The Problem with U.S. History Textbooks

Fatemeh Adlparvar is a current student in Columbia's Narrative Medicine program. In this post, she discusses oral history's ability to question "textbook history."

When I was in elementary school in social studies class, I remember opening up my hardcover textbook with “United States History” written across the front hard cover in large white, bold print with an enlarged image of the Statue of Liberty looming triumphantly in the background. Like millions of other students, these textbooks produced by McGraw-Hill were my ultimate sources of knowledge for history – I trusted their authority and believed everything to be true. As an education minor in college, I took a class with Professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla called “The Politics of Educational Inequality,” that completely changed the way I thought about how history is produced and consumed. For the first time, I began questioning the source of information in my textbooks, and considered how important dynamics of power, privilege, oppression, race, class, and gender were in contributing to who gets to create “history,” deciding what story is told, and determining how it is told. I realized that, as a woman of color, the story of my people and culture was not represented in the textbooks I grew up with. Maybe this is why I often found United States history boring and irrelevant. This led me to become interested in the stories that weren’t being documented. Coming out of college, I knew it was important to challenge the status quo of history textbooks that reproduced ideals of capitalism and colonialism; yet, I struggled to figure out what these solutions looked like.  

Several years later as a graduate student, I had the fortune of taking a seminar series in the Oral History Master of Arts Program that caught my attention because of the word “Oral” before “History”. Oral History. It sounded radical, and possibly a window to something different. So when Professor Monica Muñoz Martinez of Brown University gave her presentation on the power of oral history to attend to the marginalized histories of the U.S./ Mexico border and the repercussions of over 100 years of state sanctioned violence, I knew I had finally found the answer to my burning question – the power of oral histories as a tool for transforming education. Martinez described oral history as being an “important, innovative research method” to understand the relationship between history, memory, and social relations of power, especially when thinking about which histories are told in textbooks and museums, and which histories are shared in the privacy of people’s homes. A goal of Professor Martinez’s work is not only to preserve the histories of anti-Mexican racial violence and make them accessible to the public, but to start a public dialogue and ultimately impact curricular materials for public school educators. One of the projects that she is discussed is called, “Refusing to Forget,” which aims to memorialize and reckon with the 100-year period of state-sanctioned terror that continues to influence societal relations today.

Learning about Professor Martinez’s life-long work and the “Refusing to Forget” project meant a lot to me in my process of understanding the transformative power of oral history for advancing public dialogue and producing social change. I learned that oral history is an important tool for grassroots activism that can return power back to people, and ultimately change the story being told. Her work is important because it creates a pathway for documenting and disseminating an alternative history that will one day make it into textbooks used in classrooms to educate young people.

Professor Martinez is one of many scholars in the field who are questioning textbook history and seeking alternatives. A recent article in The Atlantic describes this exact issue of history textbooks being “at best oversimplified and at worst a flat out lie,” and “often mislead[ing] kids with Eurocentric interpretations of the actors and events.” In the article, historian and sociologist Jim Loewen made the point that textbooks are flawed and an inappropriate way of conveying history. He states, “White history may be appropriate for a white nation. It is inappropriate for a great nation. It is time for us to give up our white history in favor of a more accurate history…surely a great nation can afford that.”

Although there are seemingly insurmountable barriers to changing history curricula for elementary and secondary schools on a state and national level, I am hopeful because of the work that academic scholars like Professor Martinez and my colleagues in the Oral History Master of Arts Program at Columbia University are doing to question the production and consumption of history – including who gets to tell the story, what story is being told, and how it is told.