How Will Textbooks Remember This Season of Discontent?

If LaGarrett King were to write a high-school U.S. history textbook, he’d create a unit on Black Lives Matter. It would start with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. “Then Black Lives Matter enters the lexicon,” King said. “The death of Michael Brown kind of explodes it all. George Floyd obviously will be in there.”

But that’s as far as King, a social studies education professor at the University of Missouri and founder of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education, would predict. “We’re smack dab in the middle of it,” he said — referring to this current 21st-century racial reckoning.

Post-2016 American seems tailor-made for “Mercury retrograde” designation: Outbreaks. Lockdowns. Volatile economic markets. White nationalists consorting with government officials. Police killings. Uprisings. The toppling of Confederate monuments across the country. Pushes for reparations.

“Sometimes I think about this, and I don’t understand how things changed, where [the ubiquity of] ‘Black Lives Matter’ is now feasible. I had someone say ‘Happy Juneteenth’ to me [who likely didn’t know of the commemoration before]. Now all of a sudden, everybody’s a revolutionary, which is really weird to me,” said King.

How deep and lasting such changes might be is anyone’s guess, but will they make it into textbooks that tomorrow’s young citizens will read?

King hopes today’s contestations about anti-Black violence and African American political power will appear in future classroom materials. He’s just not sanguine about just how they’ll be depicted in textbooks.

“Typically, [textbook coverage] of the civil rights movement follows the Brown-to-Memphis framework starting with Brown v. Board of Education and culminating with King’s assassination,” he said. “You have your heroes, your Rosa Parks, those who people could say were ‘quote-unquote’ nonviolent. The ones that wanted liberation a little bit more aggressively are demonized” or left out.

Even those luminaries who do make textbook cameos have often done so in vigorously whitewashed biographies. Martin Luther King becomes a messianic figure, a metonym for the entire movement and a single-speech orator. His economic justice and anti-war positions: not so much on the radar. Rosa Parks’ fatigue ostensibly made her an activist, not years investigating white men’s sexual violence against Black women before the Montgomery boycott.

While textbooks can’t do it all, simplistic hero narratives isolate individual actors. They also obscure both previous organizing and those heroes’ collaborators. So it’s Parks that American pupils learn about rather than Jo Ann Robinson of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, who painstakingly mimeographed and distributed fliers about the bus boycott. Rare are the lessons that include essential players such as Georgia Gilmore, a working-class Montgomery resident whose clandestine “Club from Nowhere” network of cooks funded much of the boycott.

Black Power still gets short shrift in textbooks, framed simply as the polar opposite and bitter enemy of the civil rights mainstream.

When the canonized figures or seminal events get spectacularly un-nuanced treatment, violent social upheavals and their participants fare worse in the textbook imaginary. The urban uprisings that set the nation aflame in 1968 — a year somewhat like 2020 with its presidential election and mass protests — were reduced in many textbooks to Black youth angst around high poverty and unemployment rates, if the textbooks ventured into explanations. Some openly blamed Black militants for fanning the flames of discontent. Black Power still gets short shrift in textbooks, framed simply as the polar opposite and bitter enemy of the civil rights mainstream.

So LaGarrett King is not optimistic that the monument removals or the uprisings that have happened in Minneapolis, Portland, and other locales will get space in the textbooks to come. He speculated aloud what tomorrow’s textbooks might say about today’s varied advocacy for Black lives.

In coming decades, he foresees the average American textbook will downplay the long arcs of both Black struggle and white supremacist violence.

“Black Lives Matter will be disconnected from [previous] Black liberation movements. It will suddenly appear, and there will be some rebuttals: All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter. Or it will be situated in ‘bad men do bad things’ history. So you may see George Zimmerman, Dylann Roof, probably Derek Chauvin.”

Historian James West Davidson also imagined how he would write about this era when an editor recently asked him to craft an entry about 2020 for a future textbook. His vision mapped both political scandals — remember Trump’s impeachment and the Mueller report? — and the two hegemonic happenings of the year so far: the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota.

“One of the least favorite tasks of a textbook author or team — perhaps even a nightmare — is finishing that book and bringing it up to the present,” said Davidson, who has co-authored several textbooks for advanced high schoolers or undergraduates including multiple editions of U.S.: A Narrative History. “If you have ever gone through more than one cycle of rewriting textbooks and you need to update again, you look at what you wrote four years ago [the usual time between updates] and say, ‘Boy, what a partial view that is.’”

In some ways, that’s the nature of the beast. History is in perpetual revision. Scholarly understandings change, it takes time to get new information into print, and textbooks can’t keep up with real-time.

Still, sociologist James Loewen, author of the bestselling 1995 text Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong, rejects the time-equals-better-history theory. “Textbooks shy away from the recent past,” he said. “That has nothing to do with the oft-repeated claim that you need to get distance from an era to have historical perspective. Whatever forces are going on in the present influence how you’re going to think about history in education.”

King, the University of Missouri scholar, agrees. When asked what it would take to effect change in textbooks, he rattled off the five states that constitute the biggest markets in an $8 billion industry in 2018: “Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, and California.”

States fall into two general groups: those that create curricular standards but give local entities some leeway over the textbooks they adopt, or those like Texas that maintain tight and extremely politicized control. If they’re big enough, states can influence publishers to build their textbooks around their whims and politics. Essentially, textbook companies have incentives to roll out products that meet states’ approval, just as teachers may teach to the test.

So, it’s highly unlikely that a Texas-vetted textbook will one day incorporate the story of Sandra Bland, who died under mysterious circumstances in law enforcement custody after a 2015 traffic stop in that state’s Waller County. One also has to wonder if states that have tried to pass various anti-protest measures would include Black Lives Matter — the target of many of these legislative attempts to stifle dissent — in its standards or buy textbooks that presented it neutrally as a social movement, like second-wave feminism for example.

In addition to the present’s politics, textbook updates are colored by the constraints of the textbook genre and traditional ways of slicing and dicing history into periods. Teams of authors have to divide up centuries into digestible, age-appropriate sections that make sense, align with existing ideas, and ideally have useful but pithy titles and discussion questions.

Davidson, the textbook author, explained: “Typically, you’ll have a chapter on ‘The Kennedy Years’ or [President Lyndon] Johnson’s Great Society as a way to organize things. In writing college texts, I found that’s not a deeply useful way to do things because that privileges political events. The other sort of intellectual construct is the decadal approach, to write about the ’20s or ’30s as if history sort of unfolds in very neat 10-year patterns.”

There’s pedagogical possibility in thinking beyond 10-year increments and also in connecting historical periods. Teachings on 21st-century Black protest and mobilization could fit into various interconnected periods: civil rights, Black Power, and even Reconstruction (some activists believe the present constitutes the nation’s third democratic awakening that centers Black citizenship).

Davidson is always looking for the illustrative thematic thread that knits together distinct eras. A 2019 textbook he co-wrote, Experience History, had a four-page section exploring monument controversies, from initial outcry about the Maya Lin-designed Vietnam memorial in Washington to how Confederate monuments inscribed Lost Cause narratives of a noble, unfairly vilified South in stone and marble. That section will surely get a revamp, and it explicitly tells readers something that most history primers don’t: that history itself is a construction built by academics, society, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Despite the bad rap given to “historical revisionism” and history overall (sometimes maligned as the dusty, fusty discipline of the humanities), historians are perpetually updating and rebuilding narratives, sometimes with assists from social-justice warriors. In 1992, the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere prompted activist demands and academic research to reckon with his impact on indigenous people and his legacy — efforts that trickled into textbooks, which increasingly complicated the idea of “discovery.”

Yet textbooks often still skirt around multiple interpretations of an event or phenomenon. They foreground timelines, not root factors. Loewen, the Lies My Teacher Told Me author, thinks these practices may be the cardinal sins of textbooks and history education as we know them.

“Textbooks focus on the ‘what’ and almost entirely ignore the ‘why.’ I think it will be hard to talk about tearing down statues without talking about historiography,” he said, referencing the study of how history is created and written. “But we may achieve it.”

Loewen is calmly caustic in his regard for textbooks, calling them too uncritical of cozy historical myths, too expensive, and way too long (textbooks can easily match the average Harry Potter book for pages and heft, if not popular appeal). Plus, Loewen said, the “r” word — racism — rarely appears — for example, slavery is often discussed primarily as an issue of states rights and a new land’s need for labor. In fact, he’s skeptical the current uprisings or the health disparities around Covid-19 will be remembered much at all — at least, not in any racial terms.

“Sorry to be pessimistic about textbooks,” he said. “But they’ve become even more terrible and boring [since his book’s first publication]… The Great Recession should be there. The torch-bearing men at the University of Virginia and the Unite the Right Rally should be there.” And indisputably, he said, “the pandemic will have to be there. It can be talked about [as an ostensibly neutral health crisis] rather than the social event that it is.”

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