What are our Children Learning?

By Bob Peterson

On first thought, the Milwaukee Public Schools social studies textbook adoption process and the movies Born on the Fourth of July and Roger and Me don’t seem to have much to do with each other. On second thought, maybe they should. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July is based on the true story of Ron Kovik, a patriotic US Marine turned radical by his harrowing experiences in Vietnam and the Bronx Veteran’s Hospital. Michael Moore’s Roger and Me is a documentary which exposes how General Motors has callously ravaged Flint, Michigan this past decade when it decided to move auto production to nonunionized factories in parts of the developing world. Both films deal with history and its portrayal in modern America.

Viewing them, however, in the midst of reviewing 5th grade social studies books propelled me to spend considerable time closely analyzing the accuracy of the message the textbooks give.

I examined four 5th grade textbooks. Three of them were among those being considered by the adoption committee (Heath, Scott Foresman, Macmillan). The fourth, Silver Burdett, is what all MPS elementary teachers have been using for the past seven years. During the several months I have served on the committee I have also reviewed some of the reports from recent commissions that have dealt with social studies education.

The Textbook is Centerpiece

Many elementary teachers, burdened with overcrowded classrooms, virtually no planning time, and a multitude of subjects to prepare for, end up relying heavily on the core textbook of a subject area. Social studies is no different. Making matters worse, few elementary teachers receive any special training in social studies. In the 1987 report of the Educational Excellence Network, American History Textbooks: An Assessment of Quality, Gilbert Sewall wrote that “[m]ore than in other subjects, social studies textbooks determine the content of the course and the motivation of students.”

Sewall’s report devotes a great deal of attention to the nation’s most popular 5th grade textbook, Silver Burdett’s The United States and Its Neighbors. This book is what the children of the 1980s grew up on—Sewall goes so far as to say the “text and package de facto [constitute] a national curriculum” as it has a huge market share, in some states estimated at 70%. It is the book used for the past several years in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

The book’s “coverage” of history is much more extensive than history books of decades ago, but this has had serious consequences. As Sewall states, “the text is a mere cafeteria of information, not a directed and engaging narrative.” He goes even farther stating the book “fails to… impart any sense of excitement, adventure, saga, imagination, or human nature into the investigation of history and society.” He concludes that “this style of writing produce[s] a coma-like state of boredom.” There are probably thousands of MPS students who agree.

Social studies instruction has been hotly debated by educators and national commissions the past few years. Polls by the Gallup Organization suggest the American population is geographically illiterate. Gallup reports that “Americans were the only nationality [polled] whose 18- to 24-year-olds did worse than those over 55.” The Bradley Commission on History in Schools, the California history/social-science curriculum framework, and the task force of the National Commission on Social Studies in Schools have all called for strengthening the social studies content that is taught in the early grades; increasing the use of original-source materials; reducing repetition; and encouraging teachers to teach selected topics in depth, rather than attempting to “cover” the entire sweep of human history. These three reports differ significantly with the perspective of former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who has argued the history of Western Civilization should be the primary focus of social studies instruction.

Few of the recent reports, however, have looked in depth at the treatment of important issues within the textbooks themselves. This lack of concern is often reflected on the local level when adoption committees are dazzled by elaborate supplemental materials including workbooks, transparencies, charts and teacher editions. Sometimes the question of what is actually in the books and how accurate it is, is lost in the process.

The Treatment of Labor

How history of American labor is treated is a case in point. None of the four texts reviewed mentioned the IWW, CIO, or UAW, much less the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan which led to the recognition of the UAW as an organizational
bargaining unit for the auto workers. Silver Burdett’s 5th grade textbook, The United States and Its Neighbors, has only four paragraphs of its 502 pages devoted to the labor movement. As in the books up for consideration this spring, very little information is given about the working conditions which are described as “not good” because of “long hours” and lack of “work safety” and because “children often worked the same hours as men.” The lack of details virtually ensures that students will not comprehend the real conditions of workers’ lives.

The passive verb tense is frequently used to obscure who was responsible for the horrible working conditions or that working people themselves organized for positive change in our nation. The statement “there was little concern about worker safety” hides the fact that it was profit-hungry capitalists who showed little concern, and implies that the working people were apathetic. In fact, many people were “concerned” which led to organizing, lobbying, and militant strikes. (None of which are mentioned.)

Few labor leaders are mentioned by name—usually only Samual Gompers, one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor—and few organizations. American history abounds with rich stories of working people fighting for a livable wage and working conditions. From the Milwaukee General Strike of 1886 to the 1936 Flint Sit Down Strike depicted in Roger and Me, American working class struggles provide an enormous resource for teachers and students to understand our society and many of our current problems. Unfortunately all the textbooks I surveyed limit the discussion of labor conditions and the labor movement to less than twenty paragraphs, many of which are one sentence long. Children come away with virtually no understanding of what went into building this nation or into ensuring the still limited amount of rights that working people have.

While only one or two labor leaders are mentioned in the 500 page textbooks, dozens of generals, explorers and capitalists are detailed. Their lives are glorified and they are often given credit for things which were done by those under them.

The Treatment of African Americans

Since the civil rights movement, textbook publishers have been forced to give more attention to the portrayal of African Americans in the textbooks. Most books continue to isolate the contributions and experiences of African Americans into separate sections, however, giving the impression that they were not central to the history of our society. For example, not one of the four textbooks had anything to say about African Americans between 1877 (the downfall of reconstruction) and 1954 (the Brown decision). Blacks just seemed to have disappeared during that time in history.

The portrayal of slavery by Macmillan’s United States and its Neighbors is very weak. Statements such as “[the slaves’] lives were very different from that of the planter’s family in the big house” downplays the brutal oppression of slavery. Nothing is said about the way slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write. Resistance to slavery is also downplayed. It states that Blacks broke tools and worked slowly and “tried to run away” but nothing is said about the fact that slaves also mounted organized revolts. One hundred and fifty pages later, as a two paragraph introduction to the section on abolitionism, Nat Turner’s rebellion is mentioned. Nowhere in the book is mention made of Cinque, Denmark Vesey, or Toussaint L’Ouverture.

While each book spends one or two paragraphs on the role of Black soldiers in the Northern Army, none of the books provide any more than a cursory explanation of Blacks anywhere in history. The sense of story, struggle, and sacrifice is completely absent.

None of the books goes into depth adequately enough to give the kids a real sense of what segregation was like. Macmillan describes segregation in two sentences saying that it “hurt people.” Despite the thousands of quality photos in these books, only one of the books, Scott Foresman’s America Yesterday and Today, shows a photo depicting segregation—a tiny picture of a segregated drinking fountain. As with the labor movement only a few leaders are mentioned, and rarely is an organization described. Children are left with the impression that if the rich white males didn’t give us everything we have, a few selfless heroes did the rest for us.

Columbus and Native People

The treatment of Native people varies considerably from book to book. Heath’s The United States Past to Present includes only three pages on all the pre-Columbian societies while Macmillan’s America: Yesterday and Today has 56 pages with a significant examination of various tribes and their cultures.

Unfortunately, even Macmillan’s treatment of Native Americans falls flat when it comes to dealing with Columbus. In the four pages that covered Columbus the word “slave” is not even mentioned. In fact in only one book, Scott Foresman’s America: Yesterday and Today, is it mentioned at all in relation to Columbus and then only once— inaccurately. It states that “on every trip” he hoped “to return to Spain with a shipload of gold, silk and spices. Instead he returned with Indians he had taken as slaves….” But in fact, if one reads Columbus’s diaries one finds that by his second voyage he had two explicit objectives: gold and slaves. None of the four books mentions Columbus’s brutal treatment of the Indians, activities which can only be characterized as genocidal.

In Heath’s text we read “The Arawaks were a peaceful people….They did not, however, have any gold or other treasures. Therefore, Columbus decided to explore islands farther west.” While it is true he decided to explore more islands it is also true that his men forced the Arawaks to bring gold to them anyway, and some who refused had their hands chopped off. (See Bill Bigelow’s “Discovering Columbus: Rereading the Past” in Rethinking Schools, Vol. 4, No. 1.) Columbus is summarized in Silver Burdett’s The United States and Its Neighbors this way: “It is true that Columbus made mistakes. But he was a man of great courage and skill. And he made one of the greatest discoveries in history….”


The amount of coverage given to the Vietnam War varies in the books from Scott Foresman’s one paragraph to Macmillan’s twelve. Basically a student reading any of these accounts would judge that “the war had broken out” spontaneously. Only one book (Scott Foresman) mentions that Vietnam was a French colony, but with no explanation of colony as a concept, it is of little significance. Children will learn that “South Vietnamese leaders opposed communism” (Macmillan) and that “Americans were still trying to stop the spread of communism abroad.” (Scott Foresman).

There is no mention of napalm, the scorched earth policy, Mai Lai, or antipersonnel bombs. Macmillan does say that “American bombers were dropping more bombs on North Vietnam than had been dropped on Germany in World War II.”

These renditions of history are very different from the one Ron Kovik gave on network TV after entering the 1972 Republican Convention in his wheel chair. As security people were pushing him out, he told the American public that we were fighting an illegal war against a peasant society that had fought invaders for over 1000 years. Personally I find Ron Kovik’s version of history more compelling.

Alternatives to Text-Centered Social Studies

While it might be easier for some to teach elementary social studies using a basal-centered approach, innovative teachers have been using other approaches for years.

One different technique is a multi-text approach where teachers use a variety of materials including trade books (e.g. biographies and historical novels), newspapers, magazines, poetry, original sources, readers theatre, and teacher and student created reports and texts. I recall my own intense interest in history took root when my fifth-grade teacher read the class a novel about the underground railroad.

Another approach is a project method in which children are encouraged to do research on related social studies topics. Having students work in cooperative groups doing written and oral reports, interviews, murals and dramas have been very successful for me. Staging role-plays of key historical events from the Boston Tea Party, to the forced removal of the Cherokees, to the sit-down at Flint and the sit-ins at Greensboro can bring history alive for the students. Readers Theatre, drama and role plays can help children feel engaged in history. Stevens and Shea (PO Box 794, Stockton, CA 95201) provides high quality plays about a host of progressive subjects that are useable in 4th grade and up.

Students can be encouraged to think critically by comparing two articles from papers with different points of view, by viewing a video of a short newsclip and having a discussion, by listening to an outside speaker, or by hearing a story from a teacher about a historical incident and then comparing it to the abbreviated version that one finds in the social studies text. Children need to learn to question. They need to recognize that what is written on paper or said on TV is not the gospel truth, but someone’s interpretation of an event, filtered through their own biases.

Perhaps most important of all for the transformation of an elementary social studies curriculum is for teachers themselves to spend time learning and getting excited about history. One good way to start is by reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Only then do we put ourselves in a place where we can share not only the excitement of history, but an accurate portrayal of the struggles of women, working people, people of color and others in the long struggle for justic and equality in our country.

There is no mention of napalm, the scorched earth policy, Mai Lai, or antipersonnel bombs.