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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Another View of the Textbook Problem

I was helping my 5th grade son with his Social Studies homework and so I began reading through his American History textbook. To my surprise and pleasure, I was impressed. The ideas in the book were (mainly, big exception to come, see below) rather fresh. The picture of the colonies with its emphasis on the diversity of the middle colonies was of a piece with what I learned in grad school. Then, the focus on the middle colonies was relatively new — the story of the colonies was always Boston and Virginia, the Puritans and the Planters. Historians were only beginning to make the claim that the trade-business-immigrant-religiously tolerant middle colonies were more like the future of America than either the preachers of the North or the Masters of the Plantation of the South. It was very nice to see that newer thinking already featured in a textbook. So I realized the problem is not necessarily that the ideas and information in the books are stale, or ideologically mainstream. The problem is not the textbook but how it is used.

The textbook is not, not, not a book. It is an outline, a resource, a trot. The missing ingredient is the teacher and how the tool is used. The textbook is there to ensure that teachers have a tool, and students have a resource, to ensure that the minimum framework of information is passed on. It is like the backstop in a baseball field — it keeps the pitches from rolling away if the batter misses and the catcher drops the ball. Now the teacher has to build on top of that basic grid to engage students in thinking about and experiencing the past. As I said on Friday — there is no purpose in looking at the past if you have no opinion about it. The textbook would be fine if it were treated as the background of a lesson rather than the basis of a lesson.

With one great exception — in this unit. Here again I saw the famous Triangle Trade. Only this time, instead of saying the Europeans sent guns and textiles to Africa, they said guns and silver. That is a half step — the problem is, any adult with a second’s thought will realize the Europeans did not have great piles of silver. So where did the silver come from? Of course it came from Potosi — which is precisely why (or part of why) there was no Triangle Trade. There was a spherical silver trade — Potosi to Manila to Spain through Europe; Europe to India to buy fabric, fabric back to Europe, fabric from Europe to Africa. So the actual trade exchange was spherical. And, as every expert knows, no individual ship followed the supposed triangular route on the map. So the map neither shows the actual flow of goods nor the path of a single ship. In other words, by its own labels it makes no sense. I cannot, cannot, cannot understand why textbooks and tests are so attached to this map that is not and never was true; it does not explain anything (in fact the run up to the revolution was, if anything, Americans having their own trade routes to Africa and the sugar islands, not because of any shipping involving Europe). Why can’t we let this one go?

And, to get back to a post from awhile ago, what are teachers to do when textbooks and tests require students to learn things that evidently are wrong and make no logical sense?


  1. I waited until the end of the day to check the comments because I was hoping for some specific ideas from the readers of this blog. In the private school in which I teach, we have major philosphical & political differences between various members of the faculty. Often,
    other subject teachers will make incorrect statements to students about my subject which is social studies. Folks feel very comfortable making statements about social studies which I would never venture about science , math .modern language or literature. I generally take the coward’s way out and avoid discussing these matters in the teacher’s lounge and I avoid socializing outside of school with such people. The other way I deal with the problem you describe is to do all of my paperwork on time. This keeps my principal happy , off my case , and out of my classroom. That’s not very pretty but it is the hard truth. It is my belief that kids can smell an intellectual rat a mile off and that is one reason they are so turned off to school – it isn’t that they aren’t interested. They believe that we are selling an agenda that may not forward their personal interests or satisfy them morally or politically. And very often, they are right about that.