Why history book mistakes can be good

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 6:17 PM

In high school, I was a nerd with political ambitions, desperate for popularity. My U.S. history teacher encouraged criticism, giving me a chance for glory when, during the usual Friday game of 20 questions, he said the thing we were trying to guess occurred in the 19th century.

We failed to get the right answer: the Alien and Sedition Acts. That meant extra weekend homework. But, I thought to myself excitedly, wasn't he wrong? Weren't the acts in the Adams administration, late 1790s? "Mr. Ladendorff, will you cancel the homework if I can show that happened in the 18th century?" He nodded. I found the citation. Cheers! Pleasant looks from girls! For a few minutes, I was the hero.

The controversy over errors in Virginia history books, well covered by my colleague Kevin Sieff, reminds me of the best day I ever had in high school. It makes me wonder whether the delights of detecting errors by authoritative educators and their textbooks might turn the scandal into ways to make history classes, at least in high school, more exciting.

Loudoun County officials have embraced this notion. Post reader Jan Z. Olsen made a similar point in the Jan. 4 letters to the editor column with this comment: "A huge problem could be turned into a wonderful learning opportunity."

Exactly. If history textbooks have mistakes, why not unleash students to find them? That age cohort is only too happy to point out flaws in their parents. Exposing misstatements in their textbooks should be just as enjoyable and addictive.

Once they start, they won't stop. They don't have to confine their search to factual errors. Our textbooks are also loaded with conceptual problems, relatively easy to find once students develop a point of view on what they are learning. Isn't that what critical thinking - one of this era's most fashionable pedagogical phrases - is all about?

Al Ladendorff, my history teacher at Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif., was famous for goading students into having opinions. Under his photo in the school yearbook was a typical Ladendorff exam question: "Fair trade laws are unfair. Disagree."

Encouraging the detection of ill-considered assumptions might work in other classes. I once suggested in a column that the dubious theory of intelligent design be discussed in biology classes to spark debate and help students understand how the scientific method distinguishes research from ideology. I was buried in e-mails calling me an idiot, but that is an acceptable byproduct of the learning process.

Ladendorff loved when we criticized our textbook. I wrote a paper noting the book's discussions of modern farm bills and their political consequences. Why were we bothering with that stuff when only 5 percent of the population lived on farms? The real America, I said, was suburbs like San Mateo. He suggested that the publisher might have been concerned about Midwestern sales. That made me realize that the style of learning I had encountered all my life was itself a reflection of the American economic system, a useful lesson for a future education columnist.

We ought to stop worrying so much about textbook errors. We might even encourage publishers to salt their volumes intentionally with a few mistakes. (Don't be horrified. Each could be identified in the teacher's guide.) It would motivate careful student reading and lively discussion.

I wonder whether Ladendorff intentionally put the Alien and Sedition Acts in the wrong century to see if anyone would catch it. It was an extra-credit assignment of unusual power, since the reward was a brief moment of celebrity for socially backward kids like me.

It worked, Mr. Ladendorff. Thank you. If we can persuade more teachers to take similar risks in their classes and open our perpetually flawed textbooks to student critique, we might make all history classes as unforgettable as that one was for me.

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