Writer Noah Berlatsky argues that for students to actually learn history, we have to show them more meaningful sources.
So much about the world is broken right now. The planet is boiling, inequality is skyrocketing, and government gridlock is more darkly comic than ever. The Hollywood industrial complex regurgitates old stories and makes them worse, while music execs play to the whims of the algorithms more than any sense of craft. It’s all just so depressing. How I’d Fix It is Mic’s series of solutions to society’s ills. Got a fix of your own in mind? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your pitch, and be sure to include “How I’d Fix It” in the subject line.
History class is the quintessence of high school tedium — a bleak, flat wasteland of names and dates to memorize and discard on your way to a diploma. Yet actual history is an incredibly contentious and violent political battlefield, where adults scream at each other, march, and occasionally even kill each other over the same names and dates that stupefy their children.
How can this be? How can a single subject provoke both paralyzing indifference and terrifying rage?
The answer is that the conflict over history is in part a fight over whether we should continue to bore our children, or whether we should actually educate them about the past in a way that equips them to question the present. It’s why we need to be talking more about textbooks
Textbooks are the primary source material for students learning about history. The problem is that they’re often inaccurate and blinkered, especially around issues of racism and colonialism. They’re also just a misleading and dull way to teach history.
As someone who worked for a correspondence high school for years, and helped design and write curriculum materials, I can say with certainty that history textbooks are basically designed to alienate students. Instead of enlightening them, textbooks prevent students from understanding history and why it’s important.
That’s why it’s time to try something new. The College Board, in its curricular recommendations for AP History, lists “access to a college-level U.S. history textbook” as its first requirement — but adds a mandate for “diverse primary sources and multiple secondary sources” too. If we want to fix history education in the U.S., we have to lean into those primary and secondary sources, which force readers to actually engage with the content and ask questions about the author and the circumstances of their writing. To make space for a real teaching of history, we have to get rid of the textbooks.
Why are textbooks so bad?
Textbooks are often wildly, and even offensively, inaccurate. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi reviewed four of the most commonly used U.S. history textbooks in 2020. He found that one book, The American Pageant, referred to enslaved African people brought to the Americas as “immigrants.” Another book, A History of the United States, talked about how wonderful Thomas Jefferson was without ever mentioning that he enslaved people.
These omissions and biases aren’t accidental. Conservative white religious activists have been able to shape textbook content for the whole nation, thanks to their power in Texas. The Lone Star State is such a big market that publishers are desperate to shape content to get the state’s — and its Republican-led government’s — approval. By extension, conservatives have a huge influence over what appears in textbooks used throughout the country. Thus Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifism is highlighted; his radicalism downplayed. Social conflict is smothered in bland patriotic bombast.
Look at the contrast between textbook history and something like The New York Times’s 1619 Project, the latter of which focuses openly on inequity, confrontation, and social division. The 1619 Project has been the subject of fierce backlash, including an effort to ban it from being taught in schools. But the furor isn’t just because it centers Black history and the poisonous legacy of slavery (though there’s certainly a fair bit of that). It’s because it treats history as contentious and contemporary. Matthew Desmond’s chapter on the effect of slavery on capitalism, for example, argues that enslaving people led the U.S. to a tradition of crushing workers.
That thesis forces students to think about history as an influence — and, in fact, a blight — upon the present. It asks them to think about how the past might have relevance to, for example, their own part-time jobs. In contrast, the aforementioned The American Pageant is filled with such stirring, controversial statements as, “The new century brought astonishing changes to the United States,” and, “The talented Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, championed antislavery.”
What about the stuff textbooks get right?
Textbooks often feel like a list of disconnected facts, spoken in an empty voice of bland decontextualization. They don’t have theses or arguments; they have facts and dates and endless throat-clearing. “Most American history courses and textbooks operate in a gray emotional landscape of pious duty in which the United States has a good history so studying it is good for students,” James Loewen wrote in his classic study of American textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
It’s bad when textbooks are wrong. But it can be even worse when they’re right, because they’re right in a way that treats history as a thing that is settled and done and can’t possibly lead to conflict. “The talented Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, championed anti-slavery” is an accurate factual statement, but it has no real historical meaning. You might as well say, “The talented sun is out today.”
A better way to approach the Grimké sisters’ legacy might be to actually read what they wrote. The sisters’ advocacy for abolitionism was extremely controversial, not just because they were arguing for Black freedom, but because women were not supposed to speak in public at the time. The General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts issued a denunciation of the sisters and their activism in 1837, declaring that “when [woman] assumes the places and tone of man as a public reformer ... she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural.”
The sisters responded by developing a moral and theological defense of women’s rights, and by linking the oppression of women to the oppression of Black people of all genders. As Angelina Grimké explained in a letter written in October 1837:
The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own. I have found the anti-slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land — the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood and taught, than in any other ... Human beings have rights, because they are moral beings: the rights of all men grow out of their moral nature; and as all men have the same moral nature, they have essentially the same rights ... if rights are founded in the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstance of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to woman.
Grimké’s words connect abolition to human rights to a sweeping argument for universal rights and human worth. They demonstrate how the struggle for Black rights inspired the struggle for women’s rights. But her writing also shows that the Grimkés were radical not just for their time, but also for ours. To say that gender difference is “nothingness” remains a controversial statement, as evidenced by any number of anti-trans discussions about the biologically unchangeable nature of gender.
You can’t teach that just by listing her name in a textbook. History isn’t only facts; it’s context. That the Grimkés were talented is meaningless by itself. That their talent was controversial is what’s really important.
Fine. How would this work?
What if, instead of slogging through bullet points about anti-slavery activists, students were asked to read sections from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Gone With the Wind? These are both accessible, dramatic texts with very, very different accounts of slavery. Teachers could assign both and challenge their students to assess which account is more accurate.
That would set in motion a series of actually meaningful historical discussions. Who wrote each work? When were the books written? Who's in a better position to speak to the conditions described? What was the goal of these books; who was the intended audience, and what was the author trying to do? Are there other primary or secondary sources you can look to in order to determine accuracy? (There are!)
The point here isn’t to give both sides equal weight. It’s to think critically about the past and how it relates to the present. Who is more likely to know whether enslaved people were happy to be enslaved: a person who was enslaved, or a white person writing about slavery decades later? That’s not difficult to answer, but it’s a real question — one that requires you to think about chronology and evidence.
Many history teachers do try to provide students with such sources to teach these lessons. They incorporate the 1619 Project, or Douglass’s Autobiography, or the writing of the Grimké sisters, or Lies My Teacher Told Me. But they can’t escape textbooks, which remain a heavy, numbing presence in the majority of history courses — and a staple of testing.
Teaching history isn’t supposed to be a drab backdrop for vague patriotism. History textbooks make us a less intelligent, less educated, less historically-minded country, less able to face the past and the future. People get bogged down in fights about what should be in textbooks, when the use of textbooks itself is the problem. It’s time to get rid of them.