School textbooks created by Southern-based publishers in the decades after Reconstruction offered a heroic view of the Confederacy, which gradually seeped into history lessons in Northern states, said Chara Bohan, a professor of education policy studies at Georgia State University, in a recent Q&A with GSU Research Magazine.
The “Lost Cause” narrative from the 1870s to 1920s slowly migrated north as the country attempted post-war reconciliation and as Northern publishers tried to stay competitive with Southern statewide textbook adoption policies that allowed committees more control over content, Bohan’s research found.
Although these textbook wars occurred more than a century ago, school communities continue to struggle with the presentation of historic lessons on racism and slavery. Bohan advises that social studies teachers today be mindful of the history of curricula dissemination as they prepare lessons about the Civil War’s causes, key players and events.
Teachers, who are mostly White and female, should also question their own assumptions about what they were taught when they were students, said Bohan, who conducted the research in 2020 along with Wade Morris, who at the time was a GSU doctoral fellow studying social studies education.
As time passes, historical evidence may change or evolve due to the discovery of artifacts and writings. That is why it is important for teachers to keep knowledgeable about new revelations about past events, Bohan said in the Q&A.
“When is it appropriate for educators to compromise their understanding of historical truth for the sake of political and social harmony?” Morris and Bohan wrote in their analysis. “It reminds social studies teachers that assumptions must be questioned, competing narratives must not be ignored and complexity must be embraced.”
Their research of three textbooks from each region showed, for example, that textbooks published in the North but written for Southern audiences depicted enslaved people as happy and content. Officials also made sure textbook authors had mentioned Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee as many times as Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant. But as time progressed, those Southern narratives began being included in Northern textbooks.
“As the Southern and Northern narratives merged, Southerners really influenced how and what Americans learned about the Civil War no matter where they lived,” Bohan said in the Q&A.
In a recent report on states’ civics and history standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, said American history is nuanced, rich and complex, which means students should have access to comprehensive and balanced civics lessons. The review rated four states — Alabama, California, Massachusetts and Tennessee — and the District of Columbia, as “exemplary” in civics and U.S. history standards. Nineteen states were labeled “inadequate.”
“The great purpose of civics and U.S. history education is to provide a common framework for resolving our differences even as we respect them,” the report said.
The report recommended that states:
Maximize attention to civics and U.S. history in elementary and middle school and require at least one year of U.S. history and one semester of civics in high school.
Provide comprehensive and detailed guidance in both subjects.
Take a user-friendly approach to the organization and presentation of their standards.
Put more emphasis on writing, argumentation, problem analysis and the connections between core content and current events.