Think the cost of health care has been going up? Check out the cost of college textbooks.
Maybe we should all think about replacing our usual textbooks with something like Robert Remini’s A Short History of the United States. Students would still be getting their background and context from a distinguished and reputable historian, but at a fraction of the cost of the glossy, illustration-heavy volumes put out by textbook publishers. They’d also save time and money that could be spent on other reading material, material which would demonstrate what historians do and how they do it.
Or maybe we should ditch the background, textbook-type reading completely. I’m gradually becoming convinced that survey-level history texts aren’t just overpriced—they’re a little superfluous. When I teach survey courses, I spend most of my time lecturing on important historical trends, covering critical events, providing context, and so on. In other words, I’m doing the very same thing the textbook is doing, except I’m doing it verbally. Is the textbook really necessary when it does nothing but elaborate on the same material we cover in lecture?
In the past, I’ve tried to save my students’ money by replacing the supplementary source reader with material from the Internet History Sourcebook or another online primary source collection, and assigning the main text as the only book to buy. Maybe I’ve been doing it backwards. Perhaps we should all ditch our textbooks instead, and assign a good primary source reader along with an accessible monograph or two. Thus we’d have lectures for background coverage, and assigned reading to learn interpretation and historical thinking. Some professors have been doing this for a long time. Is it time to take that approach mainstream?
Here are a few items of interest to digest along with your microwaved turkey remnants.
- Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is hosting an exhibit of old North Carolina textbooks and the bizarre material contained therein. The First Dixie Reader, published in Raleigh in 1863, extolled the idyllic lifestyle of the elderly female slave: “Many poor white folks would be glad to live in her house and eat what Miss Kate sends out for her dinner.”
- The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is approaching, and the bureaucrats in Albany, NY couldn’t care less.
- Some interesting stuff turned up when a bank employee opened up a box that had gone neglected.
- The fate of (what’s left of) the historic K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, TN is in dispute. The Department of Energy had promised to keep part of it intact, but now they want to tear down the whole thing.
- Think historic preservation doesn’t make economic sense? Think again.
Remember that Virginia history textbook that had us all in a tizzy last year, the one written by a non-historian who used SCV websites as a source? The new edition is out, and it’s slightly less inaccurate than the old one. High fives all around!
They’ve evidently whittled down the errors in Our Virginia and a similar textbook on general U.S. history to a manageable hodgepodge of “dubious quotations, misleading images and maps depicting inaccurate borders,” sort of like when McDonald’s decided to cut down the trans fat in its fries while leaving all that lip-smacking overall fat and salt content in place. Virginia’s Board of Education has put the two books back on the list of approved texts for use in elementary classrooms.
Oh, and earlier this year, the Old Dominion changed the textbook vetting process. “Under the new rules, publishers must certify that their textbooks have been checked for accuracy by subject-matter experts,” according to the above-linked article. “They also have to agree to fix mistakes discovered in their texts.”
This seems to suggest that getting qualified authorities to check the books before printing them has not been a standard procedure for textbook publishers. I’m visualizing this scenario where a manuscript for a new history textbook has just arrived by FedEx at a publishing office, and the editorial staff are passing it around a conference table. One of them finally says, “Sooooo, should we, like, get an actual historian to look at this, or should we just start cranking out a few thousand copies and let the chips fall where they may?”
Next semester I might get the chance to design and teach a class on the American Revolution. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I’ve had the assigned reading for a course like this worked out in my head for years.
My favorite one-volume history of the Revolution is Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, part of the Oxford History of the United States. An updated edition just came out a few years ago. Comprehensive and readable, it’s the logical choice for the main textbook.
I’d supplement that with Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, or maybe just the first few chapters. It’s a very important study that clarifies a lot of otherwise puzzling aspects of the period’s rhetoric. I don’t want to focus on politics to the exclusion of military affairs, so Joseph Plumb Martin’s firsthand account of life in the Continental Army would be a good middle-of-the-semester read. I’d love to assign Charles Royster’s magnificent A Revolutionary People at War, too; it’s one of my all-time favorites. Of course, I’d probably have to pick a chapter or two in order to fit it in with everything else. I’d wrap things up with Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, assigning a final paper asking students to assess the Revolution’s results in light of Wood’s arguments and the other material covered during the class.
This class, though, will be aimed specifically at non-history majors who are interested in taking an upper-level U.S. history course for one of their required electives. I don’t want to smother their enthusiasm with too much reading material. The Glorious Cause is massive (the new edition is over 700 pages), so if I stick with it, I’ll probably have to jettison some of the supplemental readings. I could abandon a main text altogether and rely entirely on chapters and excerpts, but as a student I much preferred the convenience of a short stack of assigned books to the hassle of downloading or copying a different assigned reading every week. My problem is that all these books are very near and dear to my heart, so I’m faced with some agonizing choices.
It’s therefore time for a little audience participation. Chime in with any suggestions you might have, but bear in mind that this class will cover political, military, and social aspects of the struggle for independence.
(My thanks to the always-handy Wikimedia Commons for the Trumbull painting of the surrender at Yorktown.)