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Education Reporter

Politically Correct Texts Distort
United States History, Critics Say
Students Learn Few Facts; WWII Reduced to Internment Camps
David McCullough
David McCullough
Social studies textbooks used in elementary and secondary schools are mostly a disgrace that fail to give a true account of American history, leading scholars charge.

The twin educational fads of political correctness and multiculturalism are exposing children to cultural and historical amnesia, the scholars argue, pointing to declining standardized test scores and teachers’ anecdotal evidence of student ignorance.

Historians and researchers such as Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough, history professor Paul Gagnon, education research professor Diane Ravitch, political science professor Robert Gorman, and humanities professor Wilfred M. McClay sounded off against history textbooks in the Washington Times (4-5-11-04). Complaints included factual and interpretive errors, deficient treatment of the role of religion, banality, incoherence, dullness, and censorship of words deemed to offend the anti-bias sensibilities of state bureaucrats.

Only 11% of 8th-graders show proficient knowledge of U.S. history on standardized tests, down from 17% in 2001, noted Gagnon in a recent study for the American Federation of Teachers. In a survey last year of seniors at 50 top colleges by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, more than half didn’t know that George Washington was the commanding general of the Continental Army during the American Revolution who accepted Brig. Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Some 36% thought it was Ulysses S. Grant, and 6% said it was Douglas MacArthur.

While the critics are united in their dislike of U.S. social studies textbooks, there is little consensus on how best to improve them or the way history is taught. McCullough would “do away with the textbooks.” Ravitch favors repealing statewide textbook-adoption laws and letting teachers select their own materials. Mel Gabler, a longtime textbook reviewer with a conservative Christian perspective, “disagrees completely” that local textbook selection is better than statewide selection, because he believes parents are more easily out-organized by publishers and teachers unions at the local level.

Memorization of facts has been out of fashion for a long time. Yet how, as Minnesota community-college history teacher John C. Chalberg asks, “do you get to that critical ‘critical thinking’ stage without first knowing something?”

In a pre-test Chalberg gave his 160 introductory students last fall, only two students knew that Lyndon Johnson was the architect of the Great Society, and four thought the answer was Lincoln. Only 13 knew that Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, and only 60 could identify Germany as the U.S.’s primary foe during World War I. (startribune.com, 12-9-03)

“One of the reasons our children do not measure up academically to children in other countries is that so much time is spent in American classrooms twisting our history for ideological purposes,” contends Hoover Institution scholar and columnist Thomas Sowell.

U.S. history courses routinely demonize European settlers for taking away American Indians’ land by force and enslaving Africans. Yet neither American Indians nor the European invaders believed that it was wrong to take other people’s land by force, and both sides acted accordingly, writes Sowell. Furthermore, “although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century.”

White people “were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed,” Sowell points out. But “who is singled out for scathing criticism today? American leaders of the 18th century.” (townhall.com, 12-17-03)

History courses’ coverage of World War II emphasizes the internment of Japanese-Americans, the entry of women into the workforce, and discrimination against African-Americans, Ravitch observed recently in the Washington Post. An informal survey before Memorial Day of 76 teenagers in the Washington, DC area confirmed her impression.

Tiffany Charles got a B in history last year at her Maryland high school, but she is not sure what year World War II ended and cannot name a single general or battle or the man who was president. “We talked a lot about those concentration camps” for Japanese-Americans, she said. (5-28-04)

See the Book of the Month review for more insights about the politically correct distortion of history.

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