Honest to Clio? Society and the Teaching of History   Leave a comment

Artemisia Gentileschi / Артемизия Джентилески (1593-1653) - Clio, la Musa della Storia (La Fama) / Клио, муза Истории (Слава) (1632)

Above:  Clio, the Muse of History, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Image in the Public Domain


This is an edited version of the first chapter of my Master’s degree thesis.  I have altered the chapter to remove references to Clay County, Georgia.



Those who would repeat the past must control the teaching of history.

–Bene Gesserit Coda, quoted in Chapterhouse:  Dune[1]

Public school textbooks have long been political, for publishers have appeased state sensibilities in seeking lucrative contracts.  The resulting volumes have often been sanitized versions of the past.  As James W. Loewen wrote in Lies My Teacher Told Me, most pre-1960s American history textbooks sided with the South during Reconstruction.  One 1959 text, America:  Land of Freedom, reflected this attitude.  The authors, Gertrude Hartman and Hugh T. Lefler, called northern plans for the South “unwise,” and said that newly freed slaves were no longer under the protection of their masters.  The violent Ku Klux Klan resisted federal corruption, embodied by “unprincipled” carpetbaggers.  Hartman, who barely mentioned the civil rights movement, wrote that efforts to grant African Americans, “an important group in our society,” equal opportunities were underway.  Elsewhere, the author wrote that integration would come slowly and require “courage, patience, tolerance, and good faith on the part of both races.”  Hartman’s background is unknown; Lefler, however, taught history at the University of North Carolina.[2]

The civil rights movement altered society beyond the frontiers of Clay County in the middle and late 1960s, for high school American history textbooks began to change.  Our American Republic (1965), written by David S. Muzzey, of Columbia University, and Arthur S. Link, a Virginia-born professor at Princeton University, sympathized with carpetbaggers during Reconstruction, for it noted that violent and reactionary whites sought to deprive freed slaves of their rights.  The book also devoted four favorable pages to the civil rights movement.  One page was a list of “Some Distinguished Negroes,” such as Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Jackie Robinson, and George Washington Carver.  Conspicuously absent, however, were W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Satchel Paige, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were presumably “unacceptable” because their audiences were primarily African-American.  Another textbook, the third edition of This Is America’s Story (1966) was less progressive.  Although Howard B. Wilder, Robert D. Ludlum, and Harriett McCune Brown stated that post-Civil War whites were determined to deny freed slaves their rights, they also overlooked any altruistic motives the carpetbaggers might have followed.  The textbook devoted two sympathetic pages to the civil rights movement.  Wilder was a retired teacher from Melrose, Massachusetts, Ludlum was President of Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, and Brown was a junior high school teacher in Los Angeles, California.[4]

Textbooks for younger grades also exhibited various attitudes toward civil rights in the 1860s and the 1960s.  In These United States and Canada, a 1965 text for middle grades students, included prose favorable to the freed slaves after the Civil War and to the civil rights movement.  Your Country and Mine—New Edition, a 1966 text for older elementary students, assumed the opposite position.  It sympathized with the defeated South, for it depicted all carpetbaggers and their allies as corrupt.  The book made no mention of the civil rights movement.  World Background for American History: An Interdisciplinary Approach, a 1968 elementary textbook, gave positive press to the civil rights movements of the 1860s and the 1960s.  Nevertheless, it referred to the War Between the States, not the Civil War.  This book was the product of three authors.  Harold H. Eibling was Superintendent of Schools in Columbus, Ohio, Fred M. King was Director of Instruction for the Rochester, Minnesota, Public Schools, and James Harlow was a history teacher from Oakland, California.[5]

Proudly We Hail, a 1968 text for elementary students, taught race pride.  The authors, Vashti and Jack Brown, public school teachers from New York, New York, divided the book into two sections, “THE PAST,” and “THE PRESENT.”  Past African Americans profiled included Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Matthew Henson.  Present African Americans profiled included Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Thurgood Marshall, Sidney Poitier, Martin Luther King, Jr., Willie Mays, and General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.[6]

A 1971 older elementary textbook, Adventures in American History, reflected the mixed racial atmosphere of the time.  Its depiction of Reconstruction and the carpetbaggers was negative, for the text portrayed slaves as pawns of corrupt carpetbaggers.  Nevertheless, the author, Jay Glanzrock, a former New York City public school teacher, devoted four pages, all of them sympathetic, to the modern civil rights movement.  He supplemented the text of these four pages with two sidebars, a five paragraph treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a list of “Recent Civil Rights Laws.”  The laws were the first Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.[7]

Public school history textbooks of the late 1970s reflected both the past and present.  The fifth edition of the American Pageant: A History of the Republic (1975) was more sympathetic to the civil rights movement in the 1960s than to its predecessor in the 1860s.  Carpetbaggers were one-dimensional “damn Yankees” who participated in “unwise” Congressional plans for Reconstruction after the “War for Southern Independence.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. however, received a positive review.  Thomas A. Bailey, the author, was a professor at Stanford University.[9]  America! America!, a 1977 high school text, also straddled the fence.  It sided with the vanquished southerners, yet progressively stated that the carpetbaggers accomplished “much good.”  The authors explained that Southern whites were unsure how to treat former slaves because, “it is difficult to suddenly change (sic) the habits of a lifetime.”  The modern civil rights movement received the obligatory positive press.  All four authors worked outside of the South.  L. Joanne Buggey was an educational consultant in Stanford, California.  Gerald A. Danzer taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.  Charles L. Mitsakos was the Social Studies Coordinator/Consultant for the Chelmsford, Massachustts, public schools.  C. Frederick Risinger was the Coordinator of School Social Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.[10]  The fourth edition of This Is America’s Story (1978) was virtually identical to the third edition.[11]  Our People, a fourth grade textbook from 1979, portrayed slaves as skilled laborers.  Its explanation of slavery concluded with the following sentences:

We must always remember that these workers had no freedom.  They had been free in Africa.  Now they were forced to be slaves.  Their children were slaves, too.[12]

A generational comparison of textbooks can demonstrate the shift of historical interpretation in secondary school classrooms.  The fifth edition of History of a Free People (1964), written by Henry W. Bragdon and Samuel P. McCutchen, became the basis for Donald A. Ritchie’s 1998 revision, History of a Free Nation.  Bragdon was a teacher at the Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire, McCutchen was a professor of education at New York University, and Ritchie was Associate Historian in the United States Senate Historical Office.  In 1964, John Brown was a “fanatic” who believed he was on a mission from God to free slaves and to punish their owners.  Thirty-four years later, Brown had become a “fiery abolitionist.”  In 1964, the conflict of 1861-1865 was the War Between the States.   A generation later, that unpleasantness was the Civil War.  In 1964, carpetbaggers were corrupt manipulators of freed slaves.  On the eve of the Twenty-First Century, most carpetbaggers were “respectable, honest, and sincerely devoted to the public interest,” although a corrupt minority created impressions that all carpetbaggers were disreputable.  Both editions gave favorable press to the civil rights movement, especially Martin Luther King, Jr., and federal legislation.[13]

Politics has long dictated what we, as a society, have told our children about the past.  Once upon a time, in a republic not so far away, people legally deprived their fellow human beings of civil rights on the basis of skin tone.  Many public school textbooks obscured and/or lied about history, for the past made many people uncomfortable.  Were all carpetbaggers corrupt, or did some actually believe in what they were doing?  Staunch segregationists preferred one answer, and integrationists taught the other.  Was John Brown a fanatic or a zealot?  The answer to that question has changed over time.  A textbook might mention Jackie Robinson as a “Distinguished Negro,” yet ignore the recently deceased W. E. B. Du Bois, a Socialist, because of Cold War tensions.  The intensely political nature of public school textbooks has long compromised their integrity, reflected societal biases, and corrupted many people’s understanding of history.

Perhaps the politics of the modern civil rights movement influenced the content of some high school history textbooks with regards to John Brown and the carpetbaggers.  Many white supremacist southerners, wary of northern civil rights workers, likened them to carpetbaggers and wished to maintain segregationist traditions without the “meddling” of outsiders.  Furthermore, John Brown must have reminded many racist whites of militant African Americans.  The legacy of John Brown, whose body, which, according to the Civil War song, lay “moldering in his grave,” continued to evoke fear in the South a century after his execution.  The textbook accounts of Brown and the carpetbaggers generally became more nuanced and favorable after the 1960s.

One should not ignore the influence of changing historical interpretations on the content of public school textbooks.  In 1907, William A. Dunning published Reconstruction:  Political and Economic, 1865-1877, which sympathized with the vanquished Southerners during Reconstruction.  The Dunning Thesis, exemplified by the Tragic Era, a 1929 book by Claude G. Bowers, influenced American thought about the 1860s and 1870s.  Gone with the Wind is a reflection of this interpretation.  Ulrich Bonnell (U. B.) Phillips, one of Dunning’s students, dominated the historiography of slavery for the first half of the Twentieth Century. Phillips, a Georgia native, believed that African Americans were inferior and that the peculiar institution was a necessary evil that maintained order, even if it retarded the antebellum southern economy.  He wrote two classic works, American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929).  Scholarship of the 1950s and 1960s overturned the Dunning and Phillips Schools.

Public school textbooks follow society.  They often represent the conservative version of political correctness.  These frequently lamentable tomes contain many crucial omissions, blatant lies, and misconceptions.  These obfuscations of past reality serve to bolster the status quo and to teach a nationalistic interpretation of our republic’s history.  Many state boards, which must approve textbooks, insist that history books teach a falsely positive view of the past.  Certain controversial issues and regrettable episodes become safe to discuss honestly only with the passage of much time.  Others, however, remain political hot potatoes, and therefore the subjects of lies.  Public school textbooks are barometers of society for these reasons.

The cult of the Lost Cause, with Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson as its demigods and the fallen dead as its angels and patron saints, found fertile soil throughout much of the country.  Prior to the 1970s and 1980s, many old public school textbooks sided with the South during and after the Civil War.  This academic environment, typical of its time, aided and abetted the propagation of the cult of the Lost Cause.  Many pro-segregation white Southerners have long cited this version of history to defend their point of view.

[1] Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse:  Dune (New York:  Ace Books, 1985), 1.

[2] James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York:  New Press, 1995), 149; Gertrude Hartman and Hugh T. Lefler, AmericaLand of Freedom, 2d ed. (Lexington, MA:  D.C. Heath and Company, 1959), iv, 425-427, 520, 543.

[3] Hartman and Lefler, 402.

[4] David S. Muzzey and Arthur S. Link, Our American Republic, 3d ed. (Boston:  Ginn and Company, 1965), i-ii, 332-338, 681-684; Howard B. Wilder, Robert P. Ludlum, and Harriett McCune Brown, This Is America’s Story, 3d ed. (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1966), iv, 412-413, 692-694.

[5] Ralph C. Preston and John Tottle, In These United States and Canada—Teacher’s Edition (Boston:  D.C. Heath and Company, 1965), 191, 242-244; Gertrude Stephens Brown, Ernest W. Tiegs, and Fay Adams, Your Country and Mine, New Edition—Teacher’s Manual (Boston:  Ginn and Company, 1966), 173; Harold H. Eibling, Fred M. King, and James Harlow, World Background for American History (Atlanta:  Laidlaw Brothers, 1968), 3, 411-413.

[6] Vashti and Jack Brown, Proudly We Hail (Atlanta:  Houghton Mifflin, 1968), iv, vi-vii.

[7] Jay Glanzrock, Adventures in American History (Atlanta:  Silver Burdett, 1971), iii, 212-215, 326-331.

[8] Ibid., 328.

[9] Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant:  A History of the Republic, 5h ed.  (Lexington, MA:  D.C. Heath and Company, 1975), i, 441, 487-510, 988-990, 1014-1017.

[10] L. Joanne Buggey, et al., America! America!  (Glenview, IL:  Scott, Foresman and Company, 1977), 5, 404-405, 652-661.

[11] Harold B. Wilder, Robert P. Ludlum, and Harriett McCune Brown, This Is America’s Story, 4h ed. (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1978), 414-420, 699-702.

[12] Nelle Dederick, et al.  Our People (Lexington, MA:  Ginn and Company, 1979), 88-91.

[13] Henry W. Bragdon and Samuel P. McCutchen, History of a Free People, 5h ed. (New York:  Macmillan, 1964), iv, 328, 334-357, 362-363, 675-678; Henry W. Bragdon, Samuel P. McCutchen, and Robert A. Ritchie, History of a Free Nation (New York:  Glencoe, 1998), iv, 403, 410-437, 450, 905-914.



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