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There’s a book I keep in the bathroom at home, a big blue volume of 750 pages titled, somewhat ironically, The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. A terrific book to browse in, with more than four thousand brief anecdotes about more than two thousand individuals from ancient times to the near present. Virtually any historical figure you can think of is included, with brief portraits that are sometimes amusing, and sometimes revealing, but almost always interesting. A perfect bathroom book! But not quite a history book. Sadly, neither are many texts called “history” today in our schools.

A couple of years ago I was asked to review a new book by Andrew Woolford, This Benevolent Experiment, about the boarding schools in which many youth from Indian reservations were educated. These schools have been much criticized in recent scholarship and journalism, and, particularly in Canada, this has led to official apologies. An earlier study, for example, was titled Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928, while another, focusing on Canada, bore the title A National Crime: The Canadian Government and The Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. The book I reviewed was very much in this tradition; the author describes it as a contribution to “genocide studies.”

The discussion of the four schools studied in the book (two in the United States, two in Canada) cleaves closely to the thesis of intentional mass murder. It is highly selective and partial, seeking to prove the genocidal intentions of those who created the system of residential schools which brought together youth from scattered reservations too small and isolated to provide education beyond the primary level. If there were sometimes warm relations between staff and students, these are cast as evidence of “the symbolic violence of kindness.” When a former student has good things to say about her school, we observe that “her sincerity should not lead us to ignore the symbolic violence at work in the schools.” If sloppy administrative practices were replaced by careful record-keeping, the student was being “transformed into a biopolitical subject.” During the New Deal, when progressive education was introduced on some reservations and efforts made to respond to community concerns, “the danger . . . [was] that under it a superficial form of cultural preservation could serve as a wedge into Indigenous communities, allowing a more subtle extension of the assimilative project.” In short, government, and the majority society, could do nothing right. Every educational situation made native peoples into victims.

As it happens, I published a book a few years ago on the history of the formal schooling of Indian children in Canada and the United States, American Indian/First Nations Schooling. I found much to criticize about the implementation of the residential school system but nothing that would justify applying to it the term “genocide,” as though equivalent to the murderous intentions and results of the Holocaust. To the contrary, there is abundant evidence that nineteenth-century Americans and Canadians ­believed sincerely that the promotion of formal ­schooling among Indians was essential to their survival—a belief strengthened when a popularized version of Darwinism held that Indians could not otherwise survive in the “competition of the races.” The American Commissioner of Indian Affairs asked in 1856 what would become of “the rapidly wasting Indian tribes of the plains, the prairies, and of our new States and Territories?” It was certain that “these poor denizens of the forest [will] be blotted out of existence, and their dust be trampled under the foot of rapidly advancing civilization, unless our great nation shall ­generously determine that the necessary provision shall at once be made” for “the blessings of ­education.”

In 1867, a Joint Special Committee of Congress reported that “Indians everywhere, with the exception of the tribes within the Indian Territory [later Oklahoma], are rapidly decreasing in numbers.” The committee did not hesitate to place most of the blame on “the aggressions of lawless white men”; nevertheless, it concluded, the situation “can never be remedied until the Indian race is civilized or shall entirely disappear.” Carl Schurz, the former Secretary of the Interior, stated as an established fact in 1881 that Indians were faced with “this stern alternative: extermination or civilization.” Formal schooling became part of government policy for preserving the Indian peoples. Between 1803 and 1885, the American ­Senate approved 120 treaties with Indian peoples, which included promises that the government would provide schooling for the tribes.

Formal schooling was the government’s attempt, over two centuries, to mitigate the destructive effects of ever-advancing white settlement and its disruption of traditional native ways of life. Was that disruption deeply painful and even tragic? Certainly. Were government and voluntary efforts to soften its effects by providing skills necessary for tribes to participate successfully in the emerging economy uniformly effective? No. Were these efforts motivated by genocidal intentions? No; they were well meant, if often clumsily or insensitively implemented.

In my history of these educational efforts, I described how almost every possible strategy was used at one time or another, including (in the 1930s) efforts to center instruction on native languages and cultures. For the author whose book I reviewed, this latter step was no improvement. When indigenous arts and cultures were celebrated, this “communicated the sense that cultural practices were appreciated for being quaint...rather than culturally integral.”

In fact, the residential schools, so much criticized for their requirement that Indian youth speak English, brought together members of dozens of tribes speaking different languages—and with very different cultural traditions—and gave them a common means of communication and a sense of shared interests. This served as the basis for the political mobilization of native peoples in the United States and Canada: Most Indian-rights leaders came out of those schools.

On the other hand, not one of these approaches produced perfectly satisfactory results—no more, it might be pointed out, than have the various reforms of mainstream schooling. I wrote in the introduction to my book:

To a very large extent, it must be said, the schooling of Indians is a shameful history, marked by persistent assumptions about the natural inferiority of these children and in consequence the need to provide them with unambitious forms of schooling, if indeed any formal schooling would not be wasted on them. The account has its brighter side, as well in the thousands of Indian and white teachers who committed themselves, often under great hardships, to educate Indian children, and their allies in religious and other benevolent organizations and, sometimes though not often enough, government officials and political leaders who supported such efforts.

If these were “genocidal” efforts, as Woolford insists, they were remarkably ineffective, as judged by the rapid growth in the number of Americans who self-identify as “Indian or Alaskan Native” in the decennial census. In 2010, about 5.2 million reported that they were at least partly Indian and 2.9 million of them only Indian, up from 1.9 million twenty years earlier and less than 350,000 in 1950. The “Indian” share of the total U.S. population has thus increased from 0.2 percent in 1950 to 0.9 percent in 2010, strong evidence that this group identity is claimed proudly—not least by ambitious law professors and politicians!

It is true that only a few native peoples have been able to maintain extensive use of their language. Most find their children, like the children of immigrants from other countries, adapting the cultural norms of consumerism and the media. The ideal is that Indian youth learn enough about both worlds to preserve their ancestral culture while still mingling in American society, but the education that enables them to do so, in fact, only leads them farther away from their traditional customs and worldview.

The history of the relationship between North American governments and native peoples illustrates the distorting effect of focusing on a “gotcha” that allows the author (or the teacher) to assume a moral superiority, while neglecting the wider context of the story. Certainly we must remember the “Trail of Tears” of the 1830s and many other episodes of unjust treatment. But we should not forget the efforts of benevolent associations and government officials, and of Indian leaders of many different peoples, to find a way to ease cultural conflict and diverging economic interests. In 1902, the celebrated author Hamlin Garland published The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop, a readable fictional account of such an effort, and of the conflict between defenders of the interests of an Indian people and rapacious ranchers and politicians.

After all, no one should expect it to have been easy to reconcile generations of European immigrants and their descendants, eager for land and economic development, with the long-established and varying cultures of several hundred scattered native peoples. It does not help if writers and teachers focus on conflicts and injustices in a way that distorts the wider—and more accurate—picture of hard-won successes and lamentable failures.

Historians are free to explore particular angles of the past and selectively present what happened, subject always to criticism by their peers. It is more damaging, however, if teachers, in the privacy of their classrooms, provide a biased view of history to students who have no other authority by which to question what they are told. Such partial, anecdotal versions of history can do tremendous harm.

To remain with our example, presenting a genocidal account of the formal schooling of Indian youth ­reinforces debilitating stereotypes about the ­experience and capabilities of both America’s and Canada’s native peoples. On the one hand, it defines them exclusively as passive victims, while on the other hand, it questions their capacity to benefit from formal schooling. There is now a whole literature of studies, mostly by African-American scholars, of the devastating effect on black students by the promotion of what Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond called “rumors of inferiority”by well-meaning white sympathizers, seeking to excuse academic failure as the fault of ­society. What social psychologist Claude Steele calls “stereotype pressure” has a measurable effect on effort and achievement, and is compounded by a narrative stressing inevitable victimhood, making it emotionally safer not to seek to achieve academically. It seems plausible that the academic achievement of ­Native-American students is similarly affected by well-meaning stereotypes of victimhood. Unfortunately, the current fashion in teaching history in schools tends to promote such harmful stereotypes, to the extent that it abandons the full story with all its ambiguities in favor of what I call the anecdotal temptation, focusing on perspectives that had previously and unfairly been neglected so exclusively as to obscure the main narrative and the wider ­context.

The recently revised curriculum standards in Massachusetts illustrate this distortion. A critique of the revision that followed its completion finds it deficient in several ways in comparison with the previous framework from 2003:

The 2003 Framework organized its curriculum around coherent sequences of American and European history; the 2018 Revision substitutes incoherent fragments that obstruct students from learning about historical progression.
The 2003 Framework provided a full account of our country’s European past and its own exceptional history; the 2018 Revision replaces much of that narrative with the history of politically correct protest movements.

This is a prime example of substituting the anecdotal for a solid presentation of context and sequence, and doing so in a way that fosters the development of harmful stereotypes. One might as well consult the anecdotes in my bathroom book about Sojourner Truth or Abraham Lincoln or Picasso or Mozart or Helen Keller to explain why these individuals were significant; indeed, the anecdotes gain interest precisely because we already know something of the subjects. Of course, students should learn about protest movements—I myself spent some time in jail in the sixties—but only in a rich and balanced historical context.

Abandonment of rich, well-rounded presentations of history—including, of course, its darker chapters—reflects the incoherence of how history is conceived in an age of identitarian politics based on claims of victimhood. Is there any common theme to American history, or to that of the West, beyond endless grievance and navel-gazing?

Unfortunately, the fashion of “mentioning” in order to satisfy the greatest possible number of demands for recognition has dominated the textbook industry and curriculum developers for several decades, leaving little room for a central integrating account of historical developments. As with the schooling of Indian peoples, the anecdotes deployed in these accounts are chosen to convey an impression of the oppressive hypocrisy of American life. As with the unintended message that American Indian youth cannot be expected to achieve in academic settings, this slanted presentation of American reality, though intended to correct injustices, has contributed to new social and cultural dysfunctions, including a weakening of family life.

Public schools have been driven to engage in what I call “defensive teaching,” lest any student or ­parent—other than white males—be offended by unflattering portrayals of their group. I contributed to this situation in the early seventies when, as a Massachusetts state official, I presided over the development of regulations requiring the examination of all curriculum materials for ethnic or sex-role stereotyping. One response to such requirements was that publishers soon eliminated any portrayals of women as housewives or mothers, presenting them instead exclusively as brain surgeons, pilots, or riveters.

I continue to believe that our original goal of ensuring that females and members of minority groups be presented as active and in a variety of roles was valid, but as so often happens, it was taken to an extreme. One result was to devalue those women who wished to devote some years to raising a family. Historian Diane Ravitch, in her survey of the ideological deformation of textbooks and tests, offers many telling and even amusing examples of the replacement of old stereotypes with new ones. One of my favorites, as I approach my eightieth birthday, is one publisher’s guidelines that the activities of older people are divided into “portrayals we limit” and “acceptable portrayals.” Those that are limited are older people “baking, knitting, making crafts, whittling, engaging in inactive sports, reminiscing, rocking in chairs.” The portrayals that are acceptable include “gardening, shopping, dancing, attending movies and cultural events, engaging in active sports . . .” Any description of older people that suggests that they act old is to be treated as a stereotype.

Special vigilance is directed to gender roles. Ravitch tells us that McGraw-Hill directed its illustrators that

Mother sewing while father reads must be replaced by mother working at her desk while father reads or clears the dining room table. Mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof must be replaced by mother fixing the roof. Mother doing household chores must be replaced by father doing household chores. Mother seeing father off to work must be replaced by mother leaving for work with her briefcase or tools.

A study of school textbooks, Censorship: ­Evidence of Bias in Our Children’s Textbooks, catalogued the results of such guidelines. In forty social studies texts for grades 1 through 4, Paul Vitz found “there is not one text reference to marriage as the foundation of the family. Indeed, not even the word marriage or wedding occurs once in the forty books! . . . [N]either the word husband nor wife occurs once in any of these books. . . . There is not one citation indicating that the occupation of mother or housewife represents an important job, one with integrity, one that provides real satisfactions.”

The boys and girls who attended public schools in the 1980s and 1990s absorbed messages that made family seem less central to adult life than it had been for previous generations, and this no doubt contributed (along with much else) to the decline of marriage and the growth of unwed parenting in recent decades.

Another distortion in the teaching of history was a near-total silence about the role of religious faith and practice in American life. Vitz found that, in ten U.S. History texts for grade 5, the proportion of “pages with reference to religion from the 1600s is slightly over 50%. . . . In the 1700s this is 9.75% and in the 1800s, 3.42%. By the 1900s the percentage has dropped to 1.27% references every one hundred pages.” Similarly, in ten high school U.S. History texts, “religion is hardly mentioned as existing in America for the last seventy-five to one hundred years; in particular, none of these books includes any serious coverage of conservativeProtestantism in this century, although a few books mentioned the Scopes Trial. . . . None of them offers any serious appreciation of positive Catholic contributions to American life. Prejudice against Catholics is commonly noted, but positive contributions in terms of the assimilation of countless immigrants, the many hospitals and orphanages built by Catholics, and the significance of the Catholic school system are (with one exception) not mentioned. Likewise, the very many positive contributions of American Jews receive almost no notice.” The inevitable message: Religious faith and practice are an unimportant aspect of contemporary life. No wonder Americans find it hard to understand the role of Islam in the personal and community life of many immigrants.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Writing or teaching history is always a balancing act between competing perspectives. Readers and students are ultimately responsible for drawing their own conclusions, as teachers should take care to point out regularly. Students can do so, however, only if the facts are presented objectively and in context, and if alternate interpretations of the facts are offered in a fair and balanced manner.

Let me conclude with a personal ­experience. I was the state official who enforced the requirement that Boston desegregate its schools, and I played the lead role in drawing up the “busing” plan, implemented in 1974. When journalist J. Anthony Lukas set out to research what became his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985), he met with me for help in choosing the families whose experiences he would profile. Lukas made very clear what he was looking for: a racist white working-class family, a dysfunctional black working-class family, and a hypocritical white liberal family. I suggested several white working-class families I knew who were by no means racist; several black families who were flourishing; and even several of my neighbors who were liberal but not hypocritical, who (like me) kept their children in the Boston public schools through all the turmoil. But Lukas was not interested; such lives did not fit the “narrative” he was determined to impose on the events that unfolded in Boston over the next several years. As a result, when people ask me what to read about Boston desegregation, I never suggest Common Ground. Lukas’s focus on stereotyped families fails to do justice to the complexity of that social crisis—or the persistent courage shown by so many families, black and white alike.

Books are one thing, classrooms another. Because so much damage can be done through what I’m calling an anecdotal approach to history when it occurs in classrooms, we need strong and comprehensive standards for teaching the central narrative of history and the strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of our society and culture. These should of course be enriched by elements previously neglected, but not at the expense of the central story with all its lights and shadows, or in a way that nourishes stereotypes of passive victimhood. The outlook of identity politics only gives the young a fragmentary version of the past, with a touch of tendentious lessons in civic activism. The full story of American history—in all its glories and failings—is never really theirs, and that’s a loss of identity we should lament most of all. 

Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.