Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Who controls the text in the textbooks? UPDATED

At History News Network, historian James Loewen observes that Battle Cry of Freedom, the authoritative history of the American Civil War by James McPherson, establishes clearly that slavery was the fundamental cause of the secession of the confederate states. Far from defending states' rights, the slavery states insisted that federal power had to be imposed on any state that resisted slavery.

But Loewen finds that McPherson is listed as a co-author of the standard textbook American Journey, approved for use in many state high school history curricula, and the text has a very different explanation of secession.  Apparently it was for rights and liberties.
Lincoln and the Republicans had promised not to disturb slavery where it already existed. Nevertheless, many people in the South mistrusted the party, fearing that the Republican government would not protect Southern rights and liberties.
Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, draws attention to the highly political process by which history textbooks get approved (or not) in the American states, He also looks at how major textbook publishers operate. Wondering whether McPherson actually wrote the book at all, he addresses McPherson as follows:
A veteran editor of U.S. history textbooks put it this way to me about when the 2007 edition of your textbook was being written: "Here's $3,000 for a free-lance writer.... They pick things up pretty quickly, and in a couple of days, they're up on the Civil War."
Some glancing contact with major Canadian textbook publishers years ago suggested to me this was about the way they too treated freelance writers, and I have pretty much stayed away from textbook writing throughout my career. But I think there are some pretty decent Canadian history texts, actually written by some real and serious historians who have taken the work seriously. I'm not sure whether the situation: famous historian on the title page/anonymous politically-controlled hack writing the text, can be found in Canadian textbooks. But since most of our textbook producers are branch-plants, the potential must exist.

Update, August 7:  A colleague who prefers not to be identified suggests;
Textbooks and summary histories lean more towards the mainstream and are conservative.  You can be more iconoclastic in a monograph.
Which strikes me as precisely backwards. (Sorry, Anon!) In this case at least, it is certainly the monograph, not the textbook, that is "mainstream":  McPherson's monograph Battle Cry of Freedom is not in the least iconoclastic or radical or attempting to shift or overturn the established historical consensus.  It is the established consensus, the view solidly rooted in the evidence.

The textbook here does not 'lean to' the mainstream and or seek conservative historiographical positions. On this question, it takes a radically unhistorical position that is favoured by the white-supremacist elements that hold power in many American states that purchase school texts in large quantity.

It is likely that Professor McPherson and his co-authors have lost control over the text bearing their name. Most textbook publishers require a surrender of copyright from their authors, and American copyright law does not includes a moral rights provision (which protects creators from having their work abused).  Of course, most Canadian textbook publishers also seek a surrender of copyright and a waiver of the moral rights clause that does exist in Canadian copyright law, so it is not clear that Canadian historians would be better protected against commercially-motivated manipulation of their work.
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