What does a history professor with way too much time on his hands do? If you're Mr. Ward, you compile a fascinating survey of how the telling of American history has changed over the past two hundred years. For each of 50 historical topics he has culled a half dozen or so excerpts from hundreds of history textbooks that demonstrate how both the general perception and specific interpretation of events has altered. Aside from a brief introduction on each topic and a sentence or two before each excerpt pointing out the particular value of that passage, Mr. Ward allows the period texts to speak for themselves.
Mr. Ward approaches the project chronologically starting with “Native American Relations with the New Settlers” and ending with “The Reagan Revolution” - anything more recent, he says, hasn't had enough time to demonstrate any significant shifts in texts. The most obvious changes have to do with racist language and overtones, for example, from the 1844 text describing Native Americans as stereotypical and homogeneous “noble savages” to the 1986 text recognizing and respectfully distinguishing between the large number of distinct Native cultures. But I often found the subtle differences more interesting, especially when you could see how current events colored the description of the past. For example, the explanations of the Marshall Plan, where the United States provided supplies and money to help Europe rebuild after World War II, were shaded heavily by anti-Communist fears during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. Later texts, after the Cold War had ended, described the Plan in a much more neutral voice.
A topic near and dear to my heart, “The Mormons,” also demonstrated society's growing tolerance for differences. In 1866, we were “a strange sect” which “caus[ed] some disturbance in Illinois.” The text mentions “the absurdity of the religious pretenses,” and “the gross and immoral practice of polygamy” and identifies Brigham Young as “prophet, priest and king.” By 1944, it was acknowledged that “hostile neighbors” had “pushed [Mormons] from place to place” and that “by hard labor and efficient management, the Mormons in Utah made that desert blossom like a rose.” Later texts from 1966 and 1995 were generally even more positive, a trend I certainly hope continues.
History textbooks often have the unenviable task of distilling the myriad possible explanations of an event into a single narrative. Frequently, the causes those narratives pinpoint vary over time. Take the chapter on “Causes of the Stock Market Crash.” In 1933, they blamed return to the gold standard. By 1944, it was all Herbert Hoover's fault. Thirty years later, the picture gets more complex, identifying buying stocks on margin and a housing bubble as factors. Finally, in 1999, they detail how rampant speculation led first to the stock market crash and then the failure of banks, and end by acknowledging that the causes of the Great Depression are still up for debate.
Very few topics remained consistently told over the two hundred years. One of those exceptions is Abraham Lincoln. The image of a self-made man who came from a poor background, educated himself and rose to the stature of President was presented in textbooks as early as 1866 and is largely the same image presented in classrooms right now. Other topics are intriguing for how they have all but disappeared in modern American history textbooks. The settlement at New Sweden, the Caroline Affair, and the Dakota Conflict of 1862 all featured heavily in textbooks up until the 1910s or so. They don't even earn a mention in most history textbooks today.
Oddly, the lessons I took away from this book you won't find spelled out on the printed page. First of all, be skeptical. Don't accept what you read online or in newspapers today as the 100% accurate version of events. Perspectives can change so drastically that it's practically guaranteed that any analysis you read this morning will be strikingly different in as little as 5 or 10 years.
Secondly, everybody has an opinion. Even with honest intentions and best efforts to write an objective and balanced account, any single explanation will be incomplete. The only hope we have to start getting at the “real” story (understood through the prism of our own perspective, opinions, and experience, of course) is to gather information from multiple sources with varying viewpoints and then leave our minds open to accumulate and assimilate new data as it comes.
History in the Making: An Absorbing Look at How American History Has Changed in the Telling over the Last 200 Years
by Kyle Ward
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