Editing the Past

“Why is the book so different from what Grandpa says?”

I have a love hate relationship with textbooks. They serve a useful purpose, they give me a framework to base my lessons on, they cover a lot, many have nice pictures although the maps can be a wee bit off (reversing Moscow and Stalingrad, Stalingrad on a map of Kievan Rus), and if large enough  you can use them to press flowers and leaves, or to kill bugs. In the latter case, drop from at least 24 inches if using the pure gravity version, or make sure your hands are well clear of the edge of the flat surface for the manual assist version.

They are also often out of date the instant ink hits the page. That’s true of all books of history and politics and other stuff that we humans insist on changing and not setting in stone forever.

It’s the agenda-driven errors and omissions and glosses that make steam come out of my ears.

I do not want to completely undermine all trust my students and younger associates have in books, and I try to be aware of the Gell-Mann problem by reading widely so I can spot things that don’t jibe, even if they are from outside my field. Doing climate research has helped that immensely, by the way, because my data and the Official Grant-Winning Story do not fit. Pretty much anything that isn’t astronomy or initial archaeological reports now gets treated with caution until proven otherwise. But that’s me. I still have to find a way to show students how to balance depending on a textbook for learning the basics with healthy scepticism. I wish I didn’t.

So why is the book different from what Grandpa/Mrs. Wan/this other book/the internet says? The easy ones are when the book is outdated. For example, a great deal of research has been done on the politics and internal policies in various European countries in the years leading up to WWI. New material has been located in archives and has just now (2014-16) become available, or available in English. In that case it is very easy to say, “The textbook has the traditional version, but recent research/recently translated documents show that . . .” And when the editor or primary author of the book is not a specialist in that period, well, I’m not surprised by what turns up. I give the students the update and we’re good to go.

There are a few other more controversial areas like that where I add, “This is the standard, traditional version. Historians have found some interesting new things about [topic] recently, but for now just know that not everyone agrees and we’ll go by what the book says.” I don’t have four days to give the background of the controversy and the evidence supporting the new material, and they don’t have the background or the need to know it. Even I know better than to try to teach Intro to Numismatics to 8th graders the week before Thanksgiving Break. 🙂

Where it is trickier is where the book shades the truth or elides things to give a false impression. I try to be charitable and hope that in the final editing process, someone said “Look, we have to get this map here and this sidebar in order to comply with [state} Essential Elements 24.56-1 and 24.58-7. I’m cutting this paragraph and trimming a little here. The teachers can make sure students understand that Henry VIII was dead before Elizabeth I came to the throne.” There’s been a few others where I really wondered if a fresh pair of eyes reading over the final version would not have helped later readers.

Other times, I suspect not exactly malice but group understanding and sympathies. “Everyone knows that . . .” and so on. One book I looked through got the basic narrative of events straight, but shaded things so that any right/conservative/free-market/corporate thing was not so good, and communist/socialist/trades union/Progressive was not so bad or even rather better than in real life. Yes, that’s the one that talked about the medieval working class and Renaissance bourgeoisie. I’m glad I didn’t have to teach with that book, because there would have been a serious book-shaped dent in my office wall from my hurling the tome at least once a week. And the illustrations were poor-quality and it needed more maps. But all the authors came from similar academic and political backgrounds, and of course capitalism existed in the middle ages and was bad, and of course the proto-socialists of the German Peasants Revolt were all saints, and of course the industrial revolution was a very Bad Thing. It managed to push my “ahistorical” button, my “wrong terminology” button, my “anachronistic phrase” button and my “bad writing” button. I probably should have bought a copy just to keep as a horrible warning if I ever decide to write a textbook.

Is it really changing the past or just shading it? I’ve found a case of changing that I will have to correct, probably by the “recent research” method (which is true, although this particular bit was known at the time of the original event). Another I will let slide because the big picture is correct and I don’t have a 100% trustworthy source quickly available to triple check. I have tried to correct the idea that non-Europeans are more peaceful, gentle, and less corrupt than Europeans, no matter what period of history. People are people are people, and will do unkind things if they feel they are necessary. Now, what defines necessary varies with time, place, and culture.

And Stalin and Mao are still *&($)#ing ()#^&*@^#%ers, no matter what modern revisionists claim.


4 thoughts on “Editing the Past

  1. And even astronomy changes, of course, as resolution gets better, detectors become more sensitive, analysis improves… and of course, theory/perspective changes. When I born, Pluto was just Pluto (never mind the major/minor planet argument), but then Charon was detected.. and eventually more..

    And in Venezuela an opposition party leader has been murdered… but it’s not a “Socialist Utopia,” yet – as that’s just a ONE-PERSON grave.

    • I have no problem with “outdated because we keep finding new stuff.”

      I saw that. But how many people in the rural areas, or slums have disappeared or starved? But they’ll get it right next time.

  2. Have you ever been asked/required to teach to a party line? Have you had to use Howard Zinn’s textbook?

    • No, but I’ve had it implied that I need to stick with whatever textbook is being used. And when I substitute, if the material I’m given has a bias, I do not try to correct it. I do not want to confuse the students with my take versus what the main teacher is presenting and testing the students over. If students ask, I’ll say, “Here is my understanding/opinion.”

      No, I’ve managed to avoid dealing with Zinn directly, but I have encountered his ideas before and danced around them. I suspect if I ever start teaching advanced US history again, I’ll have to come up with a way to deal with him, because the new AP-US standards are rather Zinn-ified.

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