chapter  9
31 Pages

Ideology and United States History Textbooks


Textbooks are social products that can be examined in the context of their time, place, and function. Those produced in this country are designed and marketed by a publishing industry that is big business-with annual sales of several billion dollars-and that increasingly is owned by corporate conglomerates.1 CBS owns Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Fawcett Publications, Praeger Publications, and W. B. Saunders, a science textbook house. RCA, which owns NBC, in a merger arrangement with Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch owns Random House, which owns Vintage. IBM recently acquired Science Research Associates. Xerox owns Ginn, American Educational Publications (“My Weekly Reader”), Learning Materials, Inc., and R. R. Bowker, publisher of the leading trade magazines, Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal. Gulf and Western, one of the largest of the multinational conglomerates, owns Simon and Schuster.2 Exactly how influential are contemporary publishing companies? While publishing is definitely a large industry, the sale of its product is nevertheless dependent upon decisions by consumers. Textbook content is influenced by the educational expectations of patents, school personnel, school boards, and state selection committees. If, however, one looks at the larger publishing companies with their multinational “parents,” one sees that they constitute the only source of nationally distributed books and textbooks. According to industry analysts, only forty hardcover houses in the country have the resources to produce a book profitably on a nationwide basis.3 The larger publishing companies are thus able to make certain views and curriculum materials widely available and to withhold others from national distribution. History textbooks are written by historians, curriculum experts, and publishing company personnel. While their content often represents the views and choices of the people whose names appear on the title page, this is not always the case. The contribution of social scientists and other specialists to social studies materials, including history texts, often undergo substantial editing by publishing company personnel concerned with meeting requirements of school markets. In this way consumer expectations may be translated into textbook content, and the views of individual authors may be altered.4 The information presented in history textbooks is intended to prepare students for participation in political and other institutions of society. It is assumed that the history provided in textbooks is objective, making available to students unbiased information which they can use to interpret contemporary issues and problems. The texts are thought to serve the interests of all students equally well; presumably the story told does not favor any one social group at the expense of any other. Recent efforts to do this have resulted in increased attention being paid to the histories of women and minority groups traditionally ignored in the school curriculum. Some scholars of education have argued that what is taught in school is not objective, but reflects the interests of certain powerful social groups. Emile

Durkheim, for example, in an analysis of the development of secondary education in France, demonstrates how the classical education that dominated French academic life from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century served the social needs of the Catholic Church.5 Similarly, Raymond Williams, in a history of education in Great Britain, argues that contemporary secondary school curriculum in that country represents specific curriculum choices made by competing power groups of the last century.6 Williams and others claim that even today what counts as school knowledge is that which enhances the dominant social groups. The alleged ability of powerful groups to legitimize only certain categories of thought at the expense of others is considered to be an important means by which they maintain social power and control.7 Pierre Bourdieu has identified several ways in which education serves the interests of powerful groups in society. He argues that elite knowledge and culture are forms of symbolic capital. The unequal distribution of this capital in society reproduces on a cultural level the unequal distribution of capital on the economic level and thus increases the power of elites. Intellectual traditions and patterns of thought that provide competence with elite culture are legitimized, but transmitted unequally by school pedagogy and curriculum. School knowledge is, moreover, an ideology that misrepresents and conceals the unequal structure of relationships on which social and cultural power is based and disguises the contribution of schools to the reproduction of those relations and to the power of dominant groups.8 The purpose of the present article is to investigate through an analysis of United States history textbooks, the possibility that an ideology is expressed in the content that might, despite the claim of objectivity, serve the interests of some groups in society over others. Ideology is defined here as an explanation or interpretation of social reality which, although presented as objective, is demonstrably partial in that it expresses the social priorities of certain political, economic, or other groups. Ideologies are weapons of group interest; they justify and rationalize; they legitimate group power, activities, and needs. An ideological version of a historical period, for example, involves information selection and organization that provide an interpretation of social events and hierarchies that predispose attitudes and behaviors in support of certain groups.9 When an ideological description is presented as objective or socially neutral, it is more convincing. Ideological descriptions and definitions-if believed-influence one’s view of reality and facilitate the use of power by the groups favorably presented. The expression of group interest in textbooks can be in the form of obvious distortions or hidden assumptions. Ideological selection can take the form of omitting a fact or of subtle distinctions and emphases. If an ideological perspective governs school history textbooks, it can acquire the status of truth, and the information will be less likely to be subjected to scrutiny in classrooms or compared with other points of view.