Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What we forget about history textbooks

It’s fashionable these days to decry traditional history as all about names and dates and powerful people, and history textbooks as inferior to primary sources. But our collective historical memories are short.

People forget that there are textbooks, and then there are textbooks. Some of them are written by committee, are dumbed down for a very general audience, and, written to offend no one, are dull as doorknobs. Others are written in the single voice of a learned historian and raconteur: someone who knows how to make even the driest facts as interesting to you as they are to him or her.

People forget that to really appreciate primary sources, you need historical context; that survey courses are the best way to acquire and retain this; and that there are some really good survey-based textbooks out there written by learned historians/raconteurs who know how to make even the driest facts interesting—particularly if you go back in time.

Because, finally, people forget—or probably never knew—that there are all sorts of really good history textbooks that were published ages ago, and that aren’t all about names and dates and powerful people.

Here’s how one of them opens:

Could Louis XIV now see the France he once ruled, how startling the revolution in politics and industry would seem to him! The railroads, the steel steamships, the great towns with well-lighted, smoothly paved, and carefully drained streets; the innumerable newspapers and the beautifully illustrated periodicals, the government schools, the popular elections, and his deserted palaces; the vast factories full of machinery, working with a precision and rapidity far surpassing those of an army of skilled workmen; and most astonishing of all, the mysterious and manifold applications of electricity which he knew only in the form of lightning playing among the storm clouds: all these marvels would combine to convince him that he died on the eve of the greatest revolution in industry, government, and science that the world has ever seen. It is the purpose of this volume, after describing the conditions in Europe before the French Revolution, to show as clearly as possible the changes which have made the world what we find it today.  
If a peasant who had lived on a manor in the time of the Crusades had been permitted to return to earth and travel about Europe at the opening of the eighteenth century, he would have found much to remind him of the conditions under which, seven centuries earlier, he had extracted a scanty living from the soil…  
The houses occupied by the country people differed greatly from Sicily to Pomerania, and from Ireland to Poland, but, in general, they were small, with little light or ventilation, and often they were nothing but wretched hovels with dirt floors and neglected thatch roofs. The pigs and the cows were frequently better housed than the people, with whom they associated upon very familiar terms, since the barn and the house were commonly in the same building…

Even in the towns there was much to remind one of the Middle Ages. The narrow, crooked streets, darkened by the overhanging buildings and scarcely lighted at all by night, the rough cobblestones, the disgusting odors even in the best quarters—all offered a marked contrast to the European cities of today, which have grown tremendously in the last hundred years in size, beauty, and comfort.
(From James Harvey Robinson’s Outlines of European History, which my daughter and I started reading a couple of months ago.)


Anonymous said...

The best history textbooks (and they have always existed) track social/cultural movements, economic forces, scientific advances -- pretty much everything. Some were even written by more than one person, but never by a committee assembled by a publisher aiming to capture market share.

Anonymous said...

There are also modern textbooks that are truly excellent. They are few and far between, but they exist.

momof4 said...

Could you identify some of the good ones?

Anonymous said...

K12's Human Odyssey series for middle school. They have a high school version too, but I haven't used it. Ways of the World by Robert W. Strayer for high school (it's actually a college text) is amazingly well written. K12's The American Odyssey for high school. And K12's *concise* version of Joy Hakim's A History of US for late elementary is very readable and doesn't have the scrunched, wander-y quality of the original series.

K12 did an excellent job preparing its history materials--everything I've used from them is readable, coherent, and interesting. You can buy the books without ordering the courses.