The Teaching of History
by Walter Karp
(from Harper’s Magazine, May 1980)
Writing American history is a harmless occupation, but teaching it to American schoolchildren is a political act with far-reaching consequences. The reason for this is clear. You cannot recount the past without making fundamental political judgments, and you cannot deliver those judgments in a classroom without impressing them deeply on the minds of future citizens. Children know a great deal about many things, but about public affairs they know virtually nothing. Most of us carry to our graves scarcely altered the political lessons we imbibed half-consciously from long-forgotten history textbooks. Professors of American history erect Gothic cathedrals of erudition on political axioms acquired from their fifth-grade “social studies” readers. To teach American history to a great mass of American schoolchildren is to exercise genuine political power. Yet of all forms of political power, the power to teach history to children is the only one Americans have handed over without a struggle to a remote and unaccountable few, commonly known as the educational establishment. America Revised, by Frances FitzGerald, [subtitled “History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century.” 240 pages. Atlantic/Little, Brown, $9.95] is an attempt to describe what the educational establishment has done with that power through the years.
FitzGerald’s main achievement is the scutwork. She has pored through the pages of hundreds of musty American history textbooks, something nobody, I believe, has ever done before. She describes their contents, delineates their overall “philosophy,” and shows how they changed from generation to generation. About what it all signifies, however, she has only confused and contradictory notions. She never really understands that her subject is the education–and miseducation–of a self-governing people. Still, FitzGerald’s material is invaluable; when cast into a political history of which FitzGerald seems blissfully ignorant, it reveals a great deal about the way we are currently ruled.
Subverting True Political History
The history begins just before the turn of the century, when the first school managers powerful enough to impose their conception of history on a large number of children introduced the first American history text to the public schools. Until then what little history American schoolchildren learned they had direct from their schoolmarms by way of a sort of oral tradition. What they learned, however, they learned so well that historian Mark Sullivan blamed nineteenth-century schoolmarms for delaying our entry into the first world war. The only history they taught, Sullivan complained in his six-volume chronicle Our Times, was the American Revolution, and the way they taught it had made it impossible for most Americans to believe that England was fighting for “democracy against autocracy” in the trenches of France. The schoolmarms’ American Revolution is readily reconstructed. On one side stood the tattered sons of liberty, whose forebears had come to an unknown continent in search of religious freedom. On the other side stood a tyrannical king and his arrogant Redcoats, foredoomed in their pride to a stunning defeat. What better way than this to inculcate love of liberty and hatred of tyranny in the future citizens of a free republic?
Since American educators always claimed they were providing “training for citizenship,” the first history textbooks might have been expected to fortify the oral tradition of the schoolmarms. In fact, they did exactly the opposite. According to FitzGerald, the first history text taught children that the colonists had come to America for “commercial motives” and not for religious freedom at all. With that premise laid down, FitzGerald writes, the texts “looked on the American Revolution as a matter of practical politics more than anything else.” Instead of the sons of liberty, the pioneer texts offered the sons of the dollar; instead of a revolt against arbitrary power, squalid maneuvering for economic advantage. The obvious lesson of these texts is that Americans who profess to fight against tyranny are probably hypocrites trying to make money, an excellent lesson if you happen to favor tyranny. Such was the “citizenship training” offered by the pioneer textbooks. Most American schoolchildren never read them, however, since they were used exclusively in a few big-city school systems “to Americanize” (as the phrase went) the children of immigrants. The first exercise of the power to teach history was an attempt to corrupt the utterly defenseless. It was also a harbinger of what was to come.
“Americanizing” native Americans was a far more delicate problem, and educational leaders were long reluctant to try it in any systematic way. The problem became inescapable, however, in the early years of the twentieth century, when, for the first time, Americans in large numbers began attending public secondary schools. This new turn of events, so far from being a source of pedagogical satisfaction, threw educators into a panic and set off the greatest crisis in the history of American education. The crisis was this: the public secondary schools, which had catered chiefly to the well-to-do and successful, adhered to a traditional liberal arts curriculum of “history, language, and literature–the “arts that liberate,” as Montaigne has called them. With the children of ordinary people attending high school, American educators found themselves face to face with a specter that had haunted Europe for a century: the danger of educating people beyond their station, or, as the National Education Association preferred to put it, leading them “away from the pursuits for which they are adapted.” The danger was largely political. By teaching the liberal arts to commoners, the new secondary schools might well become the spawning ground for popular tribunes, politically ambitious guttersnipes, and similar dangerous malcontents. As J. E. Russell, head of Columbia University Teachers College, put it in 1905: “How can we justify our practice in schooling the masses in precisely the same manner as we do those who are to be their leaders?”
Something had to be done quickly or democracy might one day break out. Educational leaders quickly worked out a solution. Let the secondary schools teach the children of workers what was fit only for workers. As Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton, sternly advised the Federation of High School Teachers: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Since there was no way to stop “the masses” from entering high school, the only way to meet the crisis, in short, was to prevent them from learning anything liberating when they got there. Instead, the educational leaders said, the new secondary schools should offer vocational training in particular and something called industrial education in general. This, the influential Douglas Commission said in 1905. was a “new idea” in education. and in truth it was. Until ordinary Americans began attending secondary school, no secondary school in the civilized world had ever seen fit to teach its students a trade. FitzGerald attributes this vulgar innovation to the supposed fact that lofty university presidents like Wilson and Russell had lost their influence over public education–a perfect example of thoughtless snobbery.
The “new idea” must have been somewhat perplexing to schoolmarms of the old-fashioned sort. The public schools were supposed to train citizens, yet here were the country’s leading educators–“we”–insisting they regard their pupils not as future citizens but as future working hinds, whom Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, urged teachers to “sort” by their “evident or probable destinies.” If the schoolmarms were troubled, however, a stalwart band of educational reformers stood ready to reassure them that training Americans for their industrial “destiny” was the heart and soul of “democratic” education. By far the most important of the reassurers was John Dewey.
The “Realistic” Education of John Dewey
Neither the subtle reasoning, nor the ardent idealism of the famed educator mattered much in the history of American education. What proved important were a few of his salient principles. Suitably adapted, they have supplied educational leaders with the lasting framework for a pedagogical system designed to prevent “the masses” from ever learning in a classroom what a free people ought to know. For that purpose, Dewey’s most important contribution was his conviction that democracy has little to do with politics and government. Democracy, according to Dewey, was “primarily a mode of associated living,” which for most Americans chiefly meant working together in factories. Having stripped democracy of its political character, Dewey and his colleagues, who prided themselves on their “realism,” went on to redefine it as “industrial cooperation.” With this new, “realistic” definition, they effected a permanent pedagogical revolution. For one thing, it enabled the Deweyites (and more interested parties) to sever the venerable ties that bound the common schools to the needs and requirements of popular Government. The schools were to be adapted instead, Dewey wrote in 1897, “to the circumstances, needs, and opportunities of industrial civilization.” Instead of the American Republic, the American economy would call the tune. The new “realistic” definition of democracy even stripped public education of its theoretical republican objective, which was, as Jefferson had said, to teach future citizens “how to judge for themselves what will secure or endanger their freedom.” Such knowledge was unlikely to enhance, and might well impair, “industrial cooperation.” The new object of “democratic” education, Dewey said, was to teach every child “to perceive the essential interdependence of an industrial society.” Thus instructed, the future citizen (i.e., factory worker) would develop what Dewey called “a socialized disposition.”
With economic “interdependence” as its subject and a “socialized” worker as its goal the new “democratic” curriculum had little place for history. For political history, which recounts the diverse deeds of men, there was to be no place at all. Jefferson had urged the schools to teach children political history so that Americans might “know ambition under all its shapes and [be] prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purpose.” From the political past they would learn to detect the would-be despot wearing the cloak of the popular tribune and the oligarchy masquerading as the enlightened and the elect. How could free men protect their liberties if they never learned from political history that liberty, in fact, has ambitious enemies? To Dewey, on the other hand, political history was “undemocratic” (and FitzGerald wholeheartedly agrees with him) precisely because it deals with the deeds and intentions of ambitious men. The doings of the high and mighty, in Dewey’s “realistic” view, were no business of American schoolchildren, who were to share in the public life of America by leading “a socialized life” in the American work force. Instead of political history they were to be given “social studies,” ,which would teach them, among other industrial matters, about the modern division of labor (“how milk is brought to the city”) and, in the loftier grades, about the “evolution” of American industry. Given such instruction, Jane Addams noted in her 1902 work Democracy and Social Ethics, American children would not only develop a cooperative disposition, but they would find their adult toil “much more exhilarating,” realizing, as they did, the useful slot they were filling on the national industrial “team.”
Stripping Deweyite “realism” of its idealistic trappings proved but the work of a moment to the educational leaders, who knew a good thing when they saw one. In 1911, a committee of the National Education Association, the largest and most influential of the teachers’ organizations, urged the nation’s high schools to drop history altogether, on the Deweyesque grounds that it failed to promote the “social efficiency” of the ill-bred. Social studies, history’s fledging rival, would be better able, said the committee quite correctly, to “accommodate youngsters to existing conditions.” That was not what Dewey had in mind, but it was latent in his “cooperative” precepts, and the educational leaders were not the only ones to realize it. Revealingly enough, the first public-school system organized on Deweyesque lines was established in 1907 in Gary, Indiana, a one-year-old company town founded by, and largely in thrall to, the U.S. Steel Corporation. J. P. Morgan knew a good thing when he saw one too. So did the United States Congress. Under President Wilson’s leadership, it began funding “vocational education” in the public schools, the first serious federal attempt to shape the content of public education.
To the purblind Deweyites political history was elitist; to the powerful few it was politically dangerous–then and always. “Throughout history,” as FitzGerald rightly notes (though, alas, only in a passing remark), “the managers of states have with remarkable consistency defined good citizenship as a rather small degree of knowledge of, and participation in, public affairs.” To replace political history with Deweyite social studies was the perfect means of meeting the educational requirements of the powerful. In social studies, American youngsters would learn that America was chiefly an industrial system and not a republic at all, that a “good citizen” is a worker who gets up when the alarm clock rings and speeds to his job on time. In social studies, too, they would learn that the “real” history of America is the “development” of American industry–history without politics in it, which teaches the most corrupt of political lessons, that politics does not matter. Pedagogical wit could scarcely devise a better instrument for ensuring “a rather small degree of, and participation in, public affairs. To replace political history with social studies has been the abiding goal of America’s educational leaders since ordinary Americans began attending high school. Interestingly enough, it took them more than half a century to register a complete triumph.
FitzGerald does not try to explain why American parents, teachers, and local school boards resisted, circa 1911, what Americans since 1965 have accepted without demur. The general explanation, perhaps, is that corrupting a venerable republic is not the work of a day.
For one thing, the “new idea” of industrial education was a new idea seven decades ago. At the time, millions of Americans believed strongly that America was a democracy corrupted by industrial capitalism, alias “the money power.” That America was nothing more than industrial ‘capitalism–the essential axiom of social studies and Deweyism–had never crossed their minds. Indeed, it was still a fairly new idea even to advanced intellectuals. Americans were still a political people who thought in political terms. Samuel Gompers, the British-bred trade unionist, used to complain bitterly about the political proclivities of America’s trade-union members. Instead of “bargaining at the workplace,” as all good workers should, they insisted on contesting elections, backing insurgent candidates, and behaving for all the world as if they were citizens. Not surprisingly, Gompers was an ardent champion of “industrial education.” Because Americans thought in political terms, they cared greatly about “the money power” but little about the division of labor. As for history, the only idea they had of it was political. In a history book you read about armies, wars, generals, rulers, heroes, and villains–George Washington on the one hand, George III on the other. What social studies was designed to root out of the popular mind had yet to be rooted out when the NEA urged the high schools to replace history with social studies.
The old habits of thought would no doubt have proved a flimsy barrier had the educational leaders enjoyed in 1911 the power to impose their will on America’s decentralized public education. Today, a quite small number of educators have virtually unchecked sway over the curriculum of America’s public schools, which have become, as one educator put it in 1962, “a monolith under oligarchic control.” The “textbook philosophy” (FitzGerald’s phrase) the educational oligarchy propounds is the “philosophy” the textbook publishers dispense–one that the large majority of school districts will buy, and pass on to the overwhelming majority of students. In 1911 the educational elite had no such sweeping power. Local control of the common schools, though waning, had not yet become a sham. To a degree, it could still meet the purpose for which it was originally intended: preventing the “managers of states” from teaching a republic’s children that “good citizenship” consists in “a rather small degree of knowledge of, and participation in, public affairs.” The usurpation of local control in the years after World War I was to be an essential element in the corrupting of a venerable republic.
Events on the national political stage proved a still more formidable barrier to the designs of the educational leaders, and almost derailed them completely. When “industrial education” was first concocted, Americans had seemed a thoroughly defeated people. A handful of finance capitalists controlled the economic arteries; a disciplined Republican party held national politics in thrall. A powerful few seemed to reign supreme in virtually every career and profession. America, as Henry Cabot Lodge said at the time, had at last become “an aristocratic republic.” Then, quite suddenly, middle-class Americans awoke from their slumber and discovered that they were as powerless as everybody else. To the shock and dismay of Lodge–who thought it the end of civilization as he knew it–middle-class Americans, a complacent bourgeoisie for decades, began pouring into the public arena, determined to overthrow “the machine,” to curb monopoly and bring the “money power” to heel. Just when the leading educators were urging the schools to look on America as an “industrial society,” middle-class Americans who did the teaching, served on the school boards, and voted in the school board elections–had suddenly remembered that America was a republic, and an endangered one at that.
Traditional modes of thought, the absence of an educational oligarchy, and the middle-class political revolt combined to produce a surprising result. Although the new “industrial” pedagogy made rapid headway, America’s schools, despite the united urging of big businessmen, trade unions, and leading politicians, refused to let go of history. Instead they fortified the curriculum with the only American history texts ever used that were not intended to corrupt future citizens. These texts flourished in the years between 1910 and 1930, which FitzGerald terms the “Hundred Flowers” era of American history texts. Written by trained historians, representing diverse points of view, the new texts, born of the Progressive revolt, were intensely political and remarkably free of cant. Their virtues are well worth noting, because eliminating those virtues was to be the immediate task of the educational establishment, which had to put off for another generation the extinction of political history.
Subverting the Threat of Real Political History
The most popular textbook of the period was American History, by David Saville Muzzey, first published in 1911. It was the antithesis of “industrial education” in every respect, since the grand lesson of Muzzey’s text was that politics matters greatly, and matters to every citizen. Muzzey’s readers learned, first and foremost, that the actions of people made American history and that the high and the mighty, in fact, have power–a liberating truth in itself. Moreover, the powerful bore constant watching, for villainy was not unknown in high places. In Muzzey’s history President Polk, for one, was a bastard who instigated an unjust war with Mexico in order to grab some territory. Readers of Muzzey learned that democracy in America, too, bore watching. Indeed, Muzzey’s history of America is largely the history of the vicissitudes of democracy. A Yankee Republican of the old school, Muzzey seems to have viewed all modern life as one giant menace to liberty and self-government. The major problem of the age, he warned young readers, was “the corruption of the government by the money power.” American democracy needed defending, and it had nothing to do with industrial cooperation.
Muzzey’s most successful rival was Willis Mason West, whose textbook American History and Government, published in 1913, seems to have been a rejoinder to Muzzey’s. Whereas the latter thought democracy in America had gone from a Golden Age to the dogs, West, more a man of the Left, commenced his history with the bold assertion that “democracy has as yet been tried only imperfectly among us.” Politically divergent though they were, the two leading texts agreed on the main point. American history was essentially political history, and the dramatic theme of that history, the impulse of political life and the catalyst of action, was the struggle over democracy itself.
While texts such as these were circulating, (often in watered-down revisions), the educational leaders seem to have bided their time until they were powerful enough to eliminate from the curriculum history lessons so inconducive to “social efficiency” and so unlikely to “accommodate youngsters to existing conditions.” All through the post-Versailles years the nascent educational establishment, backed by state legislators, strengthened its hold on the public schools and on the schools that train public-school teachers. During those years the number of local school districts was cut from 120,000 to less than half that number. State educational commissions were established to reduce still further the formal autonomy of the remaining districts. By a dozen different devices–licensing laws, state guidelines, and so on–control of the curriculum passed completely out of the hands of citizens and into the grip of an increasingly tight-knit, ingrown professional oligarchy. All it needed to emasculate the lingering “Hundred Flowers” tradition was a sharp change in the political atmosphere. With the outbreak of World War II, the oligarchy struck at once, and the tradition, FitzGerald says, came “abruptly” to an end. For the next twenty-five years every new textbook used in the schools was written on the assumption that its readers were potential subversives.
In the new textbooks, which soon swept the country, political history became a hollow and meaningless form. Politics was reduced to acts of government, and villainy in high places vanished from the past. All American wars were now righteous and all American Presidents virtuous men who did, FitzGerald writes, “as well as could be expected given difficult circumstances.” Imperialism, a term freely applied in the earlier texts to America’s seizure of the Philippines, was now reserved exclusively for overseas ne’er-do-wells. Jingo nationalism, refreshingly absent in the “Hundred Flowers” era, pulsated through every page of the new propaganda texts. “There is a fascination with patriotic symbols,” FitzGerald reports, “the flag, Independence Hall, the Statue of Liberty.” Readers were adjured to accept, admire, and adore virtually everything about America except its republican institutions. In the new propaganda texts–and this is the telltale of their calculated corruptness–democracy ceased to be the theme and catalyst of American history; it excited no strife, inspired no banners, and suffered no defeats. Instead it became the fixed and unchanging attribute of the United States, like the spots on a leopard–“a Platonic form abstracted from history,” as FitzGerald well puts it. Severed from history, democracy ceased to be menaced by anything except foreign enemies and their domestic agents, whose activities in the neighborhood, one textbook advised, should be promptly reported by “young people” to the FBI, “in line with American traditions.”
Even as a “Platonic form,” however, democracy was too dangerous to describe at length. From the new textbooks readers learned that democracy meant the right to vote and nothing more, a definition that does not distinguish America’s republican institutions from the totalitarian politics of the Soviet Union. Even reduced to a nullity, democracy, to the educational establishment, was still too dangerous to praise too highly. The fear that citizenship might break out haunts the pages of the propaganda textbooks. Instead of lauding democracy. the textbooks found subtle ways to denigrate it. One of the major texts of the era, FitzGerald says, “concludes with an essay extolling the virtues of freedom not for its own sake but merely as the greatest asset in the world struggle.” A more common technique of denigration was the textbooks’ insistence that what was truly great about America was its enormous gross national product. The textbooks, FitzGerald says, were “far more enthusiastic” about the GNP than about the Bill of Rights. Without eliminating political history entirely, the textbooks, which devoted considerable space to “industrialization,” were hearkening back to the corrupt basic tenet of Deweyism–that America was not a republican polity but, far more important, an industrial system. Times had changed, however. Whereas “cooperation” had been the dubious deity of the original industrial pedagogy, the new deity enshrined in the propaganda texts was productivity pure and simple. One prominent junior-high-school history text argued, for example, that slavery was not all that bad because it alleviated America’s chronic shortage of labor. Whereas Lincoln had said that if slavery were not evil then nothing was evil, this modern school text, still in use ten years ago. taught children that nothing is evil if it enhances production–the common principle of the capitalist, the commissar, and the tyrant.
The Extinction of Political History
Such were the corrupt history textbooks the educational oligarchy inflicted on a republic’s children, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the bombing of North Vietnam. Around 1965 that textbook era, too, came to an end with what FitzGerald calls “the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place” in America. The cause of this eludes her, but it, was quite obviously the civil-rights movement that provided the main spur for revision. At a stroke it exposed the sham of the propaganda textbooks. American democracy could hardly remain a “Platonic form abstracted from history” while Americans were out in the streets and on the hustings fighting for political liberty. Moreover, insurgent blacks demanded a place in the history texts, which had ignored their very existence for decades. Thanks to the civil-rights movement the time was peculiarly ripe for restoring to American classrooms a deeper and more exacting political history than even Muzzey and West had provided. Here was yet another educational crisis, almost comparable to the construction of high schools at the turn of the century. Educational reformers hit on a solution at once. If the corrupt political-history texts were doomed, what American schoolchildren should get in their stead was no political history at all.
One group of reformers, known as “The New Social Studies Movement,” urged the educational establishment to teach sociology instead of history. Whereas the established social studies made do with crude notions such as the division of labor, the New Social Studies would teach budding scholars how to use such refined social-science concepts as “role,” “status,” and “culture.” This, the reformers said, would sharpen their “cognitive skills,” as it had so manifestly done for professors of sociology. The American past could remain in the curriculum, but only as a “laboratory for testing social-science concepts,” to quote a New Social Studies manifesto. Grinding American history into sociological mush readily recommended itself to the educational bureaucrats in the Kennedy Administration, which supported the endeavor with the customary avalanche of grants.
A second group of reformers urged the school managers to offer textbooks that were “relevant” to the immediate problems of “disadvantaged” minorities. What these disadvantaged needed, their self-appointed spokesmen said, were history texts that enhanced their ethnic and racial “pride.” Since no political history of America could possibly make anyone proud of being scorned, proscribed, betrayed, or enslaved, the new ethnicity, too, won rapid and pious approval. Through a judicious blend of “social-science concepts” and sops to ethnic pride, the educational establishment has found another way to secure “a rather small degree of knowledge of, or participation in, public affairs.” It is not really new, however. It is simply the old industrial education dressed up in a new disguise.
As in the old industrial pedagogy, the first principle of the contemporary textbooks is that America is not a republican commonwealth. It is merely a society like a dozen others, including outright tyrannies and totalitarian regimes. That, of course, is fundamental to any system of corrupt education in America, as educational leaders had realized more than half a century before. Over the years, however. industrialism had lost its savor. The new America of the textbooks is not an industrial society anymore. It is now, FitzGerald says. a “multiracial. multicultural society” composed of distinct ethnic groups and races, each with its own history. achievements, and heroes–Cesar Chavez for Mexican-Americans, for example. This new textbook America, with its “multiple perspectives,” FitzGerald regards as an intellectual advance over the “outdated” view of America as a nation-state. On the other hand, she notes, taking both sides of every issue from sheer inability to decide what is important and what is mere cant, this new textbook America is indistinguishable from Yugoslavia, or, for that matter, the Ottoman Empire. America’s future citizens, previously taught to regard themselves as workers, are now taught to regard themselves as ethnic tribesmen–“We’re family”–who must learn to live harmoniously with other tribes cohabiting on the North American continent and especially with American Indians, who, being the most tribal, are the most admired figures in the contemporary history texts. Millions of young American’s, for example, know more about Ishi, the last “wild Indian”–he was captured in 1911–than they do about the Founding Fathers. A number of contemporary history texts begin with glowing accounts of the Aztecs and the Mayans in line with the basic textbook principle that America is a lot of tribes living in North America. “Poor Columbus,” FitzGerald writes. “He is a minor character now, a walk-on in the middle of American history.” So, too, is the American republic.
Like the old social studies of “industrial development,” the new history texts offer a past shorn of politics and virtually devoid of people. The educational leaders have at long last triumphed over the very idea of political history. In the new textbooks no man and no deed is responsible for anything. History, in the social-science “laboratory” of the textbooks, is now the product. FitzGerald says, of “impersonal institutions and faceless social forces,” which she regards as more “democratic” than political history–exactly what it is not and can never be. On the other hand, she is dismayed to discover that “there is no known case of anyone’s creating a problem for anyone else” in this wonderland of abstractions. It is impossible for anyone to do so. In the new sociologized history texts, no human being has ever enjoyed sufficient power to do anything for good or ill. Famous men, in this “democratic history,” are loci of impotence with illustrious names attached. Watergate, in the latest texts, is something that happened to Richard Nixon, and history in general is a slew of forces, pressures, and disasters inflicted by fate on the high and the mighty, who appear as hapless men of goodwill. “There are,” FitzGerald says, “no human agencies left.”
To erase every trace of human action, the textbooks perform prodigies of verbal mendacity. In one typical textbook, FitzGerald says, the authors attribute the “problems” facing post-Reconstruction America to “the era of Reconstruction,” as if an “era” can possibly cause anything. In the no-action history of the textbooks, abstractions do everything because humans are forbidden to do anything. At all costs the readers must never be allowed to suspect that people are capable of making a difference. Like the Stone Age tribes they are asked to admire, our children are now taught to regard the American past as an incomprehensible destiny as empty of human purpose as the landscape of the moon.
The Success of “Sociology”
With the extinction of political history the educational oligarchy has finally resolved the grand crisis of twentieth-century education: how to prevent the masses from learning what is fit only for their leaders. From the new textbooks, the children of the American republic will never gain knowledge of, or the slightest incentive to participate in, public affairs. Nor will they ever learn from their sociologized texts how to detect “ambition under all its shapes.” What the new textbooks teach on every page and with every passive verb is that, for all practical purposes, there is no such human activity as public affairs and no such human motive as political ambition. How can there be when “faceless social forces” make our history and the high and the mighty appear only as the victims of fate? No reader of these degraded texts will ever learn from them how to “judge for themselves what will secure or endanger their freedom.” The new textbooks have snuffed out the very idea of human freedom, for that freedom at bottom is precisely the human capacity for action that political history records and that the textbooks are at such pains to conceal. In the “multiracial, multicultural” America of the textbooks every citizen is a tribesman and every tribesman the hapless subject of powers and dominions he does not even know exist. Such is “good citizenship” in the corrupted common schools of contemporary America.
The educational establishment, FitzGerald concludes, has deprived Americans of their “birthright,” a personal loss she sincerely laments, but the judgment scarcely covers the ground. What the political history of the textbooks reveals is that a powerful few, gaining control of public education, have been depriving the American republic of citizens, and popular government of a people to defend it. And the American history textbook, so innocent-seeming and inconsequential, has been their well-chosen instrument.