Can a textbook change your intellectual life?

Ben Hufbauer, an art historian at the University of Louisville,  has a really nice essay about his encounter with Richard Hofstadter’s The American Republic, which was co-authored by Daniel Aaron and William Miller (1959; rev. 1970).  It turned out to be Hofstadter’s final book, as he died just weeks after the publication of the revised edition in 1970.  Go read–Hufbauer makes a compelling case for the clarity and freshness of the approach by Hofstadter et. al. to narrative history, especially as he encounters it in the mid-1990s in an unlighted Nigerian university library:

I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.

Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate.

I started reading and was surprised. My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. “Old American flag Bailey,” as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time.

Hufbauer makes a great case for how an old U.S. history text changed his intellectual life–but it’s not going to get me to start assigning textbooks to my students!  However “revisionist” or revolutionary, they all end up reassuring students that there’s only one story to tell and that they’ve read it already, and that’s exactly the opposite of what I want my students to learn–even (or perhaps especially?) in my lower-level classes.  I may however, borrow his article for my lower-level class next term, in particular the portions in which he compares the Hofstadter textbook to that of “old American flag Bailey.”  Check it out:

A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:

Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.

Bailey sums up that the “discovery” of America was a “sensational achievement, “but states that “The American continents were slow to yield their virginity.”

Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:

When we say, “Columbus discovered America,” we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.

Today “permanent occupation” probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, “catastrophic.”

Sometimes I wish I could just assign a textbook and be done with it, but teaching in the Age of the Great Fragmentation raises difficult epistemological questions.  Hufbauer implies a number of these questions by situating his encounter with the book in a particular time in hiss intellectual life and place in the world.  I’m sure that the majority of my students would be happier if I just chose a nice textbook and didn’t bother them with articles, monographs, or primary sources.  But, I don’t think that making the majority happy is a terribly noble goal as a Professor or as a historian.

28 thoughts on “Can a textbook change your intellectual life?

  1. I’m going to quibble and suggest (without any terribly inside knowledge of the production schedules) that Hofstadter’s actual “last book” was _America at 1750: A Social Portrait_, which his wife, Beatrice K Hoffstadter, who brought it to press the year after he died, says in the introduction he was still writing in August, 1970 two months before his death. In that same month I drove a small car into a telephone pole, ran off with a “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” march that happened to pass through my town, sat on the grass near the actual “Hanoi” Jane Fonda listening to speeches, and headed off to basic… I mean graduate school.

    But that’s just the quibble. On the question, I think it depends on when an accumulation of known things and cognitive responses becomes an “intellectual life.” And in that context, I’d argue that a good text, well used, can serve very inexperienced students–like a thickener in a watery stew–to bring those elements to the point of *being* an intellectual life, after which the text probably goes the way of the Weekly Reader of old, into the remainder pile.

    Historiann, I just don’t share your presumption, or fear, that a text will “end up reassuring students that there’s only one story to tell…[etc.].” Especially not if the person who assigns it tells them exactly the opposite, subverting any such false authority, but also giving them enough of a framework to work from and move on from, whether it be in the direction of subversion, submission, or whatever. Existentially, I have to say, I don’t worry a bit whether the Century 21 dealers or highway ramp planners of the future who pass through our survey courses are unclued as to the constructed nature of knowlege or the contested character of all narratives. But if they *do* end up that way they will have to do it by ignoring what I’m saying on almost a minute by minute basis for fourteen weeks in a row. What I’d guess is that if they can accomplish the latter feat they probably also wouldn’t be phased by articles, monographs, and primary sources. I think the tension between the stability of a text and the kinesis of being trapped in a room with me for that long works in pretty good synergistic fashion. Nevertheless, I usually do assign one or more “mini-graphs” and even the occasional document. But I don’t think that a good text (provided “Pageant” is not in its title) is necessarily the poison pill in the mix here. I think it’s the “be done with it” part that would do most of the damage.

    A text actually did change my intellectual life, such as it was, and long after I was terminally degreed. I came into possession of the final typescript of the text I still use on those occasions that I teach the survey. Its ability to convey complexity into comprehension without any god-like voice far surpassed what I was then able to do in the classroom. I still use some of the metaphors, similes, sound-bytes, and quirky figures of speech and vision verbally in mid-leve1 classes where I wouldn’t dream of using a text.


  2. “But, I don’t think that making the majority happy is a terribly noble goal as a Professor”

    Boy, do I feel you here! I rather fear that hewing toward this understanding of professorial obligation means I won’t be around my current university for very long, but I just can’t do it any other way. It’s heartening to hear that people can make it through tenure review by challenging, rather than pandering to their students.

    And good grief, that passage of Bailey sounds like some sort of sick mad libs game that my friends and I would make up at the bar during a conference.

    [Dead White Male], a [euphemism for conqueror], succeeded in [euphemism for conquest] of [colonized population]. It was not an easy task, since [nauseating misogynist metaphor], to say nothing of [gut-wrenching racist trope]. Historians now marvel at the [heterosexist trope] that allowed [heterosexist AND misogynist trope] to [euphemistic metaphor for despoil] so widely.


  3. I know I am not a historian, Historiann, but as one who has thought a lot about literary history (as a fact of the literary past, and as a disciplinary mode of organizing our understanding of literature of the past), I think there is a place for grand narratives.

    Textbooks, I suspect, are one place where people are, in fact, encouraged to see things in terms of grand narratives.

    History can, I believe, legitimately concern itself with long spans of time and wide swaths of territory: you write of an “Age of Great Fragmentation” and I suspect you mean a kind of history writing that focuses on the small and the “nuanced” (a word over-used in historians’ work, I think).

    I don’t have any beefs with the local, the small, the under-represented finding a place in historical study, but the broad and the long need not be sacrificed, I think.

    Indeed, I am starting to think that some things can only be seen by taking the long, broad view: which is impossible to write about with the density of evidence, reference, and citation of a focused study. The textbook is almost a necessary form, for historians, if not for students.


  4. I have found in my experience teaching in Asia and now Africa that students generally do not have a good knowlege of the historical narratives and basic facts that almost all scholars agree on. Given this lack, trying to tackle controversial historiographical issues or focus on the critical analysis of primary sources seems premature. For this reason I think a book providing a general narrative of the time and place being covered is more important than anything else. This book does not have to be a “textbook.” But, it should be easy to read and cover the topic in a narrative fashion. I have had good results using such books. In particular I found Hosking’s The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within to be worthwhile. I have also had good success with Walker’s The Cold War: A History.


  5. Yet again, Historiann, I thank you for convincing me to dump my textbook.

    The thing that I’ve found most liberating about not having one is a little different from yours. My problem was not that students thought the textbook was the only way to tell the story, it was that the textbook often contradicted the way I told the story. Not in a direct way. When I emphasized different things than the textbook (which inevitably happened with even the best textbooks), students wondered why read the textbook at all.

    Now I pick documents and subjects that I teach anyway and the two stories reinforce one another.


  6. The American Republic was my high school US history textbook in the early 90s (I’m still a bit surprised to realize we were using a 20 year old book). This quote from Hufbauer pretty much sums up my thoughts about it (even at the time):
    But although Republic did more than competitors of the time to focus on the lives of ordinary people in addition to elites, the new history texts in useful ways gave even more space to the experiences of Americans of different walks of life.

    I knew it was a hell of a lot better than my previous school-based history learning, yet I knew there was still somethings missing.


  7. Jonathan–it’s that dissonance that makes me skeptical of Indyanna’s argument that one can introduce students to the pleasures of the Great Fragmentation by using a textbook that goes one way and writing lectures that go another way. I’ve found that students do better when asking them to attempt to craft their own narratives (on a small, not a grand scale) based on different primary and secondary sources than asking them to reconcile sometimes widely divergent narratives and counter-narratives.

    This used to happen as a TA at Ben Franklin U., when our students (all super-bright BFUers) would sometimes be confused about what was going on in the readings vs. what the lecturing professor was saying in class. Of course, it was up to us TAs to help them sort it out.

    By the Age of Great Fragmentation, I mean not just the fracturing of academic history (and other academic disciplines), but the multiple, refracted ways we experience the world and get information these days. Much as I hate to admit it, but technology & the wired world in particular plays a big role in this. Many (if not all of us in this thread–I think J. Otto and Prof. Koshary are younger than me) grew up at least partways in a world of two major dailies in our hometowns, three nightly news broadcasts, and movies at a theater when the theater wanted to show it to you. The world has in the past 35 years been irreversably fragmented by cable TV, VCRs/DVDs, and needless to say, the web in all kinds of exciting but also concerning ways. I feel like a major service I can perform is encouraging critical thinking among my students by making them make something that makes sense out of a selected handful of historical fragments.

    Dr. Koshary wrote: “It’s heartening to hear that people can make it through tenure review by challenging, rather than pandering to their students.”

    It can happen, but it’s all dependent on your colleagues. I probably would have been tenured in my previous department because I had published enough, but they were hassling me about my teaching so they probably would have put me through the ritual humiliation they inflicted on most of my immediate predecessors. In my present department, I have almost complete freedom to teach whatever I want, whenever I choose, and it’s pretty great. (I wish everyone had that luxury, but I recognize that it’s more unusual than typical & am so grateful for it.)


  8. I still love John Murrin’s version of Columbus from *Liberty Equality Power*:

    “When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic, he did not know where he was going, and until his death, he never figured out where he had been.”

    (Despite using that quote, I’ve never taught from a textbook in my life, and don’t think I’m missing much.)


  9. I don’t think I am all that much younger than you. I entered my fourtieth winter last year. Of course I have not accomplished very much in the last four decades so maybe I appear younger on paper. But, maybe you are older than I thought.


  10. Pingback: Thinking about Rigor « Reassigned Time 2.0

  11. “The Molecular Biology of the Cell”–one of the most famous molecular and cellular biology textbooks–was first published the year before I started college and is now on its sixth edition. When I went to the college bookstore to buy my introductory biology textbook–filled with plants and cows and bugs and dirt and shitte–I saw this one on a nearby shelf for upper-level courses. I picked it up and started leafing through it, sat down on the floor, and didn’t get up for hours. I bought the fucken thing, and then spent the next two weeks completely ignoring all of my assigned coursework and reading it cover to cover. It didn’t just change my intellectual life; it defined it.


  12. I’m with Tom on this one. I do think there is a purpose for the grand narrative. As an undergrad, I loved reading my history textbooks. And I went to a SLAC that did the primary document thing as well and made an attempt to engage us in the process of History. But I still loved my texts. I would often read chapters and chapters ahead, because I wanted to know what happened. As a professor, I now realize the limitations to the narrative I was reading, but I still appreciate the story element to history.

    Of course, I don’t use textbooks in my classes. Mostly because I haven’t had a lot of luck with students actually reading them. But I do try to give them a sense of the narrative through my lectures.

    And yes, I am admitting to lecturing, which I know is also sort of taboo these days, but they do include interactive elements.


  13. Sometimes I use a textbook. Sometimes I don’t. It really depends on the book, the topic and how I think I can use it. But I’ve encountered some really refreshing textbooks out there: one recent favourite is Bucholz & Key’s Early Modern England which is challenging in a lot of good ways and only occasionally annoying (as when it evokes Keith Michell as a cinematic exemplar of Henry VIII – our typical undergrads weren’t even born when “The Six Wives” aired).

    Whether it’s through a grand, sweeping narrative or small but assured steps through an interpretive thicket, a book that tells a story and tests it at the same time is a keeper.

    Sadly, I was so burned out on American history and the disappointing K-12 textbooks I’d struggled through that I didn’t consider pursuing history at university. It took three hard years of geophysics and interdisciplinary engineering before I saw the light and, even then, I avoided American history. It’s not just the K-12 textbooks that soured me on American history, mind you, but they sure didn’t help!


  14. I will use texts in lower division courses because my students have no clue about what I’m teaching, and the text gives them some purchase on the narrative. I tell them explicitly that the text is a framework to help them connect things. (Trust me, when you’re doing from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance in 15 weeks, they need a chronology.) I still assign primary sources, and secondary sources.

    But even then, at the lower division level it’s almost impossible to assign articles from scholarly journals. I choose monographs very carefully, so that they are simultaneously intellectually challenging *and* accessibly written.

    I love the image of young CPP, sitting on the floor of the bookstore. I hate that our bookstore has students order books in advance, so you don’t get to stroll the aisles and see what people have assigned…


  15. I taught for a professor who claimed on the first day that he was arguing or in a dialogue with the textbook. The students had no idea what that meant. Had he done it well — that is, signaling where they diverged and offering reasons why — I think it could have worked. But he never made his critique explicit (even to me — I could identify small quibbles but I didn’t see how he was so different). This (n=1) leads me to believe that only when the lecture directly takes on the textbook can such an approach really work.


  16. I think one reason I feel freer to ditch the text is that I’m teaching North American/U.S. history & not other histories to U.S. students. Those of you who have spoken up about using textbooks are not U.S. historians–and it’s true that U.S. students aren’t as familiar with the geography and basic timelines of world histories outside the U.S.

    If I taught outside the U.S. and/or in anything other than modern history, I’d probably avail myself of a textbook.

    I think the reason CPP found that textbook so exciting is that it presented something *new.* All too often, history textbooks specialize in presenting information and ideas that were new in 1980, maybe, and try to pretend that they’re something new.

    And, I’m interested to learn that I’m actually younger than CPP, and just a few years older than Otto. Sorry, Otto! I misjudged you.


  17. Maybe history just needs better textbooks.

    Though I had an undergraduate American Economic History class with Atack and Passel as the text and supplemental readings on top of that. I feel like I learned a lot of critical thinking from it, and definitely didn’t come out thinking there was just one accepted story for everything, or that thinking about these issues stopped in the 1980s. Maybe on a few issues, but that’s just because the field of economic history really has stopped thinking about those for the time being and has been focusing on other areas.


  18. You are right, Nicoleandmaggie. I think historians need to re-imagine the textbook. But from what I gather, textbook companies are pretty conservative when it comes to the books they think they can sell. In many respects, historians–or the people who are teaching most intro classes these days–want what most of our students want, which is the same old, same goddamned story they read in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade.

    But, really: what is the point of a textbook if it’s not the handmaiden of mass education at the lowest price? Maybe that’s my biggest beef. They’re meant to serve the 100-,200-, or 500-seat “classrooms” (or rather, stadiums).

    This is why I say blow them up and let the students put together their own stories from the fluttering scraps that are left. (So to speak.)


  19. The last time as a student I used a U.S. history textbook was when I was 15 years old, so I think I’ve been associating textbooks with high school students rather than undergraduates.

    I did use a textbook with my U.S. survey (to 1877) last year, but that was as much a crutch for me–as I said, I hadn’t taken a survey course since 10th grade–as for the students. Now that I’ve reviewed that content and restored my confidence in my knowledge of U.S. history, I’m using primarily monographs (including yours, Historiann–mwah!), as well as a pretty crappy “major problems” sources/essays book that I won’t use again.

    Plus, I can’t help but be petty about certain textbooks. I realized after ordering the one from last year that one of its authors is the person who actively worked to keep me out of hir graduate history seminar because I was a cultural studies student. I won’t be sending her royalties again anytime soon, I assure you. 🙂

    I admit my primary-sources-and-monographs approach this year is more than a little disorienting to my students, many of whom are first-year students. Recently, though, they do seem grateful that I’m not dragging them on a forced march through a textbook and expecting them to memorize a bunch of dates, acts, and battles, which apparently was their high school experience.


  20. I still use Joseph Rothschild’s “East Central Europe between the Two World Wars (Washington:1974) when teaching Eastern Europe. Ivan Berend has a more recent survey of the same era and region, but Rothschild’s political narrative is still incredibly useful. It lets students see and make comparisons between Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example.

    Many of the monographs on East European history are erudite, but so specialized as to be incomprehensible to most undergrads. Same with the journal articles. Its not the kind of reading that gets them fired up and ready to come back for more.


  21. I just came back from an “Occupy” event at which a student held up a three-inch wide chemistry textbook and said it cost her $350, so the economics of the thing certainly weigh in the scale on the side of don’t use a text. In 10th grade we actually had *two* ancient history textbooks, which were not at all stylistically like modern texts, with their sidebars and movie reviews and interactive graphics URLs. Being that we were tenth graders, and some of us boys at that, the fact that the authors were James Henry Breasted and Hayes and (the) Moon were enough to keep us amused–which is what they called “engaged” in those days. But they were also good.

    I’m not a textbook essentialist. In fact I’m looking at a satiric collage I put together by cutting up the copy of one of those hyper-dumbed-down “Four Letter Texts” (e.g. _HIST_) put together by my favorite corpocratic publisher, CENGAGE (Student-Tested, Faculty Approved). It almost doesn’t even appear to have an author except for a picture of a group of technocrats denominated as “The Team.” I don’t always use a text, but when I do, I prefer Murrin, et. al. Stay curious, mes amis!


  22. I teach a gawdawful survey of World History to 1500 – so Susan’s Rome-Renaissance sounds downright heavenly. And yes, I do use a textbook for the ‘grand narrative’ and then… I challenge it in class. We dissect the argument, challenge for evidence, argue interpretation, because what I insist they understand is that history and the doing of it means you interpret available evidence, not just that which confirms your own belief.


  23. I have followed Lendol Calder’s Uncoverage into dueling textbooks, with Zinn now paired with the Patriots history by Schweikart and Allen endorsed by Rush Limbaugh. I say up front both are imperfect, which may confuse more students than it enlightens, but they all walk out not ready to trust any one book (though perhaps Wikipedia). In my large lecture I have them write small narratives of their own, too–and most say they like the primary sources best. So nothing perfect, but all efforts to beat the textbook authority (and its publishing complexes?) should flourish.


  24. I started using Keene, et. al. Visions of America last year with my 10th graders last year. I’m pretty happy with it (the target demo is Junior College I think). Unlike HS textbooks it has a clear narrative and the support materials for students are excellent. The questions at the bottom of the page are good for checking reading comprehension and the questions at the end of the chapter don’t necessarily have a right answer. Most importantly, visual sources are thoroughly integrated into the text with break-outs that help students learn how to analyze images. I’m really weak at visual culture stuff but the HS students find it really helpful for learning the material and remembering it. Plus, lots of images of dogs peeing on things. (The description of why this keeps showing up in images is pretty funny too.)


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