“Not Written in Stone: Learning and Unlearning American History Through 200 Years of Textbooks“

"Not Written in Stone: Learning and Unlearning American History Through 200 Years of Textbooks"

“Not Written in Stone: Learning and Unlearning
American History Through 200 Years of Textbooks”
By Kyle Ward, The New Press, 304 pages, $22.50 paperback.

It’s a hot summer evening and a group of friends and family members are sitting around shooting the breeze. The talk turns reminiscent when someone brings up “the time when …” Slowly, each person adds a bit to the narrative. “No,” one says, “that’s not what happened.” Others chime in, offering their recollections of the who, what, when and why of the particular incident. Despite lots of laughter and good cheer, an uninvolved observer would be perplexed, confused about what actually transpired.

So it is with history: Tales of what actually happened vary depending on who is doing the telling and why they’re talking. What’s more, race, class, gender and personal identity impact the thing we call history. In the end, what one person chooses to emphasize will be deemed insignificant, or even irrelevant, by someone else.

Kyle Ward, director of social studies education at Minnesota’s St. Cloud University, concludes, “every person involved in a historical event, from the original actors to the historians who have written about it, have been influenced by their own society/culture, no matter what era they wrote and did their research in.”

His latest book, “Not Written in Stone,” looks at the ways historical events have been presented to students over the past 200 years and offers textbook excerpts from multiple eras to illustrate the ways in which emphasis and details have changed over time. In 29 chapters, he elucidates the portrayal of everything from Native Americans to women alleged to be witches to Revolutionary and Civil War battles. He also examines Reconstruction, slavery, 19th century immigration and the early years of US industry. It’s a fascinating read, made particularly startling because Ward adds almost no commentary to the segments he includes. He simply lets each excerpt stand alone, forcing the reader to acknowledge that our understanding of events and actions is completely reliant on the “facts” a particular historian chooses to present.

The book’s release is also extremely well timed. The religious right’s current fight against liberalism and science – evidenced in the Texas school board’s removal of the age of the universe from science textbooks, deletion of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta from social studies books and whitewashing of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist antics from history texts – has brought the reality of educational manipulation into sharp focus.

Although Ward does not address this recent brouhaha, he believes that history is so complex that no single account can fully explain events either cataclysmic or small. Instead, he presents history as the slow unfolding of everyday life, a process that requires sifting through articles, books, original documents and eyewitness accounts to arrive at an understanding of what might have occurred.

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“Not Written in Stone” opens with a chapter called “Images of Native Americans.” He begins with a selection from a book penned by Noah Webster in 1831: “In general, a savage is governed by his passions … He is remarkably hospitable to strangers, offering them the best accommodation he has and always serving them first … Their religion was idolatry, for they worshipped the sun, the moon, the earth, fire, images and the like.”

Eighty-one years later, cultural differences are played up even further: “The squaw’s first duty was to care for the children. She had a queer-looking cradle, or cradleboard, for her papoose, as she called her child,” Wilbur F. Gordy wrote in 1913. “Before the white man came, the Indian had never seen a sword, a gun, an iron axe, nor a knife made of metal … They made life easier for him.”

William Backus Guitteau’s 1930 text, “Our United States,” moved the focus from cultural exoticism to present Native Americans as brutal antagonists. “Their warfare was cruel almost beyond belief,” he wrote. “The warrior scalped his dead foe and wore the scalp as a trophy and proof of his prowess. Captives were tortured with every cruelty that human ingenuity could devise.”

By 1991, however, Clarence L. Ver Steeg’s and Carol Ann Skinner’s “Exploring America’s Heritage” downplayed violence and instead focused on communal living and nurturance. “In almost every group,” they wrote, “children learned without school buildings, books, or hired teacher. Parents, grandparents and elders were the teachers. The world was the classroom.” The authors also address the longstanding environmental stewardship of native tribes. “They did not believe that people could own land. They felt that people – like air, land and water – were part of nature. The Indians felt that everyone must use these gifts of nature with care and honor.”

A later section focuses on Anne Hutchinson, a woman who migrated to the British colonies in 1634 and was eventually excommunicated and banished from the community. Her depiction offers another fascinating example of how opinions and ideology are created. Benson J. Lossing’s account, written in 1860, reports, “a smart woman, named Anne Hutchinson, offended the ministers greatly and the rulers first put her and her family into prison and then drove them into the wilderness. There, all but one of them were murdered by Indians who hated the white people.”

One hundred and seventeen years later, in 1977, JoAnne Buggey had a different explanation for what happened to Hutchinson. “The Puritan officials could not accept Hutchinson’s religious views. In addition, some of the men in the colony objected that no woman should ‘meddle’ in religious affairs,” Buggey wrote. “Hutchinson, her husband and her family, along with a band of followers, founded a settlement which they named Portsmouth in an area which became part of Rhode Island.”

A decade later, “The American Nation” again renders Hutchinson and kin “killed by Indians,” but states that her crime was telling Puritan officials that God had spoken directly to her. “To Puritans this was a terrible error. They believed God spoke only through the Bible, not to individuals,” authors James West Davidson and John E. Batchelor wrote.

And then there’s slavery. Prior to the Civil War, few texts mentioned that African captives had been brought to the US and enslaved. Post-war, presentation tended to downplay the system’s heinous abuses. Wilbur F. Gordy’s “Stories of Later American History,” published in 1923, is instructive: “It was not unusual for master’s children to gather about when the weather was cold enough for fires to hear the negroes tell quaint tales and sing weird songs. The old colored mammies were very fond of massa’s chillun and liked to pet them and tell stories.”

A 1934 text by Rolla M. Tryon also focuses on slave owner beneficence: “Some white people lived all their lives on plantations without seeing a slave so much as whipped. Some slave owners were almost as fond of their slaves as of their families,” Tryon wrote.

Not surprisingly, after the civil rights movement, the presentation shifted. By this time, historians including Buggey made sure to state, “the law was always on the side of whites.” A 1990 account describes African-American slaves as “chattel” and makes clear that they “had no more legal rights than did livestock or other personal belongings.”

The final segment of “Not Written in Stone” discusses how textbooks presented the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. Clearly, a second volume, to describe how historians have presented the major events and social movements of the 20th century, is needed. One can only hope that Ward is hard at work, helping us understand the multiple ways that contemporary social issues have been, and will continue to be, read, written about and understood.