Teaching the Master Narrative: American History Textbooks in the 20th Century

AHA Session 154
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Washington Room 3 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
James Buss, Salisbury University
Kyle Ward, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Session Abstract

This panel brings together three studies of American history textbooks that focus on how the master narrative of American history has changed over time. Each paper considers an event and an era that are cornerstones of American history: the arrival of Columbus in 1492; the Boston Tea Party during the American Revolution; and slavery in the antebellum South. Each author discusses how and why textbook narratives have changed over time, noting the persistence of the popular narrative in the face of advancing historical scholarship. Even when professional historians have credibly challenged the popular narrative, textbooks often continue to present the same story. Together, these papers show how generations of American students imbibed an historical narrative that operated as a cultural institution, reaffirming entrenched beliefs about the past.

Christopher Columbus was widely celebrated as a hero and a savior during the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition. By 1992, however, some Americans had come to consider Columbus as a villain who had launched a genocidal conquest of the Indians. Michael Horton’s paper reviews the changes in historical scholarship on Columbus over the long twentieth century and simultaneously traces how Columbus is represented in officially approved Texas history high school and junior high textbooks through this period. He shows that these textbooks have been exceedingly slow to reflect shifts in the scholarship, choosing instead to promote popular characterizations of Columbus long after scholars have discredited them.

In his paper on representations of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Michael Kneisel argues that the event has always been oversimplified in American high school history textbooks. Despite the evidence offered by historians, a “born perfect” myth about the event persists: good, patriotic colonists coming together in spontaneous symbolic protest that sparked a virtuous revolution. Scholarly evidence that the incident constituted economic terrorism and vandalism (costing millions of dollars in today’s terms) is largely missing from textbooks, which prefer a narrative that affirms popular cultural beliefs about the nation’s beginning.

In her paper on the depiction of antebellum slavery in junior high and high school textbooks from the 1950s, Lindsey Bauman argues that U.B. Phillips’ American Negro Slavery (1918) served as the interpretive model. Phillips’ discussion of slavery as an economic institution persisted in textbooks’ focus on slavery as primarily a business, with slaves as the valuable commodity. Phillips’ discussion of slavery as a political issue persisted in textbooks’ focus on the problems slavery posed for white, powerful politicians. Phillips’ discussion of the character of slaves persisted in textbooks’ depictions of “savage” and “uncivilized” African slaves. Despite emerging scholarship on the lives of enslaved people, textbooks maintained a narrative that reaffirmed the cultural power and virtue of white slaveowners.

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