Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Boring high school history texts

History textbooks have increasingly negative connotations: dry, colorless accounts filled with names and dates that over-emphasize kings and military battles at the expense of that lives of the commoners, and that leave important things out while oversimplifying everything.

Some history teachers try to jazz things up by going through the textbook in a non-linear fashion, or treating students like "little historians" (and flying in the face of findings in cognitive science on the differences between novices and experts), by having their students spend significant time on primary sources.

Like "traditional math taught badly," traditional history can be butchered by bad teaching. And, just as with traditional math, the best textbooks come from long ago. It's today's "traditional" textbooks, for all their colorful sidebars, that are dry and colorless.

Consider these two passages about Frederick the Great, the first from McDougal and Littel's World History, published in 2005:

Disorder in the Empire

By 1152, the seven princes who elected the German king realized that Germany needed a strong ruler to keep the peace. They chose Frederick I, nicknamed “Barbarossa” for his red beard.

The Reign of Frederick I Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.
In 1176, the foot soldiers of the Lombard League faced Frederick’s army of mounted knights at the Battle of Legnano. In an astonishing victory, the Italian foot soldiers used crossbows to defeat feudal knights for the first time in history. In 1177, Frederick made peace with the pope and returned to Germany. His defeat, though, had undermined his authority with the German princes. After he drowned in 1190, his empire fell to pieces.
The German States Remain Separate German kings after Frederick, including his grandson Frederick II, continued their attempts to revive Charlemagne’s empire and his alliance with the Church. This policy led to wars with Italian cities and to further clashes with the Pope. Conflicts were one reason why the feudal states of Germany did not unify during the Middle Ages. Another reason was that the system of German princes electing the king weakened royal authority. German rulers controlled fewer royal lands to use as a base of power than French and English kings of the same period, who, as you will learn in Chapter 14, were establishing strong central authority.
From Outlines of European History, Part I, published in 1914:
A generation after the matter of investitures had been arranged by the Concordat of Worms the most famous of German emperors, next to Charlemagne, came to the throne. This was Frederick I, commonly called Barbarossa, from his red beard. He belonged to the family of Hohenstaufen, so called from their castle in southern Germany. Frederick's ambition was to restore the Roman Empire to its old glory and influence. He regarded himself as the successor of the Caesars, as well as of Charlemagne and Otto the Great. He believed his office to be quite as truly established by God himself as the papacy. When he informed the pope that he had been recognized as emperor by the German nobles, he too took occasion to state quite clearly that the headship of the Empire had been "bestowed upon him by God" and he did not ask the pope's sanction as his predecessors had done.

In his lifelong attempt to maintain what he thought to be his rights as emperor he met, quite naturally, with the three old difficulties. He had constantly to be fighting his rivals and rebellious vassals in Germany ; he had to face the opposition of the popes, who never forgot the claims that Gregory VII had made to control the emperor as well as other rulers. Lastly, in trying to keep hold of northern Italy, which he believed to belong to his empire, he spent a great deal of time with but slight results.

One of the greatest differences between the early Middle Ages and Frederick's time was the development of town life. Up to this period we have heard only of popes, emperors, kings, bishops, and feudal lords. From now on we shall have to take the towns and their citizens into account. No nation makes much progress without towns ; for only when people get together in considerable numbers do they begin to build fine buildings, establish universities and libraries, make inventions and carry on trade, which brings them into contact with other people in their own country and in foreign lands. (See below, Chapter XI, for town life.)

The towns had never decayed altogether in Italy, and by the time of Frederick Barbarossa they had begun to flourish once more, especially in Lombardy. Each of such towns as Milan, Verona, and Cremona were practically independent states. Their government was in the hands of the richer citizens, and the poorer people were not given any voice in city affairs. Compared with a modem city they were very disorderly, for sometimes the poor revolted against the rich, and often the nobles, who had moved in from the country and built fortified palaces in the towns, fought among themselves. And then the various towns were always fighting one another.

But in spite of all the warfare and disorder, the Italian cities became wealthy and, as we shall see later, were centers of learning and art similar to the ancient cities of Greece, such as Athens and Corinth. They were able to combine in a union known as the Lombard League to oppose Frederick, for they hated the idea of paying taxes to a German king from across the Alps, Frederick made several expeditions to Italy, but he only succeeded, after a vast amount of trouble, in getting them to recognize him as a sort of overlord. He was forced to leave them to manage their own affairs and go their own way. They could, of course, always rely upon the pope, when it came to fighting the emperor, for he was quite as anxious as the towns to keep Frederick out of Italy.

So Frederick failed in his great plans for restoring the Roman Empire ; he only succeeded in adding a new difficulty for his descendants. In spite of his lack of success in conquering the Lombard cities, Frederick tried to secure southern Italy for his descendants. He arranged that his son should marry Constance, the heiress of Naples and Sicily. This made fresh trouble for the Hohenstaufen rulers, because the pope, as feudal lord of Naples and Sicily, was horrified at the idea of the emperor's controlling the territory to the south of the papal possessions as well as that to the north.

After some forty years of fighting in Germany and Italy Frederick Barbarossa decided to undertake a crusade to the Holy Land and lost his life on the way thither. His son was carried off by Italian fever while trying to put down a rebellion in southern Italy, leaving the fate of the Hohenstaufen family in the hands of his infant son and heir, the famous Frederick II. It would take much too long to try to tell of all the attempts of rival German princes to get themselves made king of Germany and of the constant interference of the popes who sided now with this one and now with that. It happened that one of the greatest of all the popes, Innocent III, was ruling during Frederic II's early years. After trying to settle the terrible disorder in Germany he decided that Frederick should he made emperor, hoping to control him so that he would not become the dangerous enemy of the papacy that his father and grandfather had been. As a young man Frederick made all the promises that Innocent demanded, but he caused later popes infinite anxiety.

Frederick II was nearsighted, bald, and wholly insignificant in person ; but he exhibited the most extraordinary energy and ability in the organization of his kingdom of Sicily, in which he was far more interested than in Germany. He drew up an elaborate code of laws for his southern realms and may be said to have founded the first modern well-regulated state, in which the king was indisputably supreme. He had been brought up in Sicily and was much influenced by the Mohammedan culture which prevailed there. He appears to have rejected many of the opinions of the time. His enemies asserted that he was not even a Christian, and that he declared that Moses, Christ, and Mohammed were all alike impostors.

We cannot stop to relate the romantic and absorbing story of his long struggle with the popes. They speedily discovered the that he was bent upon establishing a powerful state to the south of them, and upon extending his control over the Lombard cities in such a manner that the papal possessions would be held as in a vise. This, they felt, must never be permitted. Consequently almost every measure that Frederick adopted aroused their suspicion and opposition, and they made every effort to destroy him and his house.

His chance of success in the conflict with the head of the Church was gravely affected by the promise which he had made before Innocent Ill's death to undertake a crusade. He was so busily engaged with his endless enterprises that he kept deferring the expedition, in spite of the papal admonitions, until at last the pope lost patience and excommunicated him. While excommunicated, he at last started for the East. He met with signal success and actually brought Jerusalem, the Holy City, once more into Christian hands, and was himself recognized as king of Jerusalem.

Frederick's conduct continued, however, to give offense to the popes. He was denounced in solemn councils, and at last deposed by one of the popes. After Frederick died (1250) his sons maintained themselves for a few years in the Sicilian kingdom ; but they finally gave way before a French army, led by the brother of St. Louis, Charles of Anjou, upon whom the pope bestowed the southern realms of the Hohenstaufens.

With Frederick's death the medieval empire may be said the close of to have come to an end. It is true that after a period of " fist law," as the Germans call it, a new king, Rudolf of Hapsburg, was elected in Germany in 1273. The German kings continued to call themselves emperors. Few of them, however, took the trouble to go to Rome to be crowned by the pope. No serious effort was ever made to reconquer the Italian territory for which Otto the Great, Frederick Barbarossa, and his son and grandson had made such serious sacrifices. Germany was hopelessly divided and its king was no real king. He had no capital and no well-organized government.

By the middle of ihe thirteenth century it becomes apparent that neither Germany nor Italy was to be converted into a strong single kingdom like England and France. The map of Slates Germany shows a confused group of duchies, counties, archbishropics, bishropics, abbacies, and free towns, each one of which asserted its practical independence of the weak king and emperor.
Both books include pictures and sidebars, though those of Outlines of European History are in black and white. And, to be fair, the modern World History text has a lot more to cover. But its summary account of Frederick the Great shows just how boring excessive summarization can be. The first passage is so forgettable (and leaves so many questions unanswered) that perhaps the authors shouldn't have even bothered with this episode in history. The Outlines of European History passage does a wonderful job answering the questions that World History leaves unanswered, and many others, giving a much better sense of the broader context and significance, and extending far beyond names, dates, and kings. While its much longer sentences may elude today's attention-challenged students, it clarifies where the other passage baffles, and is ultimately (for those readers who are up to its lofty Lexile Level) much more memorable.


FedUpMom said...

Katharine, did you type these in exactly? I ask because the modern textbook passage includes many of the grammar problems you mentioned in your last post. Just watch the commas!

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I found both passages completely tedious. The new one has the advantage of being shorter, so the pain doesn't last as long. I learned nothing from either one, as I've already forgotten everything about Frederick except that he had a red beard, and it has only been a couple of minutes.

Katharine Beals said...

FedUpMom, lol! The perils of cut and paste. While I have the book in my possession, I looked for an online source, and found something that (now that I look at it more closely) had numerous elisions and run-ons in it.

I've fixed the discrepancies with the original text. Same with the Outlines of History, which I also cut and pasted in from an imperfectly scanned online version.

Katharine Beals said...

gwp, it sounds like you don't like history very much. I learned a lot from the latter passage and continue to remember its many interesting highlights.

kcab said...

I found the passage from the older book much more engaging. I think my 10 yo would as well, though he'd definitely want maps and pictures to go along with the text.

Catherine Johnson said...

The difference is AMAZING.


Second passage is vastly superior.

btw, reading these two side-by-side, I'm wondering whether excessive summarization automatically leads to "disordered topic" progression....(or whatever it should be called).

In the older passage, the grammatical subjects of the sentences inside a paragraph are often the same.

In the new passage, a paragraph can have almost as many different subjects as it does main clauses.

Catherine Johnson said...

I did a rewrite reducing the number of different grammatical subjects.

Allan Folz said...

That 2005 piece is shockingly bad prose. If that's what children are expected to be reading these days, how are they supposed to learn to write? I wouldn't want my child reading that on principle alone. Maybe that's why the teachers are going to so many sources outside the textbooks?

It does raise considerable questions: what's the point of having a textbook, who is responsible for choosing such miserable textbooks, how much are tax payers being fleeced for this horrible fare?

Anonymous said...


1) to make money for the textbook publishers. (Note that the editors and authors generally earn a pittance from the sales of their textbooks, although there are a few exceptions.)

2) Texas, and for that, as a Texan, I apologize. My fellow voters keep voting in school boards that want to foist the wackiest creation myths on all schoolchildren everywhere, and it drags down the quality of all texts.

3) thousands per year per taxpayer

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's my current rewrite: Which paragraph is better and why?

The principle:

Make the TOPIC of the paragraph the GRAMMATICAL SUBJECT of most (not necessarily all) of the MAIN CLAUSES in that paragraph.

The more I think about it, the more I think that compression makes cohesion much more challenging & difficult to achieve.

cranberry said...

The authors of the 1914 text were eminent historians of their day. James Harvey Robinson (involved in the founding of The New School for Social Research): http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/505742/James-Harvey-Robinson
James Henry Breasted, University of Chicago: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/spcl/centcat/fac/facch10_01.html

Charles Austin Beard (also involved in founding The New School for Social Research): http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/57356/Charles-A-Beard

These men were leading lights of time in which people would attend lectures for fun. Their textbook was written for college students, not high school students.

In comparison, the McDougall and Littell textbook is aimed at "grades 9-12." Its author is Dr. Roger B. Beck, a professor at Eastern Illinois University. http://www.eiu.edu/history/faculty_beck.php

It's not quite fair to compare anyone to the towering intellectual giants of an age, who collaborated on a textbook which would be used by their peers. I believe the contemporary textbook must have been written to meet state history guidelines. It may also have been written with the presumed reading level of contemporary high school students in mind. In other words, writing for a general high school audience will not produce eloquent text, because a committee is unlikely to choose a textbook with elevated diction. Thus do low expectations serve to ratchet materials downward.

I have heard it said that the state of current history textbooks is a reason so many teachers turn to primary sources.

Katharine Beals said...

"Their textbook was written for college students, not high school students."

The reason I own this textbook is that it was my mother's high school history text.

"I believe the contemporary textbook must have been written to meet state history guidelines."

I'm sure you're right about that.

"writing for a general high school audience will not produce eloquent text"

writing to a low-level doesn't mean bad writing. Story of the World tells a much more interesting history than this text book does.

"I have heard it said that the state of current history textbooks is a reason so many teachers turn to primary sources."

That's probably true. However, primary sources are often not written at a level accessible to high school students.

cranberry said...

Your mother would have attended high school in the 1950s or so? Her high school would have been tracked? If her school was tracked, the highest track would be able to read college textbooks. The school may have ordered different textbooks for different tracks.

A book written for "grades 9 - 12" will aim to write for the below average 9th grader.

" However, primary sources are often not written at a level accessible to high school students."

That is a problem. On the other hand, it also depends upon the students.

Katharine Beals said...

Cranberry, this is a high school text. From the Preface: "General European history is one of the most perplexing subjects to deal with in the high school. It seems essential that boys and girls should have some knowledge of the whole past of mankind..."

I agree with you that the demise of tracking is yet another factor affecting which textbooks today's history classes are using.

bky said...

Will writing for a general audience not allow for eloquence? This reminds my of the book A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich. It is written for kids, and it covers prehistory to WWII, in a way, so it is very cursory, but it is wonderfully written. It was originally written in German but the translation is into lucid and charming English. It is so well written that it is hard to use it as a model of good writing. By the way, hasn't the question of topic sentences arisen lately? His paragraphs don't have them. The first sentence of a paragraph is usually a transition sentence. My HS son uses the McDougall and Littell textbook. It is quite good for that kind of thing. The schools insist on using that kind of thing. They will never use something like Gombrich or Barbara Tuchman.

cranberry said...

Are we looking at the same text? I found Outlines of European History (part 2) by Robinson on Google books. Part 1 does not seem to be on Google books.

If it's the same series, it's a condensation of the college textbook. Of course, part 2, "from the seventeenth century to the War of 1914," is almost 700 pages long. Condensed. (!) The first paragraph of the preface states: This volume is the second part of a two-year course covering the history of European civilization from the earliest times of which we have any knowledge to the outbreak of the war of 1914. It is based on the authors' larger work, _The Development of Modern Europe_; the narrative has, however, been much simplified as well as shortened by the sedulous omission of all details that could be spared.

Katharine Beals said...

My Outlines of European History, Part I (1914), from which the above passage comes, is not online, or I'd have linked to it. Its sole author is Breasted, and from the language and tone used throughout the book, I'm pretty confident that the book is pitched specifically at pre-college students, and that it is therefore more than just a condensation of a pre-existing (pre-1914?) college level text.

Allan Folz said...

No offense cranberry, but bad writing is bad writing. Saying it is for a younger or less sophisticated audience does not justify bad writing; indeed, the opposite.

Trying to figure out the intended audience of the 1914 text is an ancillary point.

cranberry said...

No offense taken, Allan Folz. I'm not justifying the modern textbook's prose. I am trying to figure out why the modern prose is much less complex than Katharine's mother's high school textbook. Is there a publisher's style guide which discourages complex sentence structure and subordinating conjunctions?

Or is it an expectation that modern high school students can't handle sentences longer than 10 - 15 words?

In other words, is this example an exception, or are most high school history textbooks poorly written?

Allan Folz said...

@cranberry OK, yeah, I could see a modern style guide which disallows subordinated conjunctions or, worse, sentences greater than 10 words.

Such are the results of our modern designs by committee.

Catherine Johnson said...

I need to look at both passages more closely, but the first couple of paragraphs in the older text use sentences that are pretty simple:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire.

However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories.

His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned.

Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy.

His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him.

He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.

I'm pretty sure that the difference in readability stems from the difference in cohesion.

Catherine Johnson said...

1. Frederick I
2. this region (from end of preceding sentence)
3. His forceful personality and military skills
4. Frederick
5. His brutal tactics
6. He

5 GRAMMATICAL SUBJECTS are "Frederick" or something belonging to Frederick (e.g.: "his forceful personality")
1 GRAMMATICAL SUBJECT follows directly from the end of the preceding sentence:
Frederick I was the first ruler to call HIS LANDS the Holy Roman Empire.
However THIS REGION was actually a patchwork of feudal territories.

I'm not aware of a scale for measuring the cohesiveness of a passage, but if one exists it would show that the older text has high cohesion while the MacDougal Littell text has low cohesion.