This is an archival copy of material that originally appeared at:
American Enterprise Online
September 2002 Issue
History to the Left of Us
by Larry Schweikart
USA Today recently reported on its front page that American high school seniors could not perform even at the most basic level in the subject of history. Less than half the students could identify or explain major events in U.S. history, such as the Monroe Doctrine, Nat Turner's rebellion, or the Bay of Pigs invasion. Why can't Johnny learn history?
The standard culprits deserve blame, including lack of competition in public schools, low standards, and entrenched unions. Another factor in the dismal state of elementary and high-school education however, seeps down from the college level: a pervasive bias that distorts American-history textbooks. A sampling of what passes for history in some of the main college texts will offer a glimpse of the hurdles that confront even unbiased, well-meaning secondary school instructors who rely on these "mainstream" texts. (Due to the familiarity of most readers with events of the last 20 years, I will limit my examples to the final chapters of these books, but the tilt proliferates in the treatment of earlier events as well.)
During the Reagan years, textbook authors tried to minimize the extent of Reagan's surprising 1980 election victory by pointing to overall voter participation. George Tindall and David Shi's popular America states that Reagan's "vote total represented only 28 percent of the potential electorate. Only 53 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1980 election." They fail to remind readers that the highest voter participation levels in American history occurred in 1810, when heavy property-ownership requirements meant that only a handful of Americans elected a President. Likewise, Winthrop Jordan and Leon Litwack continue the "low-turnout" mantra in their The United States by sarcastically noting that "the new President entered the White House having received a 'landslide' of only 26 percent of the electorate."
Another line of attack is to depict Ronald Reagan as no more than an actor. Though Daniel Goldfield and his co-authors acknowledge Reagan's masterful communication skills in American Journey, they seem obliged to note in a photo caption that "critics questioned his grasp of complex issues." Reagan "was no intellectual," claims the widely-used American Pageant, and according to Nations of Nations, Reagan made the "conspicuous display of wealth once again a sign of success and power." As if to make absolutely sure students got the point that the Reagan administration benefitted only the "wealthy," the American Pageant accompanies its narrative section with a handy chart on "aggregate household income" purportedly showing a massive gap between the rich and poor.
The distortions of the 1980s economic record in these texts would require several issues of TAE, but this one rather blatant example ought to suffice: Thomas Bailey et al.'s American Pageant, long considered perhaps the best college-level text on U.S. history, devotes not one, but two charts to deficits and the national debt in the 1980s, in which the deficit and debt lines appear to go literally off the map under Reagan's watch. In the chart on the national debt, the bias is even more stark: Large bars across the debt time-line indicate important events in American history ("Depression," "World War II ends," "Vietnam War"). Except the one that crosses the skyrocketing debt. It reads not, say, "Last Decade of Cold War" but -- you guessed it -- "Reagan Administration." Worse, the charts are both badly statistically flawed and conceptually wrong. Students (and most instructors) would likely not notice that the legend reads "Billions of dollars." Hmmm? Not "Billions of Real Dollars" or "Billions of Dollars as a Ratio of GNP?" When I recalculated the American Pageant data (for both deficits and debt) in real dollars, then graphed it as a share of GNP, I was stunned. It did not even resemble the original. As a share of GNP, the debt under Reagan barely equaled that of the Kennedy or Truman administrations, and was dwarfed by Roosevelt's New Deal. One error of this type is a mistake. Two in a single chapter suggest deliberate manipulation.
It gets even worse in the chapters covering the 1990s, where Anita Hill's claims against Clarence Thomas are presented solely in the best light possible. The only words from Thomas that are quoted are his reference to civil rights leaders who "bitch, bitch, bitch," and his famous "high-tech lynching" comment. On the other hand, Hill, the "soft-spoken law professor," as Tindall and Shi describe her, received "rough treatment" at the hands of "male senators." Still, the best the authors can do to discredit Thomas is to conclude that "either Hill or Thomas had lied, and the committee's tie vote reflected the doubt." American Journey asserts that "critics [of Hill] failed to shake her story" in the hearings.
The Clinton years accelerate the bias. Given Bill Clinton's anemic popular vote, none of the authors could claim that his election was a vindication the Democratic agenda, so the texts return to an emphasis on voter turnout. John Murrin et al.'s Liberty, Equality, Power paints the 1992 election as victory for liberalism, where the turnout "reversed 32 years of steady decline in participation." That Ross Perot's wild-card candidacy was responsible for most of the new voters who turned out is simply ignored.
When it comes to the Clinton administration itself, scholars contort themselves to offer a positive spin. One would not know that Hillary's health care plan, which went down to ignominious defeat in the House (even among Democrats) when the details leaked out, was a political and economic disaster. Other texts blame the implosion of the First Lady's health plan on special interests, claiming "the bill aroused opposition from vested interests, especially the pharmaceutical and insurance industries" (Tindall and Shi). Steven Gillon and Cathy Matson's American Experience calls Hillarycare the "victim of...intense partisan wrangling" while Alan Brinkley's Unfinished Nation blames its defeat on "the determination of Republican leaders to deny the President any kind of victory on this potent issue." Other texts fault Rush Limbaugh: Liberty, Equality, Power claims that "talk-radio shows featured non-stop criticism of the Clinton White House for bungling the health care issue." (No mention is made of Limbaugh's point that the details of Hillarycare, which included jailing doctors who took cash for medical services and incarcerating patients who attempted to pay in cash, scared Americans to death.)
Not only is the slant of the wording obvious, so is the amount of space allotted to coverage of topics. The "militia movement" rates almost two full pages in Tindall and Shi, and readers get a whole paragraph about greedy corporate CEOs such as Albert J. Dunlop, "aka...'Rambo in Pinstripes.'" But try to find John Huang, Travelgate, or Buddhist Temples in the index -- fuggedaboutit. The only Buddhists mentioned in Paul Boyer et al.'s Enduring Vision are those who protested against the Diem regime in Vietnam.
Most of the time the authors don't need the more subtle "coverage" method to make their point. Consider the treatment of the 1994 "Contract With America." The Unfinished Nation states that "Opinion polls suggested that few voters in 1994 were aware of the 'Contract' at the time they voted."
American Experience refers to the Contract as "a political wish list polished by consultants and tested in focus groups," while American Journey portrayed the Contract's success as the result of Republicans stoking "personal animosity" against, of course, minorities, women, and the poor. (So which is it? Voters didn't know about it, or their "animosity" drove them to the voting booths?) American Pageant bemoans "radical reductions in welfare programs," and asserts that the Contract only succeeded because Democrats' arguments were "drowned in the right-wing tornado that roared across the land." It goeswithout saying that none of FDR's victories are ever labeled, in any text, as a "left-wing tornado."
Certainly don't expect fairness when it comes to Ken Starr or impeachment. We learn from Murrin that "Starr moved aggressively to expand his inquiry...and seemed intent on securing an indictment against at least one of the Clintons." Brinkley informs readers that "Starr had been investigating the Whitewater matter for nearly four years without significant results." Apparently the convictions of Webster Hubbell and the McDougals are insignificant. Boyer et al.'s Enduring Vision teaches as objective fact that Bill Clinton was "the target of...conservative Republican zealots determined to drive him from office."
The American Journey provides a full page of "From Then to Now: Impeachment," comparing the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts. It concludes, as one might expect by now, that only Nixon's impeachment met the standards of the Founders, and that "his lies did not just reflect on his character, they also undermined the integrity of national elections." I checked the index, one more time, just to be sure that I had not missed any further comments on integrity and elections. I had not. Not a single reference to "Buddhist Temple," John Huang, or "White House coffees."
Before adopting a text for a course, any educator interested in teaching facts needs to ask an important question: Does the book have any connection to the truth?
Larry Schweikart is a history professor at the University of Dayton. His most recent book is The Entrepreneurial Adventure: A History of Business in the United States. He is now working on a (fact-based) textbook of U.S. history.