What kids learn in school tends to change with the times, and some curricular regulations that are either antiquated or simply embedded in beliefs have raised eyebrows across the country as of late.
Yet regulation aside, in a layer of education that reaches students firsthand, is the textbook: the student’s omniscient manual in any given subject. Because these books dictate student knowledge and can shape perspective, their contents are sometimes the source of controversy. In Louisiana, for example, one commonly used textbook teaches students “the accumulated wisdom of the past from a biblical worldview.”
And while September 11 is a recent memory that many still live with, the attacks are a distant reference to schoolchildren today. As the event and its subsequent war have become “recent history,” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took to examine how high schoolers are learning about 9/11 and the years following.
His general findings: the threat of terrorism can be eliminated, the Patriot Act was not controversial and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Friedersdorf’s analysis is decidedly unscientific, looking only at one history textbook: a 2003 edition of The American Vision by Professors Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert Broussard, James McPhereson, and Donald Ritchie. Still, the book is one of the most used American history textbooks in schools for 11th graders.
He criticizes the book’s flat portrayal of 9/11, perhaps misleading students to believe that the day’s attacks killed more people than the invasion of Normandy. The authors, he points out, also use examples of “terrorist attacks” on America that don’t fit the book’s own definition of terrorism. Friedersdorf writes:
What follows is an account of the early War on Terrorism told from the perspective of the Bush Administration, often using paraphrased or direct quotes from government officials rather than exercising judgment. “President Bush decided the time had come to end the threat of terrorism in the world,” the authors say, as if discussing a plausible proposal that might well end up succeeding.
Isn’t that the sort of myopia historical study is supposed to gird us against?
To be sure, Friedersdorf points to the book’s 2003 publish year as indication that its contents were written during a volatile time in America — when tensions ran high and when public sentiment was patriotic. But that’s not a factor in how students are learning about the country’s recent history.
Friedersdorf’s criticisms of the history textbook come as American students are continuously proving to know less in subjects like history. A study released last month by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and GfK roper saw abysmal results on surveys gauging American history literacy among college graduates. The results seemingly echoed the findings of two viral videos from earlier this year that suggested students do not possess adequate knowledge of U.S. history, politics and current events.
A 2010 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed the U.S. history testing scores are “stagnant,” with only 9 percent of fourth graders correctly identifying a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and stating two reasons for his importance.
Lee White, executive director of the National History Coalition, says the problem stems from history’s place in American curriculum.
“They’ve narrowed the curriculum to teach to the test. History has been deemphasized,” he said. “You can’t expect kids to have great scores in history when they’re not being taught history.”