chapter  1
8 Pages


The thesis of this book is that the content of textbooks reflects the values and beliefs of the culture and historical period of which they are a part. It is an argument that we believe is clearly demonstrated in the different studies included in this work. We are particularly interested in elementary and secondary school text­ books, because, more than any other type of work in American society, their content represents a conscious choice on the part of writers and editors of what should be taught to our children. They are part of a selective traditionone that is situated in a specific time and culture.1 In this sense, any textbook becomes a signpost or a marker for the values and beliefs of the era in which it was written. Textbooks are by definition consensus documents. They are widely circu­ lated, and, if they are to be successful, they must appeal to a large number of people. Thus, textbooks deliberately tend to avoid controversy. If they alienate their audience, they will not be widely bought and used, and as a result they drop out of not only the economic marketplace, but also the marketplace of ideas. Textbooks in the United States tend to be more conservative in their content than in other cultures. We do not believe that this is because Amer­ ican society is less open, but rather because our textbooks must meet the demands of a much more diverse people than is found elsewhere. Thus, achieving consensus in the content of textbooks in countries such as Japan or Norway is much easier than it is in the United States; when dealing with a heterogeneous population, and the demands of a tradition of inclusiveness, the textbook writer’s job becomes more taxing. The modern textbook has its origins in the Catechisms and religious instructional texts of the Protestant Reformation. The most important of these, in terms of the textbook as we know it today, is Jan Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualius Pictus (the world explained in pictures). The first edition of the book was published in 1658 in Nuremberg, Germany in a combined German/Latin edition. Comenius (1592-1670) was a Moravian Bishop who developed the book as a means of teaching children Latin and German. Its

content was heavily religious. Using approximately 150 pictures or tableaus that referenced words in short sentences, it introduced students to several thousand words and concepts by which to understand and interpret the world. Comenius’ work was widely imitated. In the American colonies, The New England Primer (c.1693), which is widely recognized as the first textbook created in what was to become the United States, reflects the Orbis Sensualis Pictus’ content, design, and layout. Like its Latin/German predecessor, The New England Primer strongly emphasizes religious material. The rhyming alphabet at the beginning of the book includes extensive references to the Bible, such as Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the Deluge or Flood. In the vocabulary section, the words included often have

religious overtones or uses such as “benediction,” “consolation,” and “fidel­ ity.” They clearly reflect the religious and moral interests of the Puritans. The first volume of Webster’s Grammatical Institute first published in 1783 and the most important textbook to come out during the period of the Ameri­ can revolution, was a “spelling” book, which was eventually published with a blue cover, hence its popular name, the Blueback Speller. By the time of the Civil War, Webster’s Blueback Speller had been used by millions of peopleboth children and adults. Spellers were the first reading books given to stu­ dents on entering school, and served much the same function as our modern elementary basal readers. The format of these works was consistently the same. After presenting the alphabet, the reader then encountered long lists of nonsense syllables which he or she would be expected to memorize. These syl­ lables would be followed by brief phrases and simple sentences. The reading passages became longer as the reader progressed though the book. The spell­ ers concluded with biblical selections, usually from the Psalms. By the begin­ ning of the nineteenth century, non­ religious materials, such as Aesopic fables, were typically included. As demonstrated in the first study included in this work, Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr.’s “Education and the Iconography of the Republic: Patriotic Symbolism in the Frontispieces of Eighteenth and Nineteenth­ Century American Textbooks” (pp. 11-22), introductory spellers and readers in the

years following the American Revolution clearly reflected the development of a uniquely American set of political values or ideologies. Such ideologies play themselves out in many ways. As seen in the case of The New England Primer, they could be religious in nature, or as Richard Dec­ harms and Gerald H. Moeller demonstrate in their work “Values Expressed in American Children’s Readers: 1800-1950” (pp. 23-35), they could reflect eco­ nomic and social beliefs about issues, or concepts such as the “work ethic,” and the need for individual achievement in the culture. These values, however, are not universally accepted and have often been at the core of numerous conflicts over textbook content. One of the earliest examples of such a conflict is the debate over “Northern values” in textbooks used in the South during the period immediately prior to the Civil War. This conflict was a direct reflection of regional differences in values, largely focus­ ing around the issue of slavery, and highlighted the domination of the text­ book field by Northern writers.2 Northern textbooks were used in the South because it lacked the capacity to manufacture its own books.3 Southern resentment over their dependence upon Northern textbooks, authors, and publishers was significant. Southerners argued that the textbooks produced by Northern publishers had the earmarks of sectionalism.4 In addition, textbooks produced in the North were often highly inaccurate when used in a Southern context. As a writer in an 1852 issue of De Bow’s Review explained in an early content analysis of textbooks:

What is to be done with geographies that tell pupils “States are divided into towns and counties?” as if, out of New England, the use of towns, as synono­ mous with parish, district, or township, was usual; that devote two pages to Connecticut onions and broom­ corn, and ten lines to Louisiana and sugar? of histories that are silent about Texas? of first readers that declare all spell­ ing but Noah Webster’s “vulgar,” and “not used in good society?” and of “speakers” that abound in selections for southern declamation, made almost exclusively from northern debates in Congress, and from abolition poets.5