A casual reader of American-history textbooks for elementary and secondary schools might be tempted to conclude that the signal quality of all of them is an astonishing dullnes. But this would be unfair, because some texts are not dull at all. The mid-nineteenth-century Peter Parley texts, with their tales of earthquakes and heroic children captured by Indians are, for instance, quite readable compared with the histories of the eighteen-nineties - though, of course, somewhat less factual. The first few editions of David Saville Muzzey's American History are full of life, and the anti-Communist tracts of the fifties have a certain hysterical suspensefulness. American-history texts are not, in other words, by their nature dull. They have achieved dullness. And, it must be said, they have maintained a fairly consistent level of dullness ever since the nineteen-thirties. The proposition is inadequate as well as unfair, because the dullness the texts have achieved is neither simple nor self-explanatory, Leonard C. Wood, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Edward L. Biller's description of poverty in America: Its People and Values and Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti's theory of the Vietnam War in Rise of the American Nation could not have come from mindless drudging or ad-hoc worrying about offense to some group. No, these textbook theories are the product of a coherent world view, a philosophy of history. And this world view emerges if one examines the peculiar quality of the texts' dullness.
To read an account of, say, the American Revolution in one of the so-called inquiry, or discovery, textbooks - which focus on a few topics, illustrate them with documents from primary and secondary sources, and include a list of questions designed to force students to think much as historians do - is to see that the narrative texts, past and present, are dull in part because of their silences. The longest of these silences - it begins with the foundation of the Republic and remains perfect even today - is on the subject of intellectual history. It is not that modern texts are hostile to intellectuals. It is not that at all. Ever since the thirties, text writers have taken to stopping every hundred pages or so to build a section around American cultural achievements. Since the fifties, they have given American writers and artists at least as much aspace as they give to sports stars, and their works as much space as technological advances in the media. They are not quite as up to date about writers as they are about apinters and painting (current texts include Op and Pop Art, but stop with Faulkner and Hemingway), but there literary appreciations are quite sophisticated. (Not since ther thirties has a text summed up Moby Dick as "a story about a whale.") American art - if not intellectual life in general - has become an attraction a matter for national pride. Of course, these culture sections do bear some resemblance to what in news magazines is called "the back of the book," and American intellectuals might with some justice complain that they have been ghettoized in them - fenced off by black lines from the serious people and serious concerns of the age. But the problem is really the contrary of that: these serious people who wield political power or influence are never credited by the textbooks with having thought anything. It is, for instance a well-kept secret of the texts that the Founding Fathers were intellectuals. But this is the least of it. What is missing is not a history of intellectuals but intellectual history in the broadest sense.
Were a foreigner to read American-history texts (and particularly a foreigner brought up, as the French are, to put Descartes before anyone else), he or she would have to conclude that American political life was completely mindless. For instance, the text report that Thoman Paine's Common Sense was an influential pamphlet without ever discussing what it says. (The fact that Paine was an internationalist who believed that the Revolution would spread back to Europe is another well-kept secret.) Similarly, they report that th Populists r resented rural interests, called for government ownership of railroads, and sounded more extreme than they actually were. Of the Populists' highly colored and wholly original view of the world they say nothing. (It is possible to imagine that the radicals of the sixties, such as Tom Hayden and Sam Brown, associated themselves with th Populist tradition because their American histories told them a lot about Robert La Follette and nothing about the rural, reactionary, Catholic-hating, Jew-baiting strain in the movement.) But it is not only radical or currently unfashionable ideas that the texts leave out - it is all ideas, including those of their heroes. In all the tests since Muzzey's, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster are stick figures deprived of speech. Even Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are insubstantial, their ideas on government reduced to little more than a difference on the merits of a national bank. As for the Puritans, the texts manage to describe that most ideological of communities without ever saying what they believed in.
The lack of intellectual history in the texts has had some serious consequences, one of which is that students get a rather profound misunderstanding of the Constitution. In discussing that document, the textbooks have traditionally focussed on how it operates and what it has done. Their account of the Constitutional Convention is similarly functional - to the point where the final document appears merely a product of interest-group compromises, a masterpiece of political tinkering. Rarely have they mentioned the political philosophy of the Framers - since the thirties, in any case. Some fifties writers thus made no great break with tradition when they moved the Constitution with all of its modern amendments into the chapter on the Constitutional Convention and there discussed "the American system of government" as if it were a constant preserved in the National Bureau of standards. Current writers place the text at the back of the book and discuss the constitutional amendments in their proper historical contexts, indicating that the American system has changed to some degree.But since they still do not ground the original document in the political philosophy of the period, they run the opposite risk of making the document appear no more than a collection of rules and regulations - a kind of Rube Goldberg machine, any part of which could be altered to fit circumstances without changing the sense of the whole. In addition to missing the spirit of thelaw, the texts have surely missed the spirit of American politics by their neglect of intellectual history. The United States has not been - is not yet - a land of philosophers, but it is essentially one of visionaries. People such as Cotton Mather, W. E. B. Du Bois, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman have given the country its real life force. To deny their visions is to drain the soul out of American history.
The textbook substitute for intellectual history has always been editorial moralizing. In the blood-soaked, battle-ridden texts of the nineteenth century, the authors wrote forewards proclaiming their moral purposes and the virtues the study of American history would instill in young readers. Around the turn of the century, they began moralizing in earnest, passing judgment on everything from the Salem witchcraft trials to the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act. In place of the real dilemmas of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, they gave students their own views on the good and bad guys and what should have been done. Why they felt so morally competent was not at all clear, but they gave students to understand that history was a series of instructive morality plays. This Victorian vies of history - and of children - persisted long after the texts had abandoned people for social forces. It persists doday, in spike of the bland neutrality of textbook language.
In the first part of this century, character was the main focus - and source of interest - of the textbooks. American history had heroes and villains, people and even "races" of good and bad character. The best of the writers clearly took pleasure in describing the complexities of personality - particularly if there was a tragic flaw to be found. Muzzey's characterization of Warren G. Harding, for example, might be a piece of movie scriptwriting:
President Harding was a man of superb figure and physique. He looked "every inch a King." To a Washingtonian dignity in appearance, he added a most un-Washington geniality of manner, a hail-fellow-well-met companionship of the "good mixer" among the boys with whome he enjoyed a Saturday night's game of poker....But behind the facade of his handsome face, his genial manners, and his winning voice President Harding had but meager qualifications for the responsibilities of the high office to which he had been elected. Both mentally and morally he failed to measure up to high standards...his pliant good nature and his attachment to personal friends like the crooked politicians of the "Ohio gang" and plunderers of the public wealth brought discredit upon his administration and bitter sorrow (perhaps even death) to himself.
Since the ninetee-thirties, however, the characters of American history have grown small and pale in the shadow of institutions and social forces. In the 1972 edition of Todd, Curti, President Harding was merely
a genial Ohio newspaperman who had climbed to the top of the political ladder in his own state. Before becoming President he had served as United States Senator in Washington. Handsome and distinguished, with a warm, easygoing manner - much too easygoing, as it turned out - he had many friends in every walk of life....
Despite some solid accomplishments, the Harding adminstration left a long, sorry record of corruption. President Harding was not himself involved in the corruption. His mistake was in appointing certain undeserving men to office.
Of course, it is no longer possible to write history as if it were merely the play of personalities. And John Dewey, among others, is surely right that to devote much attention to the Presidents or other individual leaders is undemocratic.On the other hand, this neglect of character in the schoolbooks is an aesthetic impoverishment. In the days of Muzzey, American history and gentlemen, shysters, hotheads, statesmen, and fools; it now has only cipher people, who say very little and think nothing - who have no passions and no logic. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, BY MICHAEL DAVID BROWN