Saturday, February 14, 2009

...And another word on textbooks

So this link includes a defense of textbooks in the history classroom as a major part of the article.  
Most textbook critics concede that textbooks are a necessary tool in history education. Arguments for textbook-based curricula point out that history teachers require resources to support the broad scope of topics covered in the typical history classroom. Well-designed textbooks can provide a foundation on which enterprising educators can build other classroom activities.
Sam Wineburg, a professor history and education at Stamford, has written on historical thinking.  In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, he writes, "Textbooks dominate history classrooms, and, as Peter Schrag has noted, history textbooks are often written "as if their authors did not exist at all, as if they were simply the instruments of a heavenly intelligence transcribing official truths.""  

So I can't buy the argument either that textbooks are needed to supplement the teacher's knowledge of history.  For one, there are massive amounts of information online, much of it available for free, the use of which frees up a lot of resources that could be better spent in the classroom.  As I see it, one of the responsibilities of teachers is to be continuous learners themselves.  So that means constantly expanding their own knowledge base, learning about that which they seek to teach.  There are many ways to do this, and using textbooks as the "foundation" is not the only way, nor do I think it's the best way.

I'm not arguing to abolish textbooks either.  I'm arguing for the marginalization of them.  They should have a place in the classroom, as yet another reference.  Perhaps as a springboard for discussion on how history is "decided upon," or how biases color historical representations, or the nature of truth in history.  And so on.  

I have a history textbook from my last college survey course on early American history.  Called Give Me Liberty! An American History, it was published in 2005, authored by Eric Foner, and covers U.S. history "up to 1877."  Let's look at an example within this book.

Roanoke Colony: One blurb, one page:
"...Raleigh dispatched a fleet of five ships with some 100 colonists (many of them his personal servants) to set up a base on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast, party to facilitate continuing raids on Spanish shipping.  But the colonists, mostly young men under military leadership, abandoned the venture in 1586 and returned to England.  A second group of 100 settlers, composed of families who hoped to establish a permanent colony, was dispatched that year.  Their fate remains a mystery.  When a ship bearing supplies arrived in 1590, the sailors found the colony abandoned, with the inhabitants evidently having moved to live among the Indians.  The word "Croaton," the Indian name for a nearby island or tribe, had been carved on a tree." (p.32)

That's it??  A history mystery?  What's cooler than that?  

First of all, Croatoan (the correct spelling) wasn't carved on a tree, it was carved on a fence post, on the tree appeared "Cro."  No bones, no corpses.  The boats and cannons were missing.  The book makes no mention of Manteo, raises no questions.  Well, did anybody go check out the island back then?  (John White tried to.  A hurricane hit the Outer Banks and damaged the fleet sufficiently.  They decided to return to England.)  There are great maps, images, and documents that could be used to explore this mystery.  Why not look at John Lawson's book and Hamilton MacMillan's pamphlet on this?  

Maybe my biggest beef here is semantic in nature.
"Their fate remains a mystery. When a ship bearing supplies arrived in 1590, the sailors found the colony abandoned, with the inhabitants evidently having moved to live among the Indians."
1 : in an evident manner : clearly , obviously
2 : on the basis of available evidence
Really?  Actually, no.  Nothing has been firmly established on the basis of evidence.  There are, however, multiple hypotheses.  And again, with the finite representation of history.  You'd never know people are still trying to figure this out.
There is an ongoing DNA project to try to determine lineage of the colonists (which I'll grant the author, project started the year the book was published.).  There have been remote sensing projects to try to locate the remnants of the colony.  Only fairly recently have there archaeological examinations of the region.  And I would definitely talk about the controversy over the Eleanor Dare stones. 

1 comment:

  1. I see you've discovered Sam Wineburg (and his website, which you mentioned on your last blog post). And I agree, as teachers we're constantly at work too, learning and investigating. Have fun with those history mysteries.