Commentary Magazine


America Revised, by Frances FitzGerald

The American Past

America Revised: History School-Books in the Twentieth Century.
by Frances Fitzgerald.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 218 pp. $9.95.

One of the more curious intellectual developments of the last few years is the recent outbreak of concern among writers on the Left about the decline of authority in American life. During the riotous years of the Vietnam war, freedom was the principal concern of radical writers. When they spoke of the political leadership of the nation, or of its economic system, it was in terms that might better have been reserved for the description of despotisms. But now some of the erstwhile enemies of American tyranny are sounding a different alarm. The trouble with our society, it turns out, is that it has lost its rigor. Permissiveness has rotted out the structure of family life. Traditional faiths have given way to sentimentality. The instructional standards in our schools have become a joke. Personal self-discipline has deliquesced into self-indulgence.

In certain respects, the books and articles currently emerging from the Left are reminiscent of a conservative social criticism that was not entirely new when Irving Babbitt advanced it fifty years ago. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the authors of these books and articles have experienced a political change of heart. They are very much the same people they were a decade ago, and the larger purpose of their calls for the renewal of certain forms of authority is to discredit others. In the emerging literature of what might be called leftist fundamentalism, the arguments often sound conservative, but their thrust is radical.

The political animus of this literature has largely gone unremarked by the reading public, even though its authors have made no attempt to conceal how they feel. The intellectual irresponsibility of their work has for the most part also been overlooked. For in an admittedly bad time for the United States, some audiences automatically seem to assume that if a book takes a dim view of American life, it cannot be wrong.

Take, for example, President Carter’s astonishing decision last summer—reportedly on the advice of Mrs. Carter and Patrick Caddell—to berate the American people in language drawn from Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. That Carter elected to whip us with Lasch says far more about the agitated state of mind in his White House than it does about the state of the Union. As a man of Carter’s intelligence ought to have had no trouble in recognizing, even from a resumé offered by associates, The Culture of Narcissism elevates semi-accurate comments on self-evident American faults into a wildly improbable theory of collective personality change. Moreover, the book is suffused with hatred for capitalism. That Lasch’s pseudoscholarship managed to impress Carter is bad enough, but how could he have failed to be put off by the political bias of the book? Apparently, he never gave it a thought—and the bizarre result was a speech in which a President of the United States echoed the animadversions of a writer whose deepest conviction is that the American way of life is dying, thank God.

One has to wonder whether the latest instance of leftist fundamentalism, Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised: History School-books in the Twentieth Century, is even now on Carter’s night table. Certainly it is impressing a lot of other worry warts. A two-page, pre-publication spread in Time magazine in early September acclaimed the book as “heavily researched,” and then proceeded to recapitulate its discouraging contentions without a murmur of dissent. Three weeks later, a Cornell University historian, Michael Kammen, filled a front-page review in the book section of the Washington Post with an assortment of compliments. “[Miss] FitzGerald’s firm control over a mine of material is stunning,” he wrote; her report, he predicted, would prove to be of “paramount importance” to historians, educators, parents, politicians, journalists, psychologists, sociologists, members of school boards, and civil libertarians. The first vindication of Professor Kammen’s prophecy came in mid-October, when Miss FitzGerald was the featured speaker at a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities on the teaching of history. In no time, America Revised became a strong contender for the same prizes that were lavished upon Miss FitzGerald’s first book, Fire in the Lake (1972).

Every poll in the early 1970’s showed that while the American people wanted to end the war in Vietnam, they saw their country’s aims as honorable. Fire in the Lake, however, spoke for a special constituency which wanted to believe that America’s intrusion into Southeast Asia was not just a monumental blunder, but an international crime. Looking back across the history of the war, Miss FitzGerald announced that it was no longer possible to say that

Vietnam was the “quagmire,” the “pays pourri” that had en-mired and corrupted the United States. It was the other way around. The U. S. officials had en-mired Vietnam. They had corrupted the Vietnamese and, by extension, the American soldiers who had to fight amongst the Vietnamese in their service. By involving the United States in a fruitless and immoral war, they had also corrupted themselves.

The depravity of what we had done to Vietnam is symbolized in the concluding chapter of Fire in the Lake in the description of a Saigon girl “on spindle heels” picking her way over a “barrier of rotting fruit” toward “a waiting Buick.” From this degrading scene—unqualified by any acknowledgement on the author’s part that the girl heading for the Buick was practicing a profession that was not invented under the Johnson administration and not destined to disappear under Communism—Miss FitzGerald turns in her final paragraph to the vision of a coming time of catharsis, when “the narrow flame of revolution” would at last “cleanse the lake of Vietnamese society from the corruption and disorder of the American war.” The antiseptic metaphor totally blocks awareness of the unspeakable filthiness of the Hanoi regime, but the fans of Fire in the Lake were oblivious to this deficiency. To them, the metaphor simply completed a satisfying thought—the god of battles was on the side of the forces of purity and against the forces of impurity, as in the moral fables of an earlier America.

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America Revised considerably strengthens my impression that Miss FitzGerald is not the brilliant scholar-reporter her admirers think she is. Her bibliography of the secondary literature she consulted on the subject of teaching history to schoolchildren reveals that she did not adequately prepare herself for the task of writing about it, for no mention is made of such standard works as Bessie Louise Pierce’s Public Opinion and the Teaching of History in the United States and the various writings of Howard K. Beale. As for the argument Miss FitzGerald makes, it is so inaccurate as to raise the question of whether she actually has read many of the textbooks she mentions, or has simply managed to deceive herself about what they contain.

Although thin and schematic, America Revised holds up reasonably well until the author comes to the period she is most interested in, the years since 1950. The first modern texts, she rightly points out, appeared in the 1890’s. Their realistic spirit was reflected in their terse, declarative sentences. Their materials were organized into clearly delineated themes, such as “The English Colonies” or “The Rise of Parties.” Their pages gave less space to battles than had the romantic texts of the earlier 19th century and much more space to politics and economics. Their expression of authorial partisanship was muted.

If the 1890’s was the “Quatrocento” [sic] of the genre, the years between 1910 and 1930 were “surely the Renaissance.” In 1911, the first edition of David Muzzey’s American History was published. Soon, a host of other books by such distinguished academics as Albert Bushnell Hart, Charles and Mary Beard, and Andrew C. McLaughlin appeared. These historians brought an individual grace to the impersonal narrative style developed in the 90’s, and they enlivened the earlier emphasis on objectivity with a more or less vivid strain of dissenting criticism, for they were creatures of the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and they all believed—albeit in varying degrees—in the reformist principles of the Progressive movement.

The first major effort to interfere with the freedom of expression of the textbook writers occurred after World War I. The mayor of Chicago and the Hearst press accused a number of texts of Anglophilism. The DAR protested against the deemphasis of American military history. The Ku Klux Klan detected the presence of pro-Jewish and pro-Catholic propaganda. Private utilities associations put pressure on publishers to present a more pro-business point of view. Nevertheless, the texts of the Progressive historians continued to sell throughout the 1920’s, along with the new works of more conservative historians.

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The ideological diversity of history texts reached its peak during the Depression, when the list of liberal and conservative offerings was augmented by works emphasizing economic history and reflecting “a hazy kind of socialism.” The most notable of these new volumes was a series by Harold Rugg, which discussed with considerable candor the plight of the unemployed, the effects on workers of industrial speedup, and the problems faced by immigrants. Because the wave of right-wing protest had subsided, publishers felt no reluctance about bringing out such books.

The warning signal that the era of diversity was ending came in 1939, with the sudden and simultaneous attack on the Rugg series by the Advertising Federation of America, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Legion. In 1938, the Rugg books had sold 289,000 copies; in 1944, sales came to a mere 21,000 copies; not long thereafter, the books disappeared. Conservative pressure groups, newly emboldened by the patriotism of the war years, attacked other textbooks as well. By 1950, according to Miss FitzGerald, the protesters “had been so successful that they had nothing more to complain about: the texts had become reflections of the National Association of Manufacturers viewpoint.” A few years later, she says categorically, “there were no more dissenting books on the market.” (Having temporarily forgotten these statements, she remarks two pages later that the revised editions of Muzzey’s reform-minded American History “went on selling strongly through the 40’s and 50’s.”)

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The notion that the 1950’s was a dead time in the intellectual history of the United States is one of the favorite shibboleths of radical writers, and Miss FitzGerald keeps hammering the point home. The history books of the 50’s, we are informed yet once again, were ideologically all of a piece. They also were implacably upbeat. Inside their covers,

America was perfect: the greatest nation in the world, and the embodiment of democracy, freedom, and technological progress. For them, the country never changed in any important way: its values and its political institutions remained constant from the time of the American Revolution.

The 1960’s, however, blew off the hermetic seal of NAM orthodoxy with a bang, in “the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place in American schoolbooks.” The revolution began in 1965, when the assassination of President Kennedy entered the texts. Shortly thereafter, all sorts of problems began to crop up “like measles,” not just in the concluding sections dealing with contemporary history, but in the accounts of earlier periods as well. By the 1970’s, a sense of endless trouble was running rampant through the texts. To read these new books in comparison with the old was to feel that “nothing less than the character of the United States” had changed.

At every point, the textbook revolution was aided and abetted by pressure groups. For the first time in publishing history, large-scale protests were heard from liberal organizations and from racial and ethnic minorities—black Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, and so on. Today, a dozen organizations, from the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League to the Council on Interracial Books, regularly monitor textbooks for bias.

America Revised would have us believe that the publishers have never offered much resistance to their critics, and that their cravenness is essentially the fault of the free-enterprise system. The textbook business is highly competitive, Miss FitzGerald points out, and publishers live in dread of offending the school boards, the school superintendents, and the state committees which adopt the texts they want from a wide range of choices. In response to the protests following World War I, publishers in the 20’s ceased the practice—or so Miss FitzGerald insists, even though her own account of the textbooks published in the 30’s indicates otherwise—of commissioning one author to write a book. Academic historians were invited to collaborate with schoolteachers or school administrators, preferably from another region of the country. Eventually, many texts acquired, in addition to multiple authors, a general editor, an editorial adviser, and a clutch of consultants. In the modern publishing business, America Revised avers, American history books are not so much written as “developed.”

In the most sensational part of her book, Miss FitzGerald charges that publishers were so responsive to the militant mood of the late 60’s and early 70’s that they began putting out books which abandoned some of the most famous heroes of American history in favor of figures like the slave Crispus Attucks, whose sole claim to historical fame is that he was the first victim of the Boston Massacre. “Poor Columbus!” exclaims Miss FitzGerald. In today’s texts, she sweepingly declares, he is nothing but a “minor character,” a “walk-on.” Even those books that “have not replaced his picture with a Mayan temple or an Iroquois mask do not credit him with discovering America. . . . The Vikings, they say, preceded him to the New World.” Daniel Boone, too, has “all but disappeared” from the textbooks, and General Custer “has given way to Chief Crazy Horse.”

In sum, America Revised is full of alarming news. In a time of multiplying troubles in the United States, Miss FitzGerald’s book announces that we do not even have a familiar history to hang on to any more. Thanks to the battering that the texts have received since the 1940’s, first from the Right and then from the Left, their recapitulations of the nation’s past have been reduced to a patchwork quilt of political propitiations. “Poor America!” we might exclaim, if it were not for the fact that America Revised contains so much fiction.

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The collapse of the reliability of Miss FitzGerald’s book is marked by the point at which she abruptly ceases to talk about the political opinions of the textbook writers. She makes it clear early on that David Muzzey and his contemporaries were Progressives, and that Harold Rugg had considerably more advanced ideas. Why, then, does she not tell us about the political opinions of the textbook writers of the 1950’s? The answer probably is that if she had, it would have destroyed the credibility of what she wanted to say about their books.

The English historian of American history, J. R. Pole, recalls in his new book of essays, Paths to the American Past, that nearly every American historian whom he met following World War II was a New Dealer. It would appear from this statement—and from similar statements by other American historians—that if Miss FitzGerald had endeavored to demonstrate that the American historians who turned out textbooks in the 50’s were all admirers of the NAM, she would not have succeeded. If, on the other hand, she had frankly conceded that at least some of them had New Deal sympathies, she would have been forced to argue that these liberal authors were so lacking in personal courage and professional rectitude as to have been willing to sign their names to books in which they did not believe. This she appears unwilling to have done, and therefore she finesses the whole question of what the textbook writers of the 50’s believed. She builds her case against a conformist historiography entirely on content analysis.

Her conclusions, however, about the ideological unanimity of the textbooks of the 50’s cannot bear critical scrutiny. Even if we set aside the fact that Muzzey’s American History sold well in the 50’s, it is grossly misleading to say that there were no textbooks on the market during that time which did not reflect right-wing animus. There was, in fact, considerable diversity of opinion in the textbooks of the period. If Moon and MacGowan’s Story of Our Land and People (1957) damns the New Deal with faint praise, Wilder, Ludlum, and Brown’s This is America’s Story (1952) portrays Franklin Roosevelt in the same heroic light that illuminates the histories of such ardent New Dealers as Frank Freidel and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.:

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was thirty-nine years old, he was stricken with infantile paralysis. The doctors said his legs were so badly paralyzed that he might never walk again. But Roosevelt refused to give up. He triumphed over the disease, although it left him badly crippled. Through this triumph he changed into a man who well knew and well understood sorrow and suffering. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became President, the country was full of suffering. Men who cannot find work, who lose their homes, their farms, their savings—these men are not sick, but they are suffering and need help. Roosevelt was determined to put all the power and wealth of the United States to work to end the depression. . . .

Miss FitzGerald’s statement that the texts of the 50’s present America as perfect is also false. The most enduring conception of the American textbook tradition is that the story of the American Dream is uncompleted, that the nation is still struggling to fulfill its ideals. The texts of the 50’s are very much a part of that tradition. In the words of one of them: “At home there are many difficult problems to solve if the American way of life is to be carried forward and if all Americans are to have a chance to live satisfying lives.”

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Miss FitzGerald’s summary of what a triumphant pluralism did to the canon of American history in the late 60’s and early 70’s is the stuff of which headlines are made, but it badly exaggerates the facts of the matter. Crispus Attucks, first of all, did not enter the textbooks with the civil-rights movement of the 60’s, as Miss FitzGerald implies, for he was already familiar to earlier generations of schoolchildren who had grown up on such books as Harlow’s Story of America (1947). The contention that Columbus is nothing but a bit player these days who is not even credited with the discovery of America borders on absurdity. Textbooks throughout the whole modern period have acknowledged the Viking explorations at the same time that they have lauded Columbus for a stupendous achievement, and most recent texts continue to do so. Twenty years ago, Moon and MacGowan devoted five pages to Columbus; in 1977, Bidna, Green-berg, and Spitz’s We the People gave him three pages, but their book could hardly be accused of reducing the discoverer to a walk-on part. Despite what Miss FitzGerald says about the virtual disappearance of Daniel Boone, Todd and Curti’s Rise of the American Nation (1972) accords the Kentuckian five paragraphs and a picture, and he is alive and kicking in other books as well. Current, De Conde, and Dante’s United States History (1967) mentions both Crazy Horse and General Custer, as does Leinwand’s The Pageant of American History (1975).

Last May, at a conference on “The Textbook in American Education” at the Library of Congress, Alexander J. Burke, Jr., the president of McGraw-Hill, sharply criticized Miss FitzGerald’s New Yorker articles—which subsequently became America Revised—for perpetuating ancient myths about the textbook publishing business. The popular misconceptions in her articles included the notion that textbooks are developed by committees, not written by authors, and the insistence that the choice of authors is dictated by the desire to impress the textbook adoption authorities. I myself do not know enough about the publishing business to say whether Mr. Burke’s irritation with Miss FitzGerald is warranted, or not. Yet I must say that I am sympathetic with him, if only because Miss FitzGerald offers so very little hard evidence for her claims, and no supporting footnotes whatsoever. America Revised attempts to discredit an enormous business enterprise mainly through a combination of office-corridor gossip and provocative rhetoric.

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In exposing the untrustworthiness of Miss FitzGerald’s book, I do not mean to create the impression that I myself am content with the textbooks which are in use in the schools today. That the school histories have been adversely affected by the political turbulence of the Vietnam era is undeniable. Yet the Negro cowboys and other affirmative-action representatives who currently clutter up their pages will not last long; indeed, they may already be headed for oblivion, as today’s fad of “back to basics” gathers momentum. Even Scott, Foresman & Company, publishers of the egregiously trendy America! America!—which contains the only female pirate in historiographical captivity—has indicated that future editions of the book will probably offer its readers a more staple diet than heretofore.

But should the female pirate walk the plank and the Negro cowboys have their last round-up, the basic problems of the contemporary textbook will remain. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about America Revised is its revelation of how very little thought Miss FitzGerald has given to these problems. Thus she hopes that the textbook of tomorrow will include more economic history and more intellectual history, but she voices these sentiments without acknowledging that such improvements would inevitably entail a cutback in political history. In a time when more and more high-school graduates are unable to tell their college professors who John C. Calhoun was, or whether President Polk came before President Cleveland, a deemphasis of political history does not seem advisable. Miss FitzGerald also yearns for a generation of textbooks that would be as well written as David Muzzey’s were, even though every report on the reading ability of today’s schoolchildren indicates that Muzzey’s prose would be over the heads of more young readers than not.

Miss FitzGerald’s naiveté about the intellectual condition of textbook authors is even greater than her ignorance of the intellectual condition of their student audience. The first task of anyone who is seriously interested in putting better-written textbooks into the schools is to draw attention to the fact that fewer and fewer historians of our time know how to write the English language with anything like the felicity of David Muzzey. Miss FitzGerald is all too eager to criticize the capitalistic publishers for burdening their authors with stylistic consultants, but on the question of whether those authors need all the literary help they can get, she has nothing to say.

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Miss FitzGerald also seems completely unaware of various intellectual developments in the historical discipline which militate against the emergence of better textbooks. By and large, American historians of today no longer write narrative history. Many of them are also convinced that writing political history is an exercise in futility, and that biography is the art form of a vanished era (which is why they do not care that there is no satisfactory biography of Henry Clay or of Daniel Webster, inter alia). Under the influence of the allegedly hard-headed social sciences, historians have forsworn big books encompassing many themes and spanning long periods of time in favor of extremely specialized and narrow books—town studies, ethnic studies, studies of the voting habits of Old Light Presbyterians in Sheboygan in the 1890’s, and the like. Besides being of limited intrinsic interest, these books are self-contained; they do not relate easily to other sorts of data, or even to other studies in the same genre; they cannot be stitched together into revelatory patterns. In the face of criticism of their work’s inconsequential scope, the historians recite the words of their favorite social scientist, Clifford Geertz: “The task . . . is . . . to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.” The decline of the textbook, in other words, is a function of the larger decline of holistic history. Not until the American historical profession recovers its confidence in the worthwhileness of older forms of historical writing will there be any significant improvement in textbook writing.

Alas, Miss FitzGerald never gets within ten miles of this sort of analysis. The criticisms she is interested in making are political, and she calls on us to believe in what she says because of the evenhandedness of her judgments. If she denounces the textbooks of the 50’s for excesses of conservative complacency, she also reproves the books of the 60’s for excesses of radical militancy. Yet in spite of her great show of nonpartisanship, she remains the same ideologue who wrote Fire in the Lake. Her hope is that America Revised will restore the authority of the American history textbook on leftist terms.

Thus, she laments the fact that existing textbooks do not raise “the profound question of whether poverty—if only relative poverty—is built into the structure of capitalism.” She is also disgusted that the textbooks have never had the courage to reveal the dark side of the history of rural America. “It is possible to imagine,” she says, “that the radicals of the 60’s, such as Tom Hayden and Sam Brown, associated themselves with the Populist tradition because their American histories told them a lot about Robert La Follette and nothing about the rural, reactionary, Catholic-hating, Jew-baiting strain in the movement.” Of all the wonderful sentences in America Revised, this is my favorite. While it is true that Robert La Follette campaigned for certain radical ideas in the 1890’s, he was a Republican, not a Populist. As for the religious hatreds expressed by the spokesmen for rural radicalism at the turn of the century, their prejudice was merely one manifestation of a widespread sentiment which encompassed the city as well as the countryside; to single out xenophobia as a distinguishing characteristic of Populism is not only historically misleading but fosters irrational suspicions of rural America. Finally, the reference to Tom Hayden and Sam Brown is so gratuitous that one suspects they are mentioned only because Miss FitzGerald wanted their names in her book.

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