The New York Times examined high school history textbooks produced by the same publisher with the same authors credited, but used in two different states: Texas and California. The differences are noticeable.
Hundreds of differences — some subtle, others extensive — emerged in a New York Times analysis of eight commonly used American history textbooks in California and Texas, two of the nation’s largest markets.
In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.
Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers. In a September speech, President Trump warned against a “radical left” that wants to “erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology.”
The left has pushed for students to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.
The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.
“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.
The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.
Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.
A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.
All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.
McGraw-Hill, the publisher whose annotated Bill of Rights appears differently in the two states, said it had created the additional wording on the Second Amendment and gun control for the California textbook. A national version of the pages is similar to the Texas edition, which does not call attention to gun rights, the company said in a written statement.
Pearson, the publisher whose Texas textbook raises questions about the quality of Harlem Renaissance literature, said such language “adds more depth and nuance.”
Critical language about nonwhite cultural movements also appears in a Texas book from McGraw-Hill. It is partly a result of debates, in 2010, between conservative and liberal members of the Texas Board of Education over whether state standards should mention cultural movements like hip-hop and country music. Their compromise was to ask teachers and textbook publishers to address “both the positive and negative impacts” of artistic movements.
Texas struck that requirement in 2018, but its most recent textbooks, published in 2016, will reflect it for years to come.
Publishers are eager to please state policymakers of both parties, during a challenging time for the business. Schools are transitioning to digital materials. And with the ease of internet research, many teachers say they prefer to curate their own primary-source materials online.
This isn’t surprising in the least. History is written by the majority in power, so if you’re living in a state where the legislature is dominated by white Christian men, you’re not going to learn a lot about other people, and even if you do, it’s going to be colored, shall we say, by the view of the majority. And even if that isn’t the case at the level of the states’ Department of Education, the history itself and how it is viewed by the culture and the region will have an influence. Thus, the Civil War is viewed from the Union states as a battle against traitors to the United States, and the Confederates, who refer to it as The War of Northern Aggression, and was their attempt to preserve their economic viability and identity; slavery had nothing to do with it.
Such retelling and reshaping in the classroom isn’t limited to just history. Textbooks in art and theatre history are rife with a tilt toward Western art and performance, giving a cursory glance at the impact and deep traditions of the thousands of years of rich traditions in Asia, India, and even Native America. There’s not a lot of overt political influence in writing theatre history, but the natural tribalism and ethnocentrism that we all have makes it hard for a student in Evansville, Indiana, to learn that there’s more to theatre than Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.
Is there a solution to this tilt of history being fed to our high schools in the several states? Yes. It’s teachers who will use the textbooks not as the source but as a reference and encourage their students to challenge the preconceived ideas, be they liberal or conservative. Simply put, use their brains and their natural curiosity to add the dimensions that reflect more than just what’s written in a state-issued, state-sanctioned and compromised version of history and life. That’s what education is supposed to do in the first place.