In achieving success, talent is overrated while persistence and luck are underrated.
That is the takeaway from the story I will tell of how I (and a co-author) wrote a U.S. history textbook in the late-1960s that sought to reform how teachers teach history and along the way had a few years of modest success. By the late-1970s, however, the text had largely disappeared from the marketplace.
Beginning at Glenville high school in Cleveland in the late-1950s and after I moved to Washington, D.C. to work at Cardozo high school in 1963, I developed instructional materials that incorporated primary sources on what was then called Negro history. Scott,Foresman published The Negro in America in 1964 (reissued in 1971 as The Black Man in America) as part of their “Problems in American History” series. The book introduced primary sources mixed with questions for students to answer in what was then called “The New Social Studies.”
In 1966, a Scott,Foresman editor contacted me and asked me if I would like to write a U.S. history textbook that would be a series of paperbacks and not the familiar three-pound, single volume text. I was very interested. Over the next five years, I and co-author Philip Roden, a teacher at Evanston High School (IL), authored five paperback volumes, each one of about 175 pages, called The Promise of America.
Conceptualizing the book as one that would engage students, get them to think about how the past informs the present, how historians interpret sources, and develop basic thinking skills was an exciting adventure for me. I wanted very much to capitalize on my experience of creating lessons with content that motivated students and turned history into detective stories with endings that students could figure out for themselves.
Phil Roden and I developed lessons around ordinary people in the past whose lives were linked to social and political movements and key events–a Forty-Niner prospecting for gold in California, a Polish immigrant working in the Chicago stockyards, and what it was like to live in early 20th-century New York City tenements. We used fiction–a passage from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage in the Civil War unit–lyrics from protest songs sung by late-19th century farmers, and cartoons pointing to the devastating effects of the Industrial Revolution on children.
We connected the past to the present. With a chronological framework, we would insert links to the present. For example, in the background of the Spanish-American War (1898), we included primary sources that got at the tension between national self-interest (acquiring colonies) and national ideals (democratic government) connecting both to the then war in Vietnam.
And we built critical thinking skills into the content of history. Our questions following readings, photos, cartoons, and charts aimed for comprehension, analysis, and evaluation. For example, a cartoon about inequality before the Civil War, students saw a foot-race featuring white runners with a black runner with ball-and-chain, a woman, and a Native American sitting on the bench. The winners would get wealth, security, and achievement.
We asked students comprehension questions–what did they see in the cartoon. We asked them who the bench-sitters represented and why they were there. We asked for evidence that would support such a representation of equality and inequality before the Civil War. We asked how they would draw the cartoon after Reconstruction.
Or when students finished readings on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. (1968), we asked them: “How did the goals and methods of the reformers who went on the Poor People’s Campaign compare to those reformers between 1830 and 1860?”
In the early 1970s, Promise of America sold well in high schools and middle schools especially for students designated as “slow learners” or “under-achievers.” By the late-1970s, however, back-to-basics and traditional instruction had seized U.S. schools; reformers had turned their backs on open classrooms, student-centered activities, and connecting the present and the past. The hard-back, single volume three-pound textbook returned to history classrooms. Sales dropped to zero by the end of the 1970s.
But, oh, what a fine run it was for those years! Writing five paperbacks, seeing them published, hearing from students and teachers who loved and hated the readings, cartoons, photos, and questions, getting the book banned in communities outraged by the language used in the text, and inquiry-driven lessons–it was a personal high. Just thinking that maybe some students and teachers learned that history was far more than recalling facts for a test was more than worth the effort.
I and Phil Roden were lucky in being around at a time–a door opened–when reformers called for major changes in traditional history instruction and a national publisher was willing to invest in a totally different kind of U.S. textbook. We were young teachers who believed that what we produced would be better for both teachers and students in learning history. We worked five years–we persisted–and saw our work get into classrooms. Then the door closed.
Did Promise of America alter daily instruction in classrooms? Textbooks are tools and it depended greatly on who the teachers were, what they believed, and what expertise they had. Chances are that the paperbacks may have helped those teachers ready for the kind of content and skills we offered but in most classrooms where Promise of America was the text, well, I cannot say.