History to the Left of Us

Article excerpt

USA Today recently reported on its front page that American high school seniors could not perform even at the most basic level in the subject of history. Less than half the students could identify or explain major events in U.S. history, such as the Monroe Doctrine, Nat Turner's rebellion, or the Bay of Pigs invasion. Why can't Johnny learn history?

The standard culprits deserve blame, including lack of competition in public schools, low standards, and entrenched unions. Another factor in the dismal state of elementary and high-school education however, seeps down from the college level: a pervasive bias that distorts American-history textbooks. A sampling of what passes for history in some of the main college texts will offer a glimpse of the hurdles that confront even unbiased, well-meaning secondary school instructors who rely on these "mainstream" texts. (Due to the familiarity of most readers with events of the last 20 years, I will limit my examples to the final chapters of these books, but the tilt proliferates in the treatment of earlier events as well.)

During the Reagan years, textbook authors tried to minimize the extent of Reagan's surprising 1980 election victory by pointing to overall voter participation. George Tindall and David Shi's popular America states that Reagan's "vote total represented only 28 percent of the potential electorate. Only 53 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1980 election." They fail to remind readers that the highest voter participation levels in American history occurred in 1810, when heavy property-ownership requirements meant that only a handful of Americans elected a President. Likewise, Winthrop Jordan and Leon Litwack continue the "low-turnout" mantra in their The United States by sarcastically noting that "the new President entered the White House having received a `landslide' of only 26 percent of the electorate."

Another line of attack is to depict Ronald Reagan as no more than an actor. Though Daniel Goldfield and his co-authors acknowledge Reagan's masterful communication skills in American Journey, they seem obliged to note in a photo caption that "critics questioned his grasp of complex issues." Reagan "was no intellectual," claims the widely-used American Pageant, and according to Nation of Nations, Reagan made the "conspicuous display of wealth once again a sign of success and power." As if to make absolutely sure students got the point that the Reagan administration benefitted only the "wealthy," the American Pageant accompanies its narrative section with a handy chart on "aggregate household income" purportedly showing a massive gap between the rich and poor.

The distortions of the 1980s economic record in these texts would require several issues of TAE, but this one rather blatant example ought to suffice: Thomas Bailey et al.'s American Pageant, long considered perhaps the best college-level text on U.S. history, devotes not one, but two charts to deficits and the national debt in the 1980s, in which the deficit and debt lines appear to go literally off the map under Reagan's watch. In the chart on the national debt, the bias is even more stark: Large bars across the debt time-line indicate important events in American history ("Depression," "World War II ends," "Vietnam War"). Except the one that crosses the skyrocketing debt. It reads not, say, "Last Decade of Cold War" but--you guessed it--"Reagan Administration." Worse, the charts are both badly statistically flawed and conceptually wrong. Students (and most instructors) would likely not notice that the legend reads "Billions of dollars." Hmmm? Not "Billions of Real Dollars" or "Billions of Dollars as a Ratio of GNP?" When I recalculated the American Pageant data (for both deficits and debt) in real dollars, then graphed it as a share of GNP, l was stunned. It did not even resemble the original. As a share of GNP, the debt under Reagan barely equaled that of the Kennedy or Truman administrations, and was dwarfed by Roosevelt's New Deal. …