Reading Beyond the Lines: What Students Learn from their History Textbooks
Michael H. Romanowski [+]
University of Qatar
Although the public regards textbooks as accurate, objective educational tools that innocently provide students with needed knowledge and skills, textbooks are not neutral transmitters of knowledge. Apple and Christian-Smith (1991) point out that textbooks are important artifacts of culture. They create what society has recognized as legitimate knowledge by signifying particular constructions of reality that members of society want transmitted to their children. Thus, the textbook is a powerful educational tool that is written to instruct students rather than to be examined. By simply being in print, textbooks receive authority and have power to construct a sanctioned version of human knowledge along with impressions and images that later become students' explanations, beliefs, understanding of the world and the “other.” The knowledge that gets into textbooks is not random but rather "it is selected and organized around sets of principles and values that come from somewhere, that represent particular views of normality and deviance, of good and bad, and of what good people act like" (Apple 1990, p. 63). Even textbooks that adopt a ‘fact stating’ format still send powerful messages to students because textbooks are written from a particular perspective. More importantly, the knowledge that is excluded from textbook pages could be just as, or even more important, than what is presented to students. Eisner (1994) argues the knowledge schools do not teach may be as important as what they do teach because “ignorance is not simply a neutral void; it has important effects on the kinds of options one is able to consider, the alternatives that one can examine, and the perspectives from which one can view a situation or problems” (p. 97). Adwan et al. (2002) point out that students often learn only one side of the story and usually it is their own perspective that is considered the ‘right’ one. Textbooks justify one side and offer a negative portrayal of the other, in a sense “one side’s hero is the other side’s monster” (Adwan et al., 2002, p. i). Given the significant role that textbooks play in many countries of the developing world, this chapter provides a complex discussion that allows readers to develop a critical eye when reading textbooks. To do this, several questions will be provided for readers to consider and these questions will be applied to several historical events that center on conflict. The tentative questions are as follows: 1) How do textbooks (the language used) define important terms? 2) How is conflict presented? 3) What are the implicit messages transmitted to students? 4) What knowledge is omitted that might shape students’ understandings of particular events? 5) How do textbook accounts treat the moral and ethical aspects of particular events? Examples are provided from several studies that have examined various textbooks from several nations and how authors address issues such as religion, 911 and America’s war on terror and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Finally, several practical suggestions are offered for teachers and students providing them with opportunities to challenge textbook doctrine and reading textbooks in a more critical manner. These include important questions that must be considered when engaging textbooks content and several facets of understanding that if used in classroom, can aid students in gaining comprehensive understandings of textbooks and uncovering embedded narratives.