Background/Context: Across the nation, people living in the United States are embroiled in conflict over the meaning of its past. Many of the most fervent conflicts relate to acts of historical violence: war, enslavement, conquest, and colonization among them. Elementary school students commonly study the early colonization of the land now known as the United States, the nation’s Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and other periods of history that historians describe as rife with violence. In the field of California colonial history, there is virtual consensus among historians that the Spanish mission system was a period of violence and devastation, most especially for California Indians, but school history curricula have been criticized for avoiding this history of violence. This raises questions about the role of intellectual honesty in teaching elementary-aged students about U.S. history. Though a small body of scholarship engages with questions of whether and how to talk with young children about human atrocity, few studies have empirically examined what state-recommended elementary school curriculum actually say about historical violence in the formation of the United States.
Research Questions/Focus of Study: This study examines the representation of violence in state-recommended elementary school history textbooks on the topic of the Spanish colonization of California. Specifically, the study responds to the following questions: How do the textbooks’ content address the topic of violence? Are California Indian and Spanish acts of violence represented differently? If so, how?
Research Design: Data were derived from a content analysis of fourth grade-level history textbooks recommended by the California State Department of Education in public use at the time of the study.
Data Collection and Analysis: Using qualitative coding software, chapters on California colonial mission history in each of the four state-recommended textbooks were coded and analyzed at the level of the sentence (n = 1,601). Coding and analysis took place in two stages. First, each sentence was coded for references to violence and ethnic group(s), which allowed for analysis of the number of references to acts of violence and ethnic groups throughout the entirety of the text. The second stage more closely examined the set of sentences that referred specifically to violence, allowing for comparison of the representation of violence according to the ethnic group with which it was associated.
Findings/Results: The study shows that violence is only minimally addressed in California fourth-grade history textbook content on the topic of Spanish colonization. Although generally underrepresented throughout the text, California Indian people are disproportionately overrepresented as perpetrators of violence in the early colonization of California, a framing that is drastically out of alignment with the historical record as it is agreed upon by historians.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This study makes two key conclusions. First, the article argues that, in this case, elementary school history curriculum presents a distorted vision of violence in the colonial past. Second, the article complicates the issue of when young children are old enough to learn about violent histories in school by revealing that they are already learning about violence in the past, although such representation is both minimal and problematic. The article concludes by recommending the design of learning activities that engage in preparatory version of a more intellectually honest investigation of the historical record, as well as its relationship to the present.