[I’m not the only one gearing up for a new school year at the moment—so are my 11th and 10th grade (!!!) sons. That includes my 11th grader taking AP US History, a complicated and controversial and very AmericanStudies high school class. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of APUSH contexts—share your responses and your thoughts on all things high school US history for a crowd-sourced weekend post sure to make the honor roll!]
frustratingly telling textbook controversy, and why it’s not the whole story.
I can’t be
positive about this—I pride myself on my memory, but we’re talking a textbook
from nearly thirty years ago!—but I’m pretty sure that my high school APUSH
class used the same textbook my son will be using this year: The American Pageant.
That certainly wouldn’t be a stretch, as the book’s 1st
edition appeared in 1956, and it has gone through sixteen more editions
since to arrive at the current
17th edition that his class will be using. That longevity and
longstanding usage isn’t in and of itself necessarily an issue, as of course
with each edition the text can be updated; and in this case the editors have changed,
from its creator Thomas A.
Bailey to (after Bailey’s 1983 death) a couple prominent contemporary historians
David M. Kennedy and
Lizabeth Cohen, which only amplifies the potential for such revisions. But
at the same time, I would argue that even with such changes over time, a nearly
70-year-old textbook is by its nature going to be a bit traditional, a bit
staid, and perhaps at least a little bit conservative in its ideas.
than perhaps, as illustrated by a couple glaring details from the textbook’s 21st
century editions. Historian James Loewen noted, in a 2011 critique of the 2006 13th
edition, that the book included the South
Carolina Declaration of Secession but used ellipses to cut entirely the
(substantial) portions of that document which referred to slavery as a cause of
secession. And more recently, historian Ibram X. Kendi highlighted some highly
problematic language in the 2016 16th edition, including a reference
to enslaved African Americans as “immigrants” and the sentence, “In the deeper
South, many free blacks were mulattoes, usually the emancipated children of a
white planter and his black mistress.” Loewen also noted a likely factor for
such choices: “It is likely that [the publisher] took pains to avoid the
subject [of slavery] lest some southern state textbook adoption board took
offense.” That’s the particularly telling part of this controversy—that for a
textbook to endure this long, through this many editions, it has to appeal to
such adoption boards, and even before our current
moment of attacks on historical education that too often meant avoiding any
appearance of “revisionist” history.
factors haven’t gone away, and indeed have only ramped up over the last couple
years (I shudder to think what American history textbooks produced in 2022 will
look like). So I’ll admit that when I first paged through my son’s copy of The American Pageant, I was more than a
bit worried about what I’d find. I’m sure there will be things with which I
take issue or about which we talk to add some further context, but in truth, I
found this 17th edition to be a significant improvement on the 16th.
That’s true of its coverage of a specific historical issue like slavery, which
now includes extensive quotations from foundational documents like the 1661 Barbados
Slave Code (which influenced how the system of slavery developed throughout
the English colonies). But it’s also true in the book’s broader representation
of core questions like how we define America—Chapter 3, Settling the English
Colonies, 1619-1700, ends with a two-page “Varying Viewpoints” section entitled
“Boundaries or Borderlands in the Colonial Americas?” that thoughtfully
presents distinct scholarly visions of culture, community, and nation in and
around this period. There’s more to say to be sure, and I look forward to
having those conversations with my son—with this new and improved version of The American Pageant as one of our
do you think? Contexts or stories for APUSH or high school history you’d share?
Great teachers you’d highlight?