Jump Right in, the Water's Fine

Jonathan Rees

In the new issue of the Journal of the Historical Society, Allan Kulikoff makes a series of suggestions about how to improve history education at the higher ed level. One of the problems he cites is that:

Historians have uncovered entirely too many social facts to digest. The glut in scholarship sets the stage for increasingly impenetrable survey textbooks, puts ever-longer lists of must-read books before graduate students, narrows the focus of dissertation research, and increases the flood of unreadable monographs.

There seems to be a budding consensus on the textbook part of that complaint, as no less a personage as David McCullough recently unloaded on them in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all.

Mr. McCullough's eyebrows leap at his final point: "And they're so badly written. They're boring! Historians are never required to write for people other than historians."

I would take issue with the notion that the facts in most textbooks are comic in their political correctness, since McCullough and I clearly have different priorities. Nonetheless, we historians should probably all agree with the notion that fitting everything we want students to know and think about history between the covers of a single volume has become increasingly difficult in the last forty years, at least since the advent of the New Social History (which is, of course, now rather old). Textbook authors have to make choices, and it is inevitable that those of use who assign their books will disagree with many of the choices that they make.

While Kulikoff proposes a series of interesting suggestions attacking the entire crisis in history education (which I’ll let you read yourself by getting a hold of the JHS June issue), I have a modest proposal of my own to take care of the textbook problem: don’t assign one. No, I’m not kidding. I ditched the textbook in my survey class last semester for the first time and was delighted by the results.

While I’d like to credit a prominent history blogger from the northern part of my state for giving me the idea, the truth is that I had been thinking about killing my textbook for years, but never had the nerve to try it until I read that she had already done so. I had been switching textbooks about once a year for years and was unsatisfied with every text I tried before I started assigning primary sources instead. It’s not as if all textbooks are as badly written as McCullough suggests they are (although some clearly are), it was that none of them emphasized the same facts and themes that I did in class. I wanted a textbook that compliments my teaching rather than one that provides a competing narrative. Now I build my own reading list based upon what I teach already and have more time left to teach other skills besides memorization.

What did my students think? I did a special evaluation toward the end of the course and they seemed to like it just as much as I did. Yes, this might be expected when you’re giving them less reading, but I like to compare my new syllabus to the Sugar Act of 1764: I assign fewer pages than I used to, but I enforce the reading of the pages that I still assign much more stringently. Deep in my heart I knew that nobody read the textbook before, but now I see the documents I assign and teach get directly referenced on the best student essays. By pouring fewer facts into their heads, I’m convinced that fewer of them are coming out on the other side.

Why admit to such pedagogical heresies in a public forum?

I’m convinced that if more of us no-textbook professors make ourselves known, more historians will join the bandwagon. I was once afraid to go with my gut, but I’m through living in fear of the unknown. Just because you’ve assigned a textbook in the past (the same way that your teachers assigned you a textbook and their teachers assigned them a textbook), you do not have to assign a textbook in the future. Think of the students in your survey classes who will never take another history class. Do you really want their last memory of our discipline to be an overly-long, dull book without an argument and written by a committee?

If you’re happy with your survey textbook, then disregard this post. If not, then I say jump right in, the water’s fine.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo. He blogs about history and other matters at More or Less Bunk.