...using documents, images, maps and online tools
Using my wife’s digital camera, I photographed the cover and title page from two U.S. History textbooks. My thoughts on this project kept evolving as I worked with it. My original idea was just to remain scalable by continuing to collect and add U.S. History textbooks from the past and present, and I do have a few more books that I could have added to this kind of collection. The more I thought about it, however, I couldn’t help but focus on these two particular books, one published in 1888 and the other from 1942.
.............By Everit Brown, 1888...................By Beard & Beard, 1942
You can see the other photos at:
To me, these both seemed like very significant volumes. The 1888 work by Everit Brown was written at the end of the American Indian wars, with the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), a final pathetic gasp on this dark period, just around the corner. The second work, by Beard & Beard, had originally been published in 1938, but this edition from 1942 was printed with apparently no update as there is no mention of World War Two: no Mussolini, no Hitler. Its final chapter warns of growing tensions but focuses on the need for continued cooperation amongst global powers. From there, I determined to only include volumes in the future that met this sort of criteria, that there had to be some further significance to the time in which it was published in order to be included in this collection, e.g., maybe one published in 1898, before the Spanish-American War and our conquest of the Philippines, or better yet, one from 1860, or 1960.
Obviously, U.S. History textbooks were written to be used in teaching American history, but now we could use those same books to see how historians would paint our past picture as a nation on the verge of great changes, to explore whether or not the writers were aware of impending changes on their doorsteps. As my ideas continued to develop, I was intrigued by the artwork included in both volumes facing each one’s title page,
and I could not help but consider it in light of recent events here in our own county and state school systems as the educational powers that be push to revamp our U.S. History curriculum. NCDPI had already done away with study of discovery of the New World, colonization, and the American Revolution. Sad enough, but now DPI is trying to force changes that would exclude even the Civil War and Reconstruction from its high school U.S. History course. At this point, I photographed the inside cover artwork: the one from 1888 depicts the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock; the one from 1942 a photograph detailing a huge sculpture, The Nations of the West, sculpted in 1915 by Alexander Stirling Calder to top the Arch of the Setting Sun at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that year. I heard just today that the protests from teachers across the state – and a few comments made on Fox News – helped turn the tide, and DPI has dropped its proposal… for now. Even so, if they had their way, neither of these renditions need be included in their future high school texts.
Developing a collection along these lines should provide U.S. history teachers with material for their students to explore how the writing of history might be affected by the events surrounding the time during which it is written, and also as taking-off point for exploring how a history book might be written differently just a few years after major events than from one written just prior to those same events. In other words, is history just the recording of the facts, or do historians have a responsibility to make inference and/or interpret the facts in light of past, and more recent, events? If so, in doing so, how does that change the facts, and what is chosen to be remembered, remolded, emphasized, and perhaps even left to be forgotten?
I plan to continue this project by visiting libraries and estate sales to acquire more books, and I’m also thinking of including my students to do the same with possibly books and, more likely, with newspapers that they can locate, digitize, and analyze from dates immediately preceding major historical events, checking out the stories and editorials to see if there were any premonitions to the great things about to happen. Also, by taking digital photos, they will then be able to exceed normal sight of the actual books and papers by using tools similar to those at Teaching Digital History to magnify in the extreme and see incredible detail in sharp focus, and of course, they will be able to more easily publish their work and share it with others. - cn