• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

During the 2005-2006 school year, 8250 tenth graders in the San Diego Unified School District were enrolled in World History 1 and 2. The students focused on world history in modern times, roughly from the 1700s to the present — ancient civilizations are covered in sixth grade, medieval and early modern times in seventh. (Students take U.S. history and geography in eighth grade and an elective in ninth.) The tenth graders listened to lectures, made class presentations, and cracked the textbook, where they saw, for example, a brightly colored map of "Napoleon's Russian Campaign, 1812," his advance arrowed in blue, his retreat arrowed in red. The majority of these students, 5651, or 69 percent, were enrolled in world history, while 2213, or 27 percent, took advanced world history. (Three hundred eighty-six tenth graders were in advanced-placement world history, where a passing grade may be transferable to college, depending on the school.) Each class had its own text. The book for world history was Modern World History, published by McDougal Littell in 2003. The book for advanced world history was Glencoe World History: Modern Times, published by McGraw-Hill in 2006. Both the Modern World History and the Glencoe World History texts are labeled California Edition, which means that the books conform to a set of content standards that California students must be instructed in and tested on. All materials for core curriculum K-12 classes must be aligned with the standards.

Both world history texts weigh five pounds, with pages totaling 750 and 830. Using a forklift to open their shiny covers, you're overwhelmed by the rush and ubiquity of graphics. You might imagine the kids' initial delight at seeing so much eye candy last September; but then, after they'd spent a day or more with the book, they were, no doubt, cringing at its chock-a-block facts and data -- somewhere, embedded in all that carnival layout, are the answers to the exams they must take. The heft of these door-stoppers comes from an unending parade of colored borders, captioned photos, narrative vignettes, sidebar columns, all in visual competition: yellow-highlighted keywords like "industrial revolution"; "Main Idea" statements for each section; boxes bannered as "Geography Skills," "Internet Activity," "Critical Thinking," and "You Decide: Exploring Global Issues"; quotations from Thomas Jefferson or Allah in the Quran, called "Voices From the Past"; bold headings, less bold subheadings, bigger-smaller fonts; wider-skinnier fonts; tip-box trivia and cartoon drawings; writing assignments; captioned photos; outlines, reviews, lists. On one page I counted nine colors, including hues of red: magenta, brick, and crimson. On another page was a "Featurette," comparing Roman hairstyles with the beehive of the 1960s. Teachers, of course, supplement the books with overheads and online projects, ancillary material publishers provide. The textbook focus, though, is squarely on the image-learners, the Music Television generation publishers target.

We'd like to think that one pedagogical key is to appeal to our kids via video, movies, computer programs, and lively illustrated textbooks. But these flossy volumes raise the question of how students learn history. Like most products sold to children and teens, textbooks are glitzy and overwrought. The visual clutter is lessened for the advanced students, the challenged and chosen ones with the highest reading ability. For instance, the book for advanced-placement world history is arrayed with some drawings and maps, but it emphasizes the writing -- long idea- and fact-rich paragraphs, unaided by bullet points or sidebars. The basic texts, by contrast, are so deliberately packaged to look fun that the actual content has been reduced or pushed out by the cool pictures and pretty format.

That kids aren't learning world history is more than just the promise and failure of a text's design. Many educators feel that kids are uninterested in the subject because the state system of textbook adoption as well as the content of the books, written to comply with adoption guidelines, has been corrupted by religious fundamentalists on the right and multiculturalists on the left. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education lobby, reports in its "Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption" that California's standards and the textbooks that follow them slavishly do "far more harm than good." Students in adoption states, the report notes, score poorly on national tests; the adopted books, via the state procurement system, are closed to free-market competition; "lively writing and top-flight scholarship are discouraged"; and, most worrisome, the content is "vulnerable to politically motivated censorship." "Every individual analyst and expert panel that has studied K-12 textbooks has concluded that they are sorely lacking and that the adoption process cries out for reform."

One way we know that the state-mandated content is not getting through to students in world history is their dismal scores on the California Standards Tests. In 2005, 8779 tenth graders took the world history test, 75 multiple-choice questions. Of the five levels (advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, and far below basic), a combined 43 percent scored below basic (17 percent) and far below basic (26 percent). By selected high schools, Garfield students scored 82 percent below and far below; Hoover, 56; Madison, 48; Morse, 45; and Point Loma, 41. What's worse is tenth-grade performance as measured against the district's "proficiency" goal, that is, scoring at or above proficient. When judged by this criterion, world history scores in the city schools show that in both 2004 and 2005 73 percent of tenth graders are not proficient.

High school history texts render nationalist expansion and political dynasties, which account for the "rise of civilization," in a dull and sanitized voice. Its dullness, surprisingly, is also imbued with a kind of authority. One San Diego high school teacher told me that students hate this "death march of history," in which every epoch succumbs to the code of textbook infallibility. Textbooks sound flat because they are restrained by state standards and expurgating editors from uncovering the why in historical discourse. Why ushers in debate, interpretation, controversy, the stuff real historians write about; why may lead to judgments about people, then and now, that pressure groups in America believe high school kids should not be exposed to. Thus, the books, ever accommodating, concentrate on the litany of events that publishers believe constitute history -- periods and empires described in religiously neutral and multiculturally equal terms. For the tenth grader, the textbook history of the world reflects an uncritical and censored range of facts and precepts. Perhaps these books and their version of the past have a lot to do with why nearly half of those who study world history, in San Diego high schools, at least, are failing the course.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!