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Missing Chapters from American History


You can force people to attend school, but you cannot force them to learn in any meaningful sense.

     by Clarence Carson / from Foundation for Economic Education

It has fallen to my lot over the past two decades to examine and write reviews of a goodly number of textbooks. Most of those reviewed have been intended for use in the high schools, though some have been designed for use in colleges as well. I have reviewed scores of books on American history, an armful on world history (or European Civilization, as the case might be), several dozen on such varied subjects as American government, civics, problems of democracy, citizenship, and such like, a few on economics, a handful on geography, and several that hardly fit any known category.

Having toiled in this particular vineyard off and on over the years, perhaps, I have qualified myself for drawing some conclusions, particularly about history textbooks. The conclusion I wish to emphasize here, of course, is that there are some chapters missing from history textbooks. But I also want to make clear that their absence is not simply incidental, and that their inclusion could have been of considerable moment. They are at the heart of the American experience, and the lessons which could be learned from them could have changed—and still might change—the direction of our development. The reason for this can be made clearer, however, by calling attention to some other conclusions I have drawn before discussing the missing chapters.

My most general conclusion is that the quality of these books has declined over the years. The quality did not begin to decline when I started reviewing them—at least, I hope it didn’t—but it has gone down precipitately in recent years. I am not referring, of course, to what might be called the physical attributes, such as binding, paper, print, or any of the aspects of reproduction. So far as I can judge of such things, that has generally improved.

Declining Quality Evident in Contents

What has declined in quality has been the contents. History used to be mainly narrative, supported by explanation and some analysis. Such narrative as remains in many books is now segregated from the rest of the contents by being set in boxes located here and there throughout the book. Analysis is often supplemented or supplanted by “attitudinizing”—as, “What is your opinion of thus and so?” Oversimplifications usually abound, but they are overshadowed by exaggerations which became more commonplace as graduates of the student revolution in the 1960s began writing textbooks.

But the written material in many books has to be squeezed between the overabundant pictures, drawings, charts, graphs, and maps so that if there were a story line to follow only the most tenacious could do so.The necessity for the opportunity to read is being progressively removed from the books.

As illiteracy has spread upward through the grades, the necessity for and the opportunity to read is being progressively removed from the books. Some of the books ape television with its constant shifting from one scene to another, one topic to another, and one idea to another. The assumption informing some of them seems to be that children have an attention span of ten seconds at most, and my suspicion is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even so, the decline in the quality of textbooks is more of an effect than a cause, an effect of the general deterioration of education in the United States. Given the premises and the political control of education that prevails, the quality of textbooks must decline. Moreover, given the disorder and indiscipline which is commonplace in many high school classrooms, it would affect matters only marginally if all textbooks had the uniformly high quality of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Most schools are far too crowded with those who cannot or will not learn for textbooks to make any critical difference. Laying the responsibility on the textbooks alone would be like placing the blame for sinking in quicksand on the quality of shoes you happen to be wearing.

While there may be a thousand—or ten thousand—particular explanations for the deterioration of education in the United States, there is one basic reason which underlies most, if not all, of them. Virtually every public problem associated with education today is traceable to forced schooling and the extensive and increasing use of force in support of schooling.

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