American History Textbooks Shaped by State Political Views


Recently, The New York Times published an article about differences in various history textbooks in California and Texas. These differences highlight how politics influences what students are being taught about the history of the United States. Whether or not educators explicitly express their political views in the classroom, students are being provided with biased content. These students will one day vote for candidates running for political office, which is why it is worth noting that the differences found in the textbooks, sometimes slight and other times substantial, correspond with each states’ views on debated issues such as race, gender, and immigration. 

Overview of the Process—How and Why are the Textbooks of States Different?

The U.S. history textbooks analyzed cover the same American stories including slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the displacement of Native Americans, immigration, and the brutal wars the country has taken part in. However, when comparing two of the “same” textbooks side by side, there are some differences, which may seem small at first glance, but are quite startling. One would think that these books, having the same publisher and authors, would be the same, cover to cover, but this is not the case. Each book is altered for its specific state, often reflecting the views of the political party in power. 

For background, it is important to understand how these textbooks could have differences when they were written and published by the same people. According to The Times, the differences between these textbooks by state are due to multiple factors, such as “state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.” These appointees on the panels are able to make explicit requests for wording to be changed, specific language not to be used, and information to be taken out. These requests often reflect a partisan divide and can essentially change the way history is interpreted by students. For example, a California panel asked a major publishing company, McGraw-Hill, not to use the word “massacre” when recounting the relations between Native Americans and white people in the 1800s. On the other hand, a Texas panel asked the publisher to add that the founders of the U.S. were influenced by the Protestant Great Awakening.

California vs. Texas

When The Times analyzed the same textbook from California and Texas, a few major differences were found regarding the omission or addition of certain information. The first difference concerned the information provided for students on the Second Amendment. Students in California learning about the Constitution, and specifically the Bill of Rights, will be given an explanation of the fact that some gun regulations are included in the amendment in their textbook. California, which usually votes Democrat, has a strong regulation of guns, and many gun-related legislations were put into motion by the end of 2019. Therefore, the reason that gun regulations were specified as being written into the Second Amendment was because Democrats generally support tighter gun control measures than Republicans. However, for students in Texas, the mention of gun control in the amendment is nowhere to be found and a white space takes its place on the page. Texas, which traditionally votes Republican, has weaker gun laws, and the state focuses less on the regulation and ownership of guns than the locations where and situations when individuals are authorized to carry them. In turn, the reason for the blank white space instead of the explanation on gun regulation in the amendment is that Republicans generally support less regulations on gun control.

Another difference found between a textbook from California and another from Texas was regarding the Harlem Renaissance and its impact. Students in both states learn about the topic, but students in Texas will read that some people who were critical about the impact of the Harlem Renaissance on African American life “dismissed the quality of the literature produced.” This addition to the Pearson textbook was made by the publisher, who claimed the wording “adds more depth and nuance.” This is not the only disregard for the African American experience evident in the Texas textbooks. Certain details included in the California textbooks about discrimination and other heavy topics are glossed over in the books from Texas.

In addition to these two major differences, The Times found hundreds more between eight of the most commonly used textbooks in Texas and California. Some of these differences were found in the teaching of topics such as gender and sexuality, immigration and nativism, and the role of big business in the Gilded Age. 

Final Thoughts

History class is designed to teach students about the important events of the past. In some cases, these events or interactions between groups of people are considered an ugly part of our history, but the idea is, or should be that we teach things as they happened. Whether or not our ancestors committed horrible acts, especially towards Native Americans and African Americans, the truth needs to be told to ensure the proper recognition for those who faced these atrocities. Certain issues, past and present, are controversial, and in order to teach history in an unbiased way, educators are encouraged to stick to the facts and present both sides of every story. However, if school curriculums are based off of textbooks that don’t provide students with the information they need to get the full picture of an event, the views of the future generation of voters are being formed by individuals selected by the State Board of Education. Every citizen of the United States has the right to vote. How is it fair for the state to start influencing students’ views, which will later become decisions at the voting booth, from a young age? It isn’t.

This post was written by one of U4SC’s Educators 4SC Research Assistants, Samantha.