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Wither the History Textbook in the Age of Wikipedia?

The textbook. From Frances Fitzgerald to James W. Loewen, critics of history textbooks have—quite rightly—decried these tomes as bland and boring. No one reads a textbook for pleasure. Weighty, humorless, and fact-filled, textbooks lack the qualities that engage readers of non-fiction: drama, vivid character portraits, and a distinctive vision and authorial voice. Usually written by teams of authors, even the best textbooks tend to be dull, tedious, and lifeless. The textbook, we are told repeatedly, is a boring and overwhelming conglomeration of facts, preoccupied with politics, war, and diplomacy.

The textbook, we are told repeatedly, is a boring and overwhelming conglomeration of facts, preoccupied with politics, war, and diplomacy.

Textbook writers are not unaware of these criticisms. All the major U.S. history texts seek to balance "traditional" themes with social, economic, and cultural developments. All strive to bring history to life with capsule biographies, vivid quotations, and engaging anecdotes. All seek to redress the stereotypes, distortions, and omissions that marred earlier textbooks. Almost all include a wealth of visual materials, charts, maps, paintings, political cartoons, and photographs.

Why are textbooks—even those written by the most renowned historians—mind-numbing? An obsession with coverage is a major problem. No longer focused exclusively on political and diplomatic history, textbooks have embraced cultural, economic, ethnic, religious, social, urban, and women's history. The result, however, is not a work of rich detail and surprising connections; rather, it is encyclopedia-like: an overwhelming compilation of disconnected facts.

Yet, paradoxically, for all their wealth of encyclopedic detail textbooks are also quite superficial. Almost every specific topic is treated in a cursory, sketchy, or shallow manner. Students can acquire surface facts without getting much of a topic's full complexity. For that, a student would do better to turn to Wikipedia.

History Pedagogy Requires Going Further Than the Text

The biggest problem, however, is that textbooks are not well aligned with pedagogical practice. No self-respecting instructor teaches from a textbook. For most teachers, the history textbook is first and foremost a reference work, providing background and detail. The heart of an effective history course lies in a mixture of lecture and classroom activities, involving primary sources, debates, role-playing exercises, discussion, and inquiry. Successful history teaching involves formulating and responding to questions about the past and connecting past and present. Those aren't functions served by current textbooks.

It is in face-to-face interaction with their students that the most successful teachers explore history's crises and controversies as well as the more subtle yet equally profound historical processes. . .

It is in face-to-face interaction with their students that the most successful teachers explore history's crises and controversies as well as the more subtle yet equally profound historical processes (such as urbanization or shifts in women's roles and status) that transform peoples' lives over time. Although a textbook can suggest some of history's struggles, drama, and ambiguities, that function is best performed by other resources and other pedagogical methods. A textbook is no substitute for primary source documents or historic audio and visual resources or secondary sources in teaching historical thinking—nor should it be.

The essential function of a textbook in a middle school, high school or freshman-level history class is to familiarize students with basic facts essential to understanding the past, provide a framework for conceptualizing society's evolution, and preparing students for quizzes and tests. Yet, ironically, textbooks are not especially good at any of those functions, since most are conceived as overarching, comprehensive narratives.

What Should a Textbook Be?

What is the alternative? In creating the Digital History website, I drew on my experience teaching the U.S. history survey course for over twenty years (typically to 592 students a semester). Based on that experience, I concluded that it would be best if a textbook were:

  • Succinct. Information should be based on the principle of "need to know."
  • Aligned with state standards. One of my challenges was to figure out how best to synthesize the topics and events that teachers need to cover.
  • Customizable. Not every teacher covers identical topics in the same order. Instructors should be able to easily pick and choose the topics that they wish to cover.
  • Rich in anecdotes. What, I asked myself, are the stories that my own students have most responded to? These are the incidents and examples that I needed to include.
  • Free. Given the scarcity of resources, focus expenditures on the kinds of instructional materials that will instill a genuine passion for the past: biographies and autobiographies, secondary works of history, novels, maps, films, and music.

Above all, I became convinced that an online textbook should not seek to replicate an entire course. That is an instructor's job—which is why the Digital History website includes a wealth of classroom handouts, primary sources, inquiry-based "eXplorations," and teaching resources including charts, images, maps, and copyright free music designed to empower teachers to incorporate active learning into their classroom.

To my amazement and delight, the Digital History website is used by more than 100,000 distinct users a week. This suggests to me that many instructors are seeking a new kind of balance. A free online textbook will present the "big picture" and serve as a reference work, providing students with essential background, answers to student questions, and a framework for understanding. Meanwhile, teachers will focus on what they do best: interaction, inquiry, and inspiration.