest -- but the writers of The American Journey acknowledge these matters plainly. They also note that the Spanish conquistadors who defeated the Aztecs received help from indigenous peoples who had been subjugated by the Aztecs and who despised their Aztec overlords (page 51).

Another example: On pages 40 and 41, in an appropriately brief section about the West African kingdoms that flourished during the period AD 300 to 1600, students learn that the products which those kingdoms traded to Muslim North Africa included slaves as well as gold and ivory. They also learn that Mansa Musa -- the 14th-century African king who was extolled in the "standards" for the grandeur of his court -- was a slave-owner who brought 12,000 slaves with him when he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The "standards" excluded this information, just as they excluded all other information about indigenous slavery in Africa.

However, The American Journey does not explicitly describe the function of indigenous African slavery in sustaining the Atlantic slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. The writers report that some Africans were "captured and enslaved by slave traders" (page 105), but they don't disclose that the people who did the capturing and enslaving were other Africans. Nor do they tell that the slaves were repeatedly bought and sold by African traders before they were delivered to foreign merchants.

It seems that the Glencoe writers are blurring the facts, supposedly for the sake of political correctness -- and some of their other references to slavery are equally obscure. On page 67, for example, a time-line reports that, during the 1700s, thousands of Africans were "brought to America and enslaved." Then, on page 68, we read that "Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797) was an 11-year-old boy when he and his sister were kidnapped and brought to the West Indies, where they were enslaved. His life story includes memories of his childhood in Africa." The writers thus mislead students by using the ambiguous word "enslaved" in fuzzy, confusing ways. Is it true that Equiano and his sister "were enslaved" in the West Indies? Yes, that statement is true -- but only if the reader takes the phrase "were enslaved" to mean "were held in slavery." The statement is false if the reader assumes that "were enslaved" means "were forced into slavery" or "were made slaves." Equiano was made a slave in Africa, and was owned by a succession of Africans, long before he was shipped to the West Indies. (See my article about the Teacher's Guide for the television series Africans in America), on page 9 of this issue.

Political correctness obtrudes in a few other places, too:

A Strong Narrative

However, lapses like those should not be allowed to obscure the book's strengths. The American Journey offers a remarkably complete and balanced historical narrative, including plenty of the political and military history that has lost favor in many American schools. Information about women, blacks and Amerindians is woven into the larger historical context. It generally is not romanticized or exaggerated or oversimplified to please pressure groups.

Students read, for example, that the Englishmen of Massachusetts defeated Metacomet and his Wampanoags with help from Metacomet's Indian enemies, the Mohawks. Students learn that not all the blacks in 17th-century America were slaves -- some were indentured servants or freemen. And in the section about the Constitutional Convention, students discover that the three-fifths compromise was a decision about representation. It wasn't, as some of today's ideologues allege, the official acceptance of a racist notion that black slaves were not fully human. (Delegates from the South, where slavery flourished, demanded that slaves and freemen must be counted alike. They advocated this approach because it would maximize the number of seats that southern states would hold in the new House of Representatives. The view that slaves should not be counted fully as persons, for purposes of representation, was promoted not by slave-holding southerners but by northerners who were hostile to slavery.)

The section about the period from the Revolution to the end of George Washington's presidency is extraordinary for its sophistication and even-handedness. Instead of jumping from independence to the Articles of Confederation, the writers examine a critical intervening step -- the formulation of state constitutions. Later, the debate over the ratification of the Constitution is described fairly and without bias against the anti-Federalists (i.e., the losers.)

One of the high points in The American Journey is a 38-page insert comprising "A Citizenship Handbook" and an annotated presentation of the entire Constitution. In the "Handbook" the writers discuss the goals and principles of the Constitution, the separation of powers in the federal system, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. In their annotations to the Constitution, they relate its language, ideas and prescriptions to actual historical events. Here, for example, is how they illustrate the operation of the 25th Amendment, which deals with presidential disability and succession:

The 25th Amendment is unusually precise and explicit because it was intended to solve a serious constitutional problem. Sixteen times in American history, before the passage of this amendment, the office of vice president was vacant, but fortunately in none of these cases did the president die or resign.

This amendment was used in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from office after being charged with accepting bribes. President Richard Nixon then appointed Gerald R. Ford as vice president in accordance with the provisions of the 25th Amendment. A year later, President Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal, and Ford became president. President Ford then had to fill the vice presidency, which he had left vacant upon assuming the presidency. He named Nelson A. Rockefeller as vice president. Thus both the presidency and vice presidency were held by men who had not been elected to their offices.

The historical narrative is regularly punctuated by exercises that seek to encourage the development of various skills -- e.g., reading maps or graphs; distinguishing facts from opinions; interpreting political cartoons; analyzing news reports; recognizing bias in historical writing; making generalizations; and drawing historical comparisons. These skills must be cultivated at the middle-school level if students are to achieve historical and civic literacy in high school and beyond.

Distorted Images

The chapters about the period since the 1890s reflect the political and ideological resilience of the liberal historiography that has dominated American-history education during the last half-century. For example, the writers cast William Jennings Bryan as a candidate who appealed to "average Americans," but they portray William McKinley as nothing more than "a shrewd politician who opposed free silver" and who represented the moneyed elite (page 547). In fact, however, McKinley was immensely popular and was very much a centrist. As governor of Ohio he had secured an excise tax on corporations and had successfully promoted legislation to protect the safety of transportation workers and to limit employers' use of anti-union practices. Was McKinley tied to the gold interests? Yes, just as Bryan was tied to the silver interests. These were two sides of the same coin.

An endemic problem in the production of schoolbooks is that the writers often rely on conventional wisdom instead of scholarship. This is particularly disturbing when the conventional wisdom is wrong. The portrayal of Calvin Coolidge on pages 694 and 695 of The American Journey provides several cases in point:

Several other omissions from The American Journey are worth noting. This book never explains that George Washington was a slave-owner. There is no mention of Alexis de Tocqueville's insights into American democracy and America's racial divisions. The account of racism during the progressive era fails to tell how the Wilson administration promoted racial segregation within the federal government. And the passage about the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, implies that Rosa Parks's actions were spontaneous. Parks actually was carrying out a carefully planned provocation, aimed at providing the basis for an action at law.

These deficiencies, however, are more than offset by the book's strengths -- the depth and scope of its narrative, and its ability to help students understand why historical knowledge is important to the survival of free institutions. If most students were to master the history that is presented in The American Journey, we would have reason to be more optimistic about American education and about the future of American democracy.

This "History" Text Is a Study
in Sycophantic Salesmanship

John Patrick Diggins

I have not laid eyes on an American-history schoolbook since I taught in a San Francisco high school more than 30 years ago. In the text that I used at that time, the pages were black with the printed word. The book offered fine narrative writing, and it raised questions capable of arousing the student's curiosity and wonder.

Now, in The American Journey, I see a book that belongs to a different species.

What struck me when I opened The American Journey was the feeling that I was facing not a book but a computer monitor, and that I was viewing images from cyberspace. The pages are full of color illustrations, sidebars, arrows, symbols, commands and boxes -- and some of the boxes partially cover other boxes, as though something has gone wrong and the viewer must move a mouse or press something to straighten out the screen. To confirm that The American Journey is taking place in cyberspace, various sections or chapters end with items headlined "Surfing the 'Net'." The chapter about the Civil War, for example, concludes not with questions about the War's significance but with an exercise in which students just surf around and try to find information about Lincoln.

Back to Dogmatism

When I went to grammar school I had to read the Baltimore Catechism, which opened with this question-and-answer:

Q. Who made you?
A. God made me.

In The American Journey, I see a similar formulation, terrible in its simplicity:

Q. Why Study American History?
A. Only by learning about the past can you truly understand the present. Only by learning about your nation's past can you understand what it means to be an American today.

Those assertions are as questionable as the assumption that I needn't wonder about who I am, or where I came from, because "God made me" and everything is in God's hands.

Let's get serious. The past can only help us to understand the present in situations where traces of the past still persist and still affect our lives. The same goes for using the past to "understand what it means to be an American." Will modern Americans acquire a better understanding of the present by studying static cultures, now defunct, that did not respond successfully to the challenges of a changing world? No. But The American Journey says that "Many groups of Native Americans live in the Americas today. Their history is the story of many different peoples, all of whom helped shape the American society we live in today."

Did they? How? What does it mean to say that all those Amerindian peoples help to "shape" modern urban America, though they apparently were unable to control even the direction of their own history? The writers of The American Journey see no need to explain how extinct Amerindians shaped today's "American society," just as the writers of the Baltimore Catechism saw no need to explain how God made me. The American Journey takes us back to the medieval world of dogmatism, where each question presupposes its own answer.

This book (or screen display!) contains much valuable material about archaeology, anthropology and geography, particularly in the opening chapters that deal with Amerindians and environmental settings. The problem is that this material is not historical, since it does not address events and their causes. It does not lead to any historical awareness about a world that is on the move.

To understand history is to know why things happened. But when The American Journey covers the subject of slavery, it tells what happened without explaining anything. "Between 1600 and 1850," we read, "millions of enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas on ships" (page 69). Accompanying this descriptive statement is a long passage that tells how an African slave named Olaudah Equiano was carried to Barbados, and how relatives were separated by being sold in different lots: "Parents lost their children; brothers lost their sisters. Husbands lost their wives." Not a word about the origins of slavery or about how people lost their freedom and became property.

This is not simply a deficiency in the book's story of American blacks. It applies equally to the history of American whites: Remember that almost one-third of the colonial population consisted of white indentured servants. Why did it happen that so many whites came to the colonies in such bondage? The writers of The American Journey give no answer. Apparently, all that a student needs to know about indentured servants is this:

In return for the payment of their passage to America, they agreed to work without pay for a certain period of time. [page 88] . . . Servants were termed indentured because their contract was indented, or folded, along an irregular line and torn in two. Master and servant each kept half. [page 113]

We ask for knowledge; we get trivia.

Desperate Distortions

The American Journey, like many other recent books, tries to make history "relevant" and "inclusive" by dwelling on those people who have been left out. This politically correct effort -- emphasizing mere inclusion rather than explanation -- leads to desperate distortions.

The writers of The American Journey pay lip service to the concept of explanation, on page 125. A "Skill Builder" sidebar fills the screen, and we read that "A cause is any person, event or condition that makes something happen. What happens as a result of a cause is known as an effect." That is all well and good -- but when writers are preoccupied with producing "inclusive" material and with mentioning every group of people that they can think of, historical causes and effects get lost.

The reason for this is obvious. History moves in ways that pay no attention to the vast majority of the human race. Most of us have never been causes of anything -- and unless we are descended from ruling elites, our ancestors weren't causes either. History ignored them and passed them by (just as it has ignored most of the people who ever have lived), and they had no causal significance.

Yet today's political correctness dictates that schoolbook-writers must pretend otherwise. The writers of The American Journey, therefore, drag women into history in pointless passages like this one: "A colonial farm was both home and workplace. Women cooked, made butter and cheese, and preserved food. They spun yarn, made clothes, and tended chickens and cows." Even when the writers cover the women's-suffrage movement of the 20th century, they simply tell about efforts and events that led to the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. There is no indication of why that achievement failed to advance women politically, economically or professionally. All that matters, it seems, is to show people being active -- but what students really need is some understanding of the nature of political power. If citizens lack that understanding, freedom is unrealizable.

In The American Journey, it often seems that things can't happen unless everyone takes part in making them happen. In the chapter on World War 2, we read less about the heroic D-Day invasion or about the strategic opening of the 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.

The distortions and misrepresentations can be mind-boggling. The famous photograph of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta is squeezed down to two inches, but two whole pages are given to Maya Angelou and her writings. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations together get three pages, but the civil-rights movement of the 1960s gets eight, and other recent social causes get six. Thus fourteen pages are devoted to activists but only three to publicly elected leaders. One would never know, from reading this book, that the civil-rights movement and other such efforts succeeded only because national administrations, including Nixon's, established and enforced equal-opportunity laws. One would never know that those successes revolved around the courts and the Constitution of the United States, not around multiculturalism and its shibboleths. Radicals find it awkward to admit that they must depend on conservative institutions to win their goals.

The American Journey offers responsible coverage of the Revolution, the Constitution (which is treated extensively) and the Civil War, though one must wonder why the relevant primary documents have been placed in an appendix rather than in the appropriate chapters within the body of the book.

In their treatment of many other subjects, however, the writers display child-like innocence. Their account of westward expansion and the Mexican War is not a story about greed for land. It is chiefly a device for pulling Hispanic America and Hispanic topics into the narrative. And though the Gold Rush was a national exercise in rapacity -- Thoreau noted that the scramble to strike it rich had Americans shaking dirt as gamblers shake dice -- Glencoe's writers miss this entirely. (They do, however, provide an exercise in which students are supposed to reproduce a sluice: "Materials: 1/2 gallon empty milk or juice carton . . . .")

The American Journey is a study in sycophantic salesmanship at the cost of scholarly responsibility. But it probably will be a commercial success, given the climate of political correctness that prevails in education today. The irony is that success is a rare phenomenon within the book itself, because the writers are so wrapped up in their stories of the poor and powerless, of the marginalized and the oppressed.

After breezing through the Reagan and Bush and Clinton administrations, the book concludes by reporting that one of our big challenges today is to dispose of trash. This introduces an ecological "activity" in which students learn how to recycle paper. Such knowledge is not inappropriate to The American Journey.


Sheldon M. Stern, a specialist in 20th-century American history, is the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston. Since 1993 he has directed the Library's American History Project for High School Students, helping teachers develop lessons in which students work with primary sources and learn to evaluate historical evidence. His recent article "Evidence! Evidence! All You People Talk About Is Evidence!" appeared in the March 1998 issue of History Matters!

John Patrick Diggins is a Distinguished Professor of History at City University of New York's Graduate Center (in Manhattan) and a fellow of the Ligurian Center for Culture (Bogliasco, Italy). He is a specialist in American intellectual history and social philosophy. His book Foundations of American History will be published in 2000 by the Yale University Press.

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