The History You Learn May Depend On Where You Live
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / January 16, 2020
In this divisive political climate, a New York Times journalist read 4,800 pages of American history books to find out what students are being taught in school.
Speaker 1: 00:00 She read 4,800 pages of American history books to find out what students are being taught in school. And she discovered numerous flaws in the way students from Texas to California are being taught thanks to politics from white resistance to black progress during reconstruction to gender and sexuality, even immigration and nativism, depending on which political party is in control of a state that shapes what version of history students are taught. National correspondent with the New York times. Dana Goldstein did the reporting on this. Dana, thanks so much for joining us.
Speaker 2: 00:33 Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1: 00:34 So what made you want to read 4,800 pages of history books?
Speaker 2: 00:39 Yeah, well, I have an education reporter for almost 15 years and earlier this year, um, well actually 2019 early in 2019 I was visiting some social studies classrooms and I noticed that there were really wonderful dynamic teachers that were still really using their textbooks. You know, we have the feeling that in this digital age, these books don't matter anymore. But these teachers had sticky notes all over their textbooks and they had highlighted them and underlined passages and dog-eared the pages. And I thought, you know, teachers still do look at the textbooks in terms of figuring out how to teach American history to their kids. And I knew that it's a very political process what turns up in these books. So I wanted to look at the two biggest textbook markets in the nation, which are Texas and California. They have very different political cultures. One's a conservative state, the other is a liberal state. What gets produced for those States makes it to many kids across the country. So I wanted to take a close look.
Speaker 1: 01:37 And when you compare the textbooks in Texas and California, what did you find?
Speaker 2: 01:42 I found that true to the reputation of Texas policymakers was conservative and true to the reputation of California policymakers as liberal. Each group was pushing for changes in the books or revisions in the book that reflect, um, those ideologies. So for example, California passed a law in 2011 that requires students to learn about LGBTQ history. So you'd see, you know, thousands of new words of writing produced by these publishers about LGBTQ history. You won't find any of that text in the textbook for Texas. Texas has a law on the books that asks for students to learn about the benefits of the free enterprise system. So you see a lot more positive portrayals of tycoons like Andrew Carnegie for example. California has more of an emphasis on how big business can pollute the environment. So very, very different.
Speaker 1: 02:36 Hmm, that's interesting. I mean, so what do you think shapes these different perspectives of facts and how they're told in the history books?
Speaker 2: 02:44 Well, basically the Republican party controls the process in Texas and the democratic party controls the process in California. So you have appointees of Democrats reviewing textbook draft and writing to the publishers. Here's what we want to see in the book, here's changes we want you to make in California. And then the opposite is true in Texas. The the folks that get appointed to review the textbook draft and influence the process are more likely to be conservative.
Speaker 1: 03:09 And talk to me a bit more about this because one of the things you say you noticed was the partisan spin on the way historical events are depicted and even which ones are, are taught. Can you tell me more about that?
Speaker 2: 03:20 I wouldn't say that the spin is partisan. I think it's more of an ideological preference that each state's policymakers have in terms of what's included and what's not. So for example, um, housing, housing discrimination is repeatedly mentioned in the California social sciences framework as something that students should learn about. So when you learn about the suburbanization of this country in the 1950s, you should know that that American dream was not equally accessible to African Americans because of housing discrimination and redlining restrictive deeds and those types of policies. California textbooks will mention that when you get to that chapter in the Texas textbooks, um, it's a much more positive story of suburbanization the baby boom, the sense of a prosperous time that Americans all benefited from. So it's, it's, it's a different, a different story, a different framework.
Speaker 1: 04:12 Was there anything that surprised you in terms of things that were omitted from the history books?
Speaker 2: 04:18 Well, I think, um, both States could have done a better job speaking frankly to students about the fact that the fact many of the founding fathers were slave owners. I think both States could have done better. Talking about how debates over slavery shaped the U S constitution. Um, the declaration of independence. So there were some common flaws to the textbooks and also some common benefits to these books, which were all published in the last several years compared to books from 10, 20, 30 years ago. There was much more sort of Frank information about how brutal slavery was that was depicted in much more vivid detail. There was a lot more on the displacement of native Americans. So in, in whole, I would say the books have become more inclusive over time.
Speaker 1: 05:02 Hmm. And you know, about midway through your reporting process, you say you spent an afternoon, a few blocks away from the times headquarters at, uh, the New York public library. What did you learn there?
Speaker 2: 05:13 Yeah. So I wanted to look at some books from my own childhood, which was back in the 1990s and also from the fifties and sixties when my parents were in school and even further back the 30s and forties to see how textbooks have changed and they really have become much more inclusive over time. You know, even 20 years ago there was hardly anything about the feminist movement. There were, you know, very problematic and troubling depictions of reconstruction, suggestions that African Americans were not prepared for freedom or you know, better off and slaves and free these sorts of assumptions over even the last five to 10 years have started to disappear from textbooks published by mainstream publishers.
Speaker 1: 05:53 Hmm. And I'm curious because you sum up the different American histories being taught as an issue of, of partisan politics. Why do you attribute it to that rather than racism?
Speaker 2: 06:05 Well, there is racist ideas inherent in these differences I think especially in what's excluded from the history books in Texas and also some of what's excluded in California. I mean the California books are not perfect either, but finding the root cause here I find that it is Repub the Republican party that controls the process more in Texas and the democratic party controls the process more in California.
Speaker 1: 06:29 And what did you learn about how political divides shape what students are taught in history class?
Speaker 2: 06:35 Well I think when you have partisan politics responsible for appointing those people in each state who get to review these textbooks and work with publishers to produce the text, you're naturally going to be giving kids, you know, somewhat different stories of America. And it's very important I think in shaping our citizenry. It's not necessarily that a student is going to retain and recall every sentence of their textbook. We know that that's not true. But as the teacher create their lesson plans and sort of imparts the big lessons of American history to students, there is no doubt that the materials that are in classrooms in Texas are giving more of a conservative spin. And those in California are giving more of a liberal spin and in this really deeply divided political time that we're in, that just seems extremely relevant to me.
Speaker 1: 07:25 I've been speaking with Dana Goldstein, a national correspondent for the New York times. Dana, thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 2: 07:31 Thanks for having me.