Should history textbooks differ from state to state?

January 17, 2020

A few days ago The New York Times published “Two states. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories,” an article that highlights an interesting reality: California and Texas history textbooks have the same publisher but different information within their covers.

For example, California’s version of the Bill of Rights annotates the Second Amendment with an explanation that court rulings have allowed for some gun regulations, while the Texas textbook does not.

The textbooks differ in their treatment of free enterprise – California’s version highlights environmental concerns that come with industry and Texas’ version points out how perseverance and hard work can lead to success.

Immigration is also handled differently. California’s version shares a story from a Dominican-American family. Texas’ version shares a story from a border patrol agent.

What should we make of this?

The rationale given for the differences is that after scholars write the textbooks they are modified by states to fit state academic standards, laws, or review panels. In some instances, text in one was drafted later than text in another.

All of which seems reasonable enough, but the larger implications still loom: Is our understanding of American history changing based on where we live?

At the very least this article prompts us to consider some important questions. 

  • When it comes to history education, should we seek for local control (and the inevitable variation that comes with it), or should we seek for a common narrative as a country (and the risk of widespread error if something is inaccurate)?
  • Besides important dates, key figures and names of battles, what else ought to be considered as immutable facts in history?
  • Is it ever possible to avoid editorializing when summarizing volumes of information or primary source documents? If so, how?
  • What qualifications should exist for those who sit on state textbook review panels?
  • How can we better teach viewpoint, context, agenda and critical thinking skills to students?

While the answers to these questions may differ for each individual, it’s crucial that parents and educators are aware of these realities. There is growing interest in our treatment of American history across the country. For those who haven’t already, it’s time to join the discussion.

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