Lesson of the Day: ‘Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.’

Lesson of the Day: ‘Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.’

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Featured Article: “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.” by Dana Goldstein

The New York Times analyzed some of the most popular social studies textbooks used in California and Texas. They found hundreds of differences — including some that reflect the nation’s deepest partisan divides on issues like race, gender and immigration.

In this lesson, you’ll consider how those differences can shape students’ understanding of American history and influence their political views. Then you’ll explore what this means for your own learning.

Consider the following statement: “History is never neutral.”

What do you think that means? Do you agree with its premise? Why or why not? Can you think of any examples that support or contradict this statement?

Where, if anywhere, might you find “neutral” history? For example, are history textbooks impartial?

(Note to teachers: If you’re in a classroom setting, you might set this up as a Graffiti Board or Big Paper activity so students can read and build upon each other’s ideas.)

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. Ms. Goldstein writes that textbooks are “shaded by politics.” What does she mean by this? Give one example from the article and explain how it helps illustrate this point.

2. What ideas about American history have conservatives pushed schools to teach? What ideas has the left pushed? How might these ideas help to “shape a generation of future voters”?

3. In your own words, summarize how textbooks are produced. How does knowing about this process influence your view of textbooks?

4. How do California and Texas textbooks cover white resistance to black progress differently? How do each of these teachings affect students’ understanding of the roles of race and racism in American history?

5. California textbooks include history on gender and sexuality that Texas editions do not. In what ways might the inclusion or omission of women and L.G.B.T.Q. people and issues shape students’ beliefs about gender and sexuality?

6. In what ways do California and Texas textbooks portray immigration differently? What message does each curriculum send about immigrants in the United States? How might these messages be influenced by politics?

7. Textbooks in California and Texas both emphasize the role of big business in American history, but they view it very differently. What information do the books from each state include or exclude to support their views? How might this information shape students’ ideas about the American economy?

8. Did anything you read in this article surprise you? If so, what? What is one key insight about textbooks that you will take away?

Choose one or both of the following activities to complete.

Option 1: Discuss the idea of “neutral history.”

Return to the statement from the warm-up: “History is never neutral.”

How, if at all, do you view this statement differently based on what you learned in the article? Is it possible for history to be neutral? Why or why not?

In a related piece, The Times collected reader responses to the article. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter:

Nicole Hannah-Jones, a writer at The New York Times Magazine and the creator of The 1619 Project, responded to Mr. Haass’s comments:

Who are you more likely to agree with? Should there be a single, national narrative of American history that all students learn, as Mr. Haass suggests? Or, as Ms. Hannah-Jones argues, is that impossible? Why do you think the way you do?

Are there any unifying themes or ideas about American history that are worth teaching? If so, what are they and why? If not, why not?

Option 2: Analyze your own history curriculum.

How have you learned about the history of the United States? With a textbook? Primary sources? Online resources? Or some from all three?

Compare your American history curriculum — whether it’s a textbook or a syllabus created by your teacher — to that of California and Texas. You might focus on one of the areas discussed in the article — race, gender and sexuality, immigration, the economy — or choose a topic of your own.

As you analyze your curriculum, you might consider the following questions:

  • What information, texts and points of view have been included or excluded in your class?

  • What ideals, values and beliefs — whether implicit or explicit — does your history curriculum communicate about the United States? What story is this curriculum telling about our country?

  • How might it be influenced by the politics of your state? In what ways might it work to shape your own political views?

Then consider how this information can empower you as a student: Going forward, how might you think about what you learn in school differently?