Textbook publishers, responding to complaints about ethnic stereotypes, have replaced old myths that glorified American history with new myths that oversimplify group conflicts, romanticize underdogs and attach too little significance to the nation's common problems and achievements, according to a new study of high school history texts.
The study, which includes the American history books most widely used in Washington area schools, was written by Nathan Glazer, professor of education and sociology at Harvard University, and Reed Ueda, assistant professor of history at Tufts University.
"The American story cannot be properly reduced to that of exploited and exploiters," the study declares, in which the "the superior moral qualities of minorities" are proclaimed and whites are presented as "malevolent." Instead, it asks for "a more complex and truer picture of American diversity," showing that "both sides are human, with all that entails."
Among the books analyzed in the report is "Rise of the American Nation," published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, the most widely used history textbook in D.C., Montgomery, and Prince George's. Another is "Our American Heritage," published by Silver Burdett, the text most widely used in Fairfax County. Four other books that social studies supervisors said are used in some local school systems also are examined in the report.
In interviews last week the study received a mixed reaction from social studies supervisors for area school systems.
Dana G. Kurfman, head of social studies for Prince George's schools, called the study "healthy criticism." He said the books "may well have swung too far," but added, "I don't think the teachers have shifted as much as the textbooks."
But Frances Powell, supervising director for social studies in District of Columbia schools, said the books "are getting much better than they used to be."
"I don't see how you can do an accurate portrayal of U.S. history without dealing with some negative things," Powell said. You can't do an all-positive history. It's not all perfect like they said it was when I went to school."
The study suggests that in addition to spotlighting blacks, Hispanics and American Indians, as most of the texts do now, the books should include "somewhat more" more material on white ethnic groups, such as Poles, Italians and Jews, who have been targets of prejudice and yet achieved substantial success.
"There is indeed a history of oppressors and oppressive, and it must be told," the study says. "But the white 'oppressors' themselves form a complex mix of European ethnic groups, divided by language and religion . . . they complicate the history of this white majority . . . And they offer a bridge of varied experiences that indicate a potential course for those nonwhite minorities and new immigrants" with below average income and education.
The new 68-page study, entitled "Ethnic Groups in History Textbooks," was published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Glazer, its lead author, is coauthor of two major works of American sociology, "The Lonely Crowd," written with David Riesman and Reuel Denney, and "Beyond the Melting Pot," with Daniel P. Moynihan, now U.S. senator from New York. Ueda, the study's other author, received a doctorate in American history from Harvard in 1981.
The study says the amount of space devoted to minorities ranges from about 6 to 12 percent in the six books examined in detail. The proportion of pictures showing minority group members is somewhat larger--from 15 to 40 percent.
In virtually all the books, the study says, there is a similar treatment and tone. History is "no longer written from a single national point of view," it says, but instead from "a variety of group perspectives."
Thus, it says, "the expansion of the American nation to the West becomes the tragedy of the Indian. The history of the South becomes the story of slavery. The story of the growth of industry focuses on the suffering of immigrants." Blacks and American Indians, it says, are presented mostly as victims, whose civilizations were destroyed by whites.
For example, "Rise of the American Nation" provides several pages of information on African kingdoms and empires and also has a warm account of American Indian achievements. "Our American Heritage" describes the European discovery of America as an "opportunity" for whites, but a "catastrophe" for Indians that "brought death to millions . . . and destroyed entire tribes."
Herbert J. Bass, a history professor at Temple University and principal author of "Our American Heritage," acknowledged in an interview that there is little in the texts about the poverty, illiteracy and technological backwardness of these groups that made them vulnerable to conquest.
"It's a version of the Noble Savage that has come into the textbooks," Bass said. "I can see that sometimes there's so much about the skills and abilities of the Indians that it's difficult to understand how they lost."
But he added: "Nobody is going to put that into the book. Some of these things are put in largely for pride. That's a starting point for learning."
Bass said he agreed with the criticism in the report that most of the textbooks are "one-sided" in focusing on conflict and deemphasizing "the group interests that transcend ethnic lines."
He said he thought his own book avoided this slant.
The new report suggests that the texts are "shallow" in discussing how different groups became part of American society. It says they fail to show that the current situation of different groups depends not only on the laws and prejudices toward them, but also on their own skills, communal institutions and previous histories, as well as on the time and place of their arrival in the United States.
This is particularly a problem with Japanese Americans, said Ueda, who is a Japanese American himself. The group is chiefly portrayed as a victim of prejudice, he said, consigned to internment camps during World War II, but nothing is said of its "amazing social rise" after the war.
"It's not an unfair criticism," Bass said later, "to say the texts tend to portray minorities as victims and still leave out who they are and how they live their lives. There's a limit to what you can get into."
"A lot of folks get jittery when you talk about the characteristics of a particular group," Bass continued. "I confess that there is a concern about invidious comparisons. That's why writers shy away from it. You'll never know how it will be read."
Richard Wilson, coordinator of secondary social studies in Montgomery County, said the analysis in the new report would have been more valid in the late 1960s and early 1970s when "the consensus about American history exploded and many of the books went overboard.
"I think we are returning more to the consensus--the achievements as well as the wart," Wilson said. "But where there has been injustice, the books should tell about it, and most now do. Maybe they don't play it up enough."