High School History: Memoirs of a Texas Textbook Writer
by Paul F. Boller Jr. - 1980
Controversy has been generated by a right-wing group over the merit of various high school American history textbooks. The author argues that his textbook fits all ethical categories. (Source: ERIC)
In America Revised (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), a critical study of textbooks in American history for secondary schools, Frances FitzGerald reports that in 1961 a right-wing group called Texans for America (TFA) intimidated the Texas State Textbook Committee and forced publishers to make substantial changes in their American history and geography texts. One publisher, she says, deleted a passage saying that World War II might have been avoided had the United States joined the League of Nations. Another publisher took out passages concerning the need for the United States to maintain friendly relations with other countries and the fact that some countries occasionally disagree with us and substituted passages saying that some countries were less free than the United States. And other publishers, bowing to the same pressure, she notes, deleted references in their books to Pete Seeger, Langston Hughes, and other offenders against the sensibilities of TFA.
FitzGerald naturally deplores such goings-on in the Lone Star State. But she does not seem to be aware of the fact that at least one publisher refused to knuckle under to TFA. The publisher was Webster Publishing Company in St. Louis (since absorbed by McGraw-Hill) and the book was This Is Our Nation. The Webster book came up for adoption in Texas shortly after its publication in 1961. Not only did Webster refuse to make changes in the text demanded by TFA; it also succeeded in getting This Is Our Nation placed on Texas's multiple-adoption list despite the clamor of the ultra-rightists.
FitzGerald lists This Is Our Nation in the bibliography of America Revised, but she shows no signs of familiarity with its contents. More's the pity. She might have found it of interest. Not only did it contain a great deal of material distasteful to right-wing groups in Texas; it also contained material that should have met her approval. In America Revised, she points out that American history textbooks appearing in the 1950s and early 1960s were written in the shadow of the Cold War and presented a narrowly political, chauvinistic, and even McCarthyite (Joe, not Eugene) point of view. This may well be so; but if so, This Is Our Nation was a notable exception. I know very well whereof I speak. This Is Our Nation was a textbook I wrote for Webster with the help of Jean Tilford, a Cincinnati high school teacher. I wrote the book in the late 1950s, when I was teaching history at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas and turned my manuscript over to Jean for suggestions and revisions from the high school perspective (she also added captions and study aids). The book was finally published after editors at Webster had prepared maps and diagrams and selected illustrations to accompany the text. We also included extracts from diaries, letters, speeches, and memoirs to go with each chapter.
This Is Our Nation certainly had its shortcomings, and if I were to do it today I would undoubtedly do it somewhat differently. Still, as I look it over again after these many years, in the light of FitzGerald's strictures about textbooks, I am surprised and pleased at how many sensible things it contains. In many respects, in fact, it measures up to the standards for creditable texts that FitzGerald puts forward in America Revised.
Item: FitzGerald complains that until recently American history textbooks tended to view the United States as the center of the universe and to neglect its relations with other nations. Well, This Is Our Nation is guilty of no such parochialism. It begins by placing the United States squarely in a world setting. "The fate and fortunes of the American continents," runs the very first sentence of the narrative, "have been closely tied to other parts of the world since earliest times." The introductory section in the first chapter then goes on to say something about America's relations with Asia and Europe from the very beginning.
The word isolationist, by the way, appears nowhere in This Is Our Nation and cannot of course be found in the index. The omission was deliberate. I have always regarded the word isolationist as a polemical term, employed by people who wanted the United States to intervene militarily in other parts of the world and wished to intimidate their opponents. The word has nasty overtones: It connotes narrow-mindedness, provincialism, mean-spirited nationalism, dangerous ignorance. No one likes to be called an isolationist. It was (and still is) the perfect word to use in order to make people with antiwar sentiments feel uncomfortable and even guilty; and it has been freely employed by war hawks in this country ever since the Spanish-American War. Undoubtedly there have been occasions when one could justify American intervention abroad; but that has nothing to do with "abandoning" so-called isolationism. The idea that the United States ever was or ever could be (or that anyone ever seriously wanted her to be) isolated from the rest of the world, like Japan before Perry, at any time in its history is of course preposterous. Doves have been at least as international-minded as hawks in this country. I was anxious to lay the isolationist nonsense to rest at the outset of my book and did so by pointing out that America has had continual contacts with other parts of the world since its inception.
Item: Indians are "in" today, says one of my colleagues at Texas Christian University who gets a big enrollment these days in his classes on the American Indians. This was not the case in 1961; I doubt whether any history department in the country offered courses on Indians in that year. FitzGerald is amused (and somewhat cynical) about the sudden appearance of Indians in high school textbooks after the agitations on our college campuses in the late sixties and early seventies. But they had already stepped onto the stage in This Is Our Nation in 1961. Following the introductory passages on America's world setting, there is a section in the first chapter of the book on the American Indians. Not only does the book call them "the most truly native Americans"; it also says something about the various cultures they developed in North and South America and makes the point that "the heritage of the United States is Indian as well as European."
Item: In America Revised, FitzGerald complains that traditional history textbooks failed to point out that the Spanish and the French got to the New World before the English did. I am pleased to report that in the first chapter of This Is Our Nation there is a long section entitled "Spanish Explorers Open the New World to Colonization," followed by another lengthy section called "Spain's New World Supremacy Is Challenged by France and England."
Item: FitzGerald deplores the omission of social and economic history in textbooks published until recently and the excessive concentration on political history and on American presidents. She is especially denigrative of textbooks that say little or nothing about the dramatic impact of the Industrial Revolution on American and world civilization.
From the economic point of view, This Is Our Nation deserves FitzGerald's hearty commendation. Chapter 3, "The Colonists Become Americanized," discusses the growth of cities, social classes, the colonial family, and the status of women and children on the eve of the American Revolution. Two chapters, devoted to the American Revolution, place special emphasis on the social and economic factors propelling colonial Americans toward the idea of independence from Great Britain. They also discuss the classes supporting the Revolution and those remaining loyal to Britain. Chapter 6, which describes the Revolutionary War itself, also has something to say about the economic, social, religious, and legal changes that occurred during and after the Revolution. Chapter 7, on the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, gives economic as well as political reasons for the decision to draw up a new frame of government in 1787. Chapter 8, on George Washington's presidency, explains economic as well as political differences in the viewpoints of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and calls attention to the economic basis of the political parties that emerged shortly after Washington's inauguration.
When This Is Our Nation gets to the first part of the nineteenth century, its special concern for economic and social development continues and even increases. Chapter 14 has a self-explanatory title: "Great Changes Come to American Industry, Agriculture, and Transportation." In this chapter, the book mentions the Industrial Revolution for the first time, defines "industrial capitalism," describes the emerging factory system with its harsh working conditions, and calls attention to the creation of the first labor organizations in the United States in the early nineteenth century. Chapter 15 does not deal with economics, but it does not deal with politics either. It discusses American culture in the broadest sensereligion, science, education, literature, the fine arts, and humanitarian reform movementsduring the antebellum period.
When it comes to the Civil War, This Is Our Nation tells us all about the battles, but it also has a section on the economic changes brought about by the sectional conflict. The three chapters following the one on the Civil War place special emphasis on the momentous economic developments that took place in the United States during and after the war. One chapter deals with the settlement of the Great Plains (America's "last frontier"), another is devoted to the triumph of industry in the United States, and a third concentrates on the impact of industrialism on American life and the tensions and conflicts it generated. These chapters, among other things, define the word corporation for the book's readers and describe the different kinds of industrial combinations created by the Captains of Industry; show how industrialism transformed the independent craftsman into a factory worker with consequent loss of status; discuss the rise of national labor unions and the outbreak of nationwide upheavals like the Pullman strike of 1894; depict the plight of the farmer in the late nineteenth century and the rise of Populism; and point out that industrial monopolies continued to grow apace in this country despite the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890.
In the twentieth century, the economic crisis that erupted during Herbert Hoover's administration comes as no surprise to This Is Our Nation. The book does more than simply chronicle the Great Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression; it points out the weaknesses in the American economy before the stock market took a tumble. At the same time it tries to explain why "Wall St. Laid an Egg," as Variety put it, in October 1929.
The presidents are all here (even Millard Fillmore); and there is a great deal of political history in the Webster book. But it seems fair to say that high school students who took the trouble to read This Is Our Nation with some care would gain a fairly good understanding of the crucial importance of economic activities in the history of their country.
Item: FitzGerald especially deplores the absence of intellectual history in high school textbooks. American intellectual history happens to be my own special field of interest and it is natural that I tried to introduce some discussion of ideas into my textbook. There is not nearly enough of it in the book; I am fully aware of that. But This Is Our Nation does contain, I am happy to report, some explanation of Puritanism; a definition of mercantilism and a discussion of its bearing on the breach between Britain and the colonies; a careful exposition of the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence; summaries of the opinions of people like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Calhoun; and several chapters devoted exclusively to cultural developmentsreligion, science, medicine, education, journalism, art, music, and literaturescattered throughout the text. I wish, though, that I had done more to clarify the ideas animating American foreign-policy makers in the twentieth century. Charles Beard's famous classification of the major foreign-policy philosophies competing for adoption in this countrynational interest, imperialism, world pacificationwould have been enormously helpful in this area.
Item: FitzGerald laments the absence of living personalities in our high school history texts. Columbus, she says, has become a minor character; nor do John Smith and the other folk heroes of an older America receive more than passing (and perfunctory) mention any more. But This Is Our Nation does not do badly at all on this score. Over two pages are devoted to Columbus in the book's first chapter; extracts from his journal, moreover, accompany the narrative text. John Smith gets more than casual mention; and so do such figures as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Williams Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Dorothea Dix, John Calhoun, Robert LaFollette, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the first draft of This Is Our Nation, I included several dramatic incidents and colorful episodes involving people like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson. Unfortunately, the rise in printing costs while the book was being processed forced Webster to shorten the book just before publication. Editor Wally Stees and I sat down one long weekend in St. Louis in 1960 and ruefully (and ruthlessly) cut fifty pages from the final text. Since textbooks serve as reference books as well as assigned reading for students, legislative enactments (like the Fordney-McCumber tariff) took precedence over human-interest material and the latter, to my chagrin, had to give way in numerous places to more prosaic matter. After lengthy discussions and much lamenting we finally excised some of my favorite passages; and then went out for a couple of drinks. But we did, happily, retain the dramatic story of Washington's refusal to become a military dictator at the end of the Revolutionary War.
Item: FitzGerald, finally, regrets the loss of unity in textbooks appearing since the late 1960s and the absence of a central vision about the American experience. So much material has to be crammed into textbooks today to appease the various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups making up the United States that recent texts give the impression, she says, "that Americans have no common history, no common culture, and no common values, and that membership in a racial or cultural group constitutes the most fundamental experience of each individual."
This Is Our Nation rests on a basic respect (even preference) for diversity and on the belief that every person in America, regardless of race, sex, or ethnicity, has a right to a place in the sun. Still, when it comes to equal time and affirmative action (and the use of such bureaucratic infelicities as "spokesperson" and "chairperson"), the book would scarcely pass muster today with the purveyors of the conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, it did have a basic point of view centering on the ideals appearing in the Great Declaration of 1776: a society animated by respect for the basic human rights of every individual in it and a government resting on the freely given consent of the people. This Is Our Nation makes it clear that economic developments (especially since the Industrial Revolution) have accounted for much of what has happened in America since the earliest settlements; but it also holds that the philosophy of the Great Declaration has been a powerful force in uniting the different peoples making up this nation and in inspiring them to meliorative action.
FitzGerald's tastes (and my own) and the preferences of Know Nothing groups like TFA are of course immiscible. It is not surprising that TFA was hostile to This Is Our Nation and, since I was a resident of Texas and a handy target, concentrated its indignation on the Webster book rather than on some of the other books in the field. But it is also important to note that the TFA attack was in part ad hominem. I was in bad repute with TFA even before the appearance of my book. During the 1950s, while teaching at SMU, I helped organize and was active in an organization called the Dallas Citizens for Peaceful Integration and I also helped form a Dallas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Worst of all, though, from the extreme right-wing point of view, was my insistence (in speeches and in print) that, contrary to the contentions of the McCarthyites, the American Communist Party was a tiny, declining, and mostly discredited organization, and that to regard communism in the United States as a serious threat to the well-being of the American people was a piece of egregious foolishness. The fact that I made this point in the classroom at SMU and in speeches in the Dallas community roused Texas reactionaries to wrath. The Dallas Morning News (vociferously pro-McCarthyite in those days) lectured me editorially on the subject, quoted J. Edgar Hoover for my benefit, and proudly printed, a few days later, the FBI chief's letter of praise for its editorial. The Park Cities-North Dallas News joined the Dallas News in chiding me for my opinions; and Dan Smoot, extreme-rightist commentator in the Dallas area, also got into the act. In his monthly newsletter, the Dan Smoot Report, and on his Sunday afternoon television show, Smoot blasted me for telling my students that Communist influence through the years had been negligible in the United States. By the time This Is Our Nation was published, in short, I had come to be known among Texas reactionaries as a professor who was "soft on Communism." (When a student told one of my SMU colleagues that she had heard I was a Communist but thought I was "nice," he wheezed, "Yes, he's a nice Communist.")
The charge of "softness on Communism" I found, at least at first, to be vastly amusing. (The hate calls in the middle of the night were not so funny.) I was in fact an old-fashioned anti-Stalinist. My views as a young man in the 1940s had been powerfully shaped by iconoclastic Dwight Macdonald's wonderful journal, Politics, which I subscribed to even when I was overseas, during World War II, in the U.S. Navy. Macdonald was passionately antiwar and forthrightly anti-Stalinist; and though I had reluctantly decided against pacifism when I enlisted in the Navy, I remained tremendously sympathetic to his general outlook on war and peace as well as on Stalinism. It was in large measure because of Macdonald that I was never at any time in my life under any illusions about the Gulag Archipelago. (Nor, later on, about the Vietnam War.) But this scarcely made me acceptable to TFA. TFA's members, like McCarthyites generally, knew next to nothing about Stalinism.
In September 1961, when the Texas State Textbook Advisory Committee began holding hearings on American history textbooks for high school, TFA, headed by J. Evetts Haley, a cattleman in Canyon, Texas, who had published several books about ranches, leaped into action. Haley himself went to Austin to testify in person that This Is Our Nation was "dangerous as a textbook and deleterious to the character of the children reading it." He went on to say that Boiler was "soft on Communism or short on logic and learning, or perhaps both." Harris Holmes, the hard-working representative of Webster Publishing Company in Texas, defended the book before the textbook committee; and the American Studies Association of Texas passed a resolution, written by Martin Shockley, English professor at North Texas State University, expressing confidence in Boiler and "no confidence whatsoever" in Haley. The Canyon cowboy was of course unmoved by all of this.
Haley's organization had a textbook committee of its own, headed by Don Riddle, a veterinarian in the town of Paris, Texas. Riddle made a cursory reading of all the American history texts submitted for adoption and issued criticisms of most of them. But he gave This Is Our Nation special attention, and it was necessary for Wally Stees, the fine editor with whom I had been working, to call an emergency meeting with Jean Tilford and me to prepare detailed replies to his long list of criticisms. Riddle's critique was shabbily written: awkward, repetitive, and filled with errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The critique was also filled with inaccuracies: It accused us of omitting vital facts about American history that it was easy for us to show we had actually included in the book. But it was harder to respond to other charges. What was one to say to the allegation that we spent too much space on the Indians and on the subject of slavery? Or that it was "sadistic" to mention the Salem witchhunt? Or that we failed to point out that the United Nations was a world government infringing on American sovereignty? Riddle was particularly upset by a quotation from Anzia Yezierska (an immigrant from Russia who published several books in the 1920s about her life in the United States) appearing in the book; he kept coming back to the Yezierska quote in his critique and complaining that we could have selected a more truly American figure to quote.
When it came to quotations, This Is Our Nation did in fact cite the old stand-bys: Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. But when it reached the twentieth century, the book also quoted John Dewey, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair; and all of these people were, from Riddle's (and Haley's) point of view, highly suspect. Dewey, said Riddle, had been cited twenty-one times by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also saw something sinister in a cartoon we had included in the book illustrating the United States's purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The cartoon pictured Secretary of State William Seward (who had had trouble persuading the U.S. Senate to ratify the Alaska treaty) laboriously pushing a wheelbarrow, called "treaty," on which was perched a huge rock labeled "Russian America" (the name of Alaska before the U.S. purchase). "The authors," Riddle warned, "purpose [sic] to instill in the students [sic] mind a Russian America."
When Riddle came to the twentieth century, he accused the Webster book of being too friendly to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and especially delinquent in not pointing out that President Roosevelt had tricked the United States into recognizing the Soviet Union in 1933. But what bothered the Paris veterinarian above all else was that in a chapter on American culture in the twentieth century the book mentioned scores of peopleRalph Bunche, Aaron Copland, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Willa Gather, Carl Sandburg, "and many more!"whose loyalty to the United States was in question. "Our students," lamented Riddle in the grand conclusion to his report, "are supposed to learn more of the true heritage of their country by reading the works of men who are [sic] government investigating committee had sighted [sic] as being affiliated with subversive organizations; than by studying the lives and history of the men who formed our government." The tone of the reply that Wally Stees, Jean Tilford, and I framed to Riddle's critique was moderate and unruffled; we took up his points one by one and yielded ground on none of them.
The battle of the textbooks went on for weeks. When the Texas State Textbook Committee, made up of fifteen high school teachers and administrators throughout the state, met to make its recommendations to the State Board of Education in October 1961, it selected five textbooks, including This Is Our Nation, for the state's multiple-adoption list. The committee asked for minor changes in all of the books, including the Webster book. We agreed to the revisions; they involved changes in wording in three places for clarification and replacing one picture because its reproduction was poor. One of the writers for the Texas Observer, liberal biweekly, called me from Austin to ask about the changes. To my astonishment, he simply refused to believe that we had not altered our book to please the Haleyites; and in his coverage of the textbook controversy in the Observer, he gave the impression that we had "sold out." I found it hard at this point to decide who had a lower opinion of me: Haley or the Observer writer.
In November 1961, the Texas State Board of Education approved the textbook committee's recommendations (despite Haley's efforts to have my book stricken from the list), and the multiple-adoption list was sent to local school districts throughout the state. Up to this point, Texas educators had withstood admirably the enormous pressure brought on them by the Haleyites and deserved high praise, I thought, for their refusal to be intimidated. But when the multiple-adoption list went off to the local school districts, the Haleyites renewed their efforts to kill my book (including attacks on me at the textbook committee hearings held by the state legislature in 1962) and in the end they succeeded. It did not make sense to people at the local level to risk trouble with the Haleyites when there were four other books, presumably just as good as mine and perhaps even better, from which to choose. Two or three districts did lean toward This Is Our Nation for a time; but when Haley's TFA sent out a four-page circular throughout the state denouncing my book and threatening "indignation meetings" if it was selected anywhere, the local committees gave way and picked other texts. In the end, though the book did well in other states, the only place where it was chosen in Texas (and I cannot explain why) was Uvalde, the home of John Nance Garner, former vice-president under Franklin Roosevelt.
In Dallas (my hometown those days), when the school board met in February 1962 to hear the recommendations of the local textbook committee, some of my friends in town and some of my students went to the meeting and told me afterward what took place there. The high school auditorium where the meeting was held was crowded with grim-faced citizens, they said, clutching copies of This Is Our Nation, filled with marginal notations, and ready to spring into action if the book received a favorable notice. When the meeting came to order, the chairman of the textbook committee reassured the crowd at once: "I want you to know at the outset that we have not picked the Boiler book!" There was a burst of applause and he then went on to name the chosen text. It was University of Wisconsin historian Merle Curd's Rise of the American Nation. Well, I thought, when I learned the news, perhaps Haley hasn't won after all: Curtis and I see eye to eye on most issues and I hold him in high esteem. But I felt sorry for Webster Publishing Company; it had invested a lot in my textbook and had counted on doing well in Texas with an SMU author.
Did TFA's campaign against This Is Our Nation represent democracy in action (participatory democracy)? Do citizens at the grass-roots level have the right and duty to pass judgment on the content of books used in American public schools? Does TFA deserve equal time when it comes to textbook-writing with AIM, CORE, NAACP, NOW, and Viva la Raza? Frances FitzGerald rightly deplores the fragmentation (even Balkanization) of our history in the new high school texts, resulting from publishers' eagerness to accommodate the numerous minorities in this country who are clamoring for favorable mention and equal space. But she doesn't really come to grips with the basic problem: Do the people at large have a right to determine the content of our textbooks or is it the prerogative of professionals to shape them without popular interference?
At first blush it would seem reasonable to assign the task exclusively to professionals. "Guidance for a school," wrote Walter Lippmann at the time of the Scopes Trial, "can come ultimately only from educators, and the question of what shall be taught as biology can be determined only by biologists." Professional mathematicians determine the content of math books; should not professional historians be the final judges of what goes into our history books? On second thought, however, one realizes that historians are more "culture-bound" in certain ways than mathematicians are; they are profoundly affected in their view of the past by the prevailing climates of opinion in which they live and work and it is easy for interpretations to creep into their writings that may be grossly unfair to some parts of the American experience. In 1940, The Growth of the American Republic, one of the best American history college textbooks in print, written by Harvard's Samuel Eliot Morison and Columbia's Henry Steele Commager, contained the following passage on slavery in the Old South:
As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its "peculiar institution." The majority of the slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy. . . . Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic Negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his "white folks."
The NAACP surely did right to protest (even if somewhat belatedly) and persuade the publishers to drop the passage from the book. Sometimes, it would seem, the lay public is justified in protesting the work of professionals.
In the Sambo passage, Morison and Commager were of course simply reflecting prevailing opinions about antebellum slavery appearing in the American historical profession before World War II. Historianslike scientistsfrequently change their minds; and the view taken of the American past today in the professoriate is quite at variance with that taken in Morison and Commager's generation. Historians today are far more aware than were earlier historians (even the Beards) of the part played by women, blacks, Indians, and unskilled workers (to mention only a few groups, let me hasten to add!) in the shaping of this nation; and this is surely all to the good. Still, it would be a pity (in fact, a calamity) if the new and commendable sensitivity to minorities should turn our textbooks into mere patchworks of testimonials.
FitzGerald is certainly right in lamenting the lack of fundamental unity in the American history textbooks being published today. This nation unquestionably possesses a rich diversity of peoples, places, customs, institutions, and viewpoints that probably makes it unique in the world of nations. No textbook is really acceptable if it fails to do justice to the varieties of American experience in the New World. Still, perhaps it is possible to find a basic unity amid all the diversity in American life. The unity I have in mind may be found in the basic principles animating the founders of the American republic: separation of church and state, civil supremacy over the military, due process of law, constitutionalism (binding even the high and mighty), equality of opportunity, the work ethic (in its creative, not compulsive, form), freedom of individual expression, and concern for what the Constitution calls the "general welfare." Americans have not always followed these principles faithfully; but no matter how much they departed from them in practice, they have never been able to brush them entirely aside.
Minorities rise and decline and new ones appear; pressure groups come and go; the economy undergoes continual transformation under the impact of technological innovation; opinions emerge, become popular, decline in influence, and become outmoded; historians revise their views of the past and then revise their revisions. But the fundamental rules and goals and ideals and principles about human relationships developed in the formative years of the American nation surely give our enormously diverse and ever-changing population a common heritage and unite our people in a common enterprise. Perhaps it is this perspective, not the point of view of any one segment of the population (and certainly not a composite of the opinions of each and every segment) that should shape our textbooks in history for the public schools. TFA certainly would not favor it; but FitzGerald might approve.