Professors discuss textbook problem

By Donald R. Roth Jr.

Many college students take what they read in their history textbooks as fact, but, more often than not, they are filled with errors.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, several history textbooks used in the Texas school system have been filled with a myriad of errors—more than 5,000 errors.

One book said that the 1789 Judiciary Act established the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was established by the U.S. Constitution. Another book incorrectly stated that the Korean War was settled by dropping an atomic bomb when in fact a bomb was never used.

While these errors present a serious problem for secondary school educators, NIU professors believe they are indicative of a deeper problem.

“These allegations are wretched. Everyone wants to determine the content of history books to espouse their own ideologies,” said Allan Kulikoff, an associate history professor at NIU.

He said that while these errors are serious and need to be corrected, they are trivial in the larger picture.

The pressure that secondary school administrators function under is different than in a college setting, Kulikoff said. “We do not have to accept books that are filled with errors or political bias.”

NIU History Professor Margaret George said, “Every historian has their own world view which is presented in textbooks in different ways.”

Kulikoff said the real problem exists not with textbooks, but with students.

“Students in high school have such a large illiteracy rate that this may cause textbooks to have to be written in an unusually elementary way,” he said.

A similar problem to illiteracy is that students come to the university unwilling to read or dedicate themselves to the tasks of learning, Kulikoff said.

“With so many distractions in today’s world (TV and radio), students do not read as much as they should,” he said.

All textbooks are written with the author’s political and social biases built in, he said, and teachers should use these differences to strengthen their classes.

It is a tragedy when political pressure causes textbooks to become so bland that anything that hints of debate will cause its exclusion, Kulikoff said.

“I would like to see textbooks in high school include the role religion plays in our history. I get so many students who have no knowledge at all outside their own religion. It’s sad,” he said.

“I don’t even use textbooks in my classes anymore,” George said. “The only writings I use are scholarly accounts.”

While there are many different solutions for the textbook dilemma, Kulikoff said he believes his solution will work.

Kulikoff’s solution is to use textbooks only as resources, make high school students read autobiographies of important U.S. historical figures and have students read the Declaration of Independence.