Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.
The recent blunder has to do with one bubble in particular. Pointing to a patch of purple grids extending throughout the country’s Southeast corridor, the one-sentence caption reads:
The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.
The photo that spread through social media was taken by a black Texas student named Coby Burren, who subsequently texted it to his mom, Roni-Dean Burren. “Was real hard workers, wasn’t we,” he wrote. Roni-Dean quickly took to Facebook, lambasting the blunder: the reference to the Africans as workers rather than slaves. A video she later posted has been viewed nearly 2 million times, and her indignation has renewed conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement while attracting coverage by almost every major news outlet. “It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” she told The New York Times. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”
McGraw Hill swiftly did its damage control. It announced that it was changing the caption in both the digital and print versions to characterize the migration accurately as a “forced” diaspora of slaves: “We conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves,” the company said in a statement. “We believe we can do better.” Catherine Mathis, the company’s spokeswoman, also emphasized that the textbook accurately referred to the slave trade and its brutality in more than a dozen other instances. And McGraw Hill has offered to provide various additional resources to any school that requests them, including supplemental materials on cultural competency, replacement textbooks, or stickers with a corrected caption to place over the erroneous one. But Texas school districts were already in possession of more than 100,000 copies of the book, while another 40,000, according to Mathis, are in schools in other states across the country.
“We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees. We are teaching twig history.”
If nothing else, the incident may serve as yet another example of why social studies—and history in particular—is such a tricky subject to teach, at least via textbooks and multiple-choice tests. Its topics are inherently subjective, impossible to distill into paragraphs jammed with facts and figures alone. As the historian and sociologist Jim Loewen recently told me, in history class students typically “have to memorize what we might call ‘twigs.’ We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees,” said Loewen, best known for his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “We are teaching twig history.”
This is in part why a growing number of educators are calling for a fundamental shift in how the subject is taught. Some are even calling on their colleagues to abandon traditional models of teaching history altogether. Instead of promoting the rote memorization of information outlined in a single, mass-produced textbook, these critics argue that teachers should use a variety of primary-source materials and other writings, encouraging kids to analyze how these narratives are written and recognize the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials. In an essay for The Atlantic earlier this year, Michael Conway argued that history classes should focus on teaching children “historiography”—the methodologies employed by historians and the exploration of history itself as an academic discipline:
Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose the American national story.
But according to Loewen, the shortcomings of the country’s history teachers make the improvement of its instruction, let alone the introduction of historiography, a particularly difficult feat. Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)
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In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.
A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.
“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”
“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history. They just happen to be assigned to it.”
This disconnect can take a serious toll on the instruction kids receive, according to Loewen. Absent a genuine interest in history, many teachers simply defer to the information contained in textbooks. “They use the textbook not as a tool but as a crutch,” Lowen said. And chances are, that makes for a pretty lousy class. Loewen suspects that these and other textbook woes are largely why students frequently list history and other social-studies subjects as their least favorite classes. And perhaps it’s why so few American adults identify them as the most valuable subjects they learned in school. In a 2013 Gallup poll, just 8 percent of respondents valued history most, while just 3 percent voted for social studies. (First place, or 34 percent of votes, went to math, while 21 percent of respondents selected English and reading.)
And as the McGraw Hill example demonstrates, the textbooks teachers rely on so heavily are prone to flaws. A National Clearinghouse on History Education research brief on four popular elementary and middle-school textbooks concluded that the materials “left out or misordered the cause and consequence of historical events and frequently failed to highlight main ideas.” And the flaws can be much more egregious than isolated errors, disorganization, or a lack of clarity—sometimes they’re fundamental distortions of the contexts leading up to many of today’s most dire social ills.