Dutiful Students Sometimes Don’t Do Homework

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Dutiful Students Sometimes Don’t Do Homework

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Now I honestly mean no insult, but I don’t know how often it is that you actually read your textbook.  Perhaps you were a dutiful student at the beginning of the year, and then as the end of the year emerged you were like, “Nah, not tonight.”  Or maybe you never read it. Or maybe you’ve never stopped. Whichever, you probably decided at some point that you needed a break, and you set aside that one-thousand-and-who-knows-what page textbook.  Without getting overexcited, I’m going to say that maybe that’s a good thing: to step away from the “facts” and to not do as you’re told. I find that, in attempting to make whatever subject more interesting, authors of textbooks can unintentionally inject their work with their biases.  In The American Pageant, our school’s AP US history textbook, the bolded words are vocabulary must-knows and the italicized and quoted are blurbs to make the reading a bit more entertaining.  While I concede that a book with strict facts about history will most probably be a dry pill to swallow, I believe exaggerated diction and the concept of bolded terms is actually limiting the student’s minds.  

The expressive language that our fine author David Kennedy uses may have had the justifiable incentive to engage the readers.  Nevertheless, his diction and syntax can cast an unexpected shadow over the portrayal of characters in history. In introducing the wild west to readers, The American Pageant reads, “it was the largely parched habitat of the Indian, the buffalo, the wild horse, the prairie dog, and the coyote” (575).  I don’t know about you, but I don’t say, “Colorado is my habitat; I live with the North American tree squirrel and the bighorn sheep.” The inclusion of this group of people in a list of animals discredits their role in history. Through this association, the idea that the Native Americans are not people who are to be valued but rather elements of an environment to be pushed around is conveyed.  And while it is true that the cultural genocide (or if that’s too strong for you: the treatment) of the Native Americans happened with the type of indifference expressed in the sentence, it doesn’t properly demonstrate the impact of the U.S.’s actions. Perhaps by showing proper respect to the extent of the U.S.’s interactions readers could come to their own conclusions about the morality of it all. However, the author almost implies that the Native Americans aren’t worth the effort— the author only discusses Native Americans as part of the west, as a thing for “Americans” to conquer.  

Similarly, a photo of President Obama and a team watching as the U.S. closed in on Osama Bin Laden is captioned with this: “Much commentary on this photograph has focused on the presence of women in the room and on the President’s lack of macho swagger” (987).  With these words, but without the photo, one might assume that both characteristics of the photo are positive (our President isn’t an arrogant unprofessional, and women are succeeding in their ambitions towards powerful positions). However, when I looked at the photo, there were only two women.  Two. One is Hillary Clinton and the other is so far in the back she’s almost out of the room, peering over the shoulders of white men. But there is more than one in the room— should I be satisfied with this? Is this textbook, whose duty it is to enlighten us about America, telling us that since there are two women, we shouldn’t push for more and more?  America, to me, is a place where “minorities” are represented by more than just one person. America, to me, is a place where people are continuously included because of merit, not because it looks like it might quell underrepresented people. So while we can appreciate the insight the textbook provides, we should not let it confine our dreams for what America will become.  

Furthermore, the format of the textbook itself give impressions that some histories are more important than others.  For example, the words “Harlem Renaissance” (724) are bolded vocabulary words but “Fort Pillow” is not. Harlem Renaissance is a term used by historians to describe the new wave of cultural identity and expression in the 1920s.  It’s just like “modernism” (720), except blacks did it, so people named it differently. Why? Why is it that Fort Pillow, a massacre of African American federal soldiers by Confederate soldiers, is mentioned once, at the bottom of the page, in one sentence?  Why is it that people felt the need to separately title a collective renewal of the arts based on race?  So the textbook is saying that it is important to remember how whites identify and label blacks and it is not important to remember those who were lost in their pursuit of life and liberty.  Instead, students should know what the name of the first ironclad ships (the “Merrimack” and “Monitor” page 439). Does one person’s chronicle of history determine what is important for a thousand others?  It is understandable that some people, events, places, ideas can be lost to history with time. But what do we not understand about America’s identity because we were told that it wasn’t significant enough to consider?     

Likewise, the textbook also has blue pages that have mini essays about the “Makers of America.”  The one about the Plains Native Americans is on page 582. The one about the Japanese (Japanese-Americans) is on page 800.  The one about the Great African American Migration is on page 870. These sections are not part of the main text (written almost like an ongoing story), and one could easily skip them (I have) and continue to learn history without the knowledge and insight they provide.  Honestly, who wouldn’t not read these passages if it meant spending less time on homework?  Sure, they’re titled “Makers of America,” but somehow they’re still excluded from the greater whole.  I believe we need to learn about how white men’s reactions to and interactions with their contemporaries shaped the nation because they did indeed shape it to their liking.  And I also believe that Native Americans, ethnically Japanese people, blacks/African Americans, and people don’t exist to be compared to the white man.  I think history is complex, and I believe everyone deserves to be in it.    

After all that, I’m not saying don’t read your textbooks, students.  They are a relatively easily-accessible consolidation of information (also doing well in school is usually beneficial).  I am saying, like another easily-accessible consolidation of information (the internet), that it is dangerous to believe everything that presents itself to you.  This doesn’t mean we cannot think unoriginal thoughts. Yet it probably means that we know why we’re jumping on a bandwagon if we choose to do so. As dedicated life-long learners, shouldn’t we seek to understand the complex while embracing its plurality? 

 

Kennedy, David M., and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant: a History of the American People. 15th ed., Wadsworth Publishing, 2012.