Rating College History Textbooks, Part I: The Least Biased Books

“The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Abraham Lincoln

The purpose of this website, as regular readers know, is to point out the liberal bias that permeates college history faculties and the textbooks they write. To that end I study and footnote seven of the most widely used freshman history textbooks. Every other week I post a new column about the biased way in which most of these textbooks cover some important topic in American History.

After doing this for over a year I’ve begun to notice patterns in the various books. While all of them reflect a left-leaning world view, some are certainly more biased, and less accurate, than others. In today’s column I will rate the three textbooks that show the least flagrant bias, starting with the one that comes closest to offering an even-handed representation of American history. Future columns will address the other four.

#7: America’s Promise1

The textbook America’s Promise is the best of a bad bunch. The notes on the back cover promise readers a “balanced approach to American history,” and to some extent that is true; this book is more balanced than any of the other six textbooks I’ve been studying.

Partisanship

America’s Promise is less partisan than any of the other books.

In racial issues, for example, the other six books edit history pretty shamelessly in order to tar the Republican Party, and “conservatives” in general, as racist; while portraying liberals and Democrats as the champions of racial justice. (As earlier Other Half of History columns point out, Democrats were generally the party of segregation.)

But America’s Promise is noticeably fairer to the Republicans. In its coverage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, it is the only book that mentions how a group of racist Democrats filibustered for 57 days in an attempt to block the bill.

Anti-Anti-Communism

Where all seven textbooks disparage anything anti-Communist, this book makes some attempt at presenting the other side of the story. It is the only book, for example, that mentions that Cuban Communists were building a Soviet airbase in Grenada when the US invaded. The other books all make the invasion of Grenada look like unjustified imperialistic aggression by the Reagan administration.

Another area where this book makes at least some effort at balance is in its coverage of the issue of counter-espionage and anti-Communism (aka “McCarthyism”) during the Cold War. The book does disparage Joseph McCarthy personally, as they all do, and it does use at least one flat-out falsehood2 to make the Senator look bad; but it also concedes that there really were Soviet spies in the government during this period.

It is the only book to make any mention of the The Venona documents, which reveal that the US government intercepted extensive radio traffic between the Soviet government and its army of spies in the US.

Religion

America’s Promise also shows less of the anti-Christian bias that permeates the other six books. While it inaccurately ascribes the American values of democracy and equality to a “skepticism about religion” inherited from the French Enlightenment, it also admits of some positive effects of the Christian religion in our history. It states, for example, that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin “succeeded because it insisted that slavery was a sin for Christians.”

#6 The American Journey3

This book, while obviously biased, scores lower than most of the others on the propaganda scale.

Partisanship

It’s coverage of the Reagan administration, while slanted, is less negative than that of most of the other books.

It’s coverage of the segregation in the South is somewhat balanced; it explains pretty clearly that the real villain of the Jim Crow era was Southern governments. It is the only book to really describe how business interests and other conservatives resisted segregation, and how trade unions and the working class, traditional Democrat voting blocs, supported Jim Crow.

It also portrays pretty accurately the role of President Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic Party, in promoting the racist and grossly unjust Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Anti-Anti-Communism

Every textbook I’ve read, including The American Journey, indulges in some unfair and less-than-honest bashing of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The American Journey repeats the usual mantra about all of McCarthy’s “victims” having been innocent of any connection to the Soviet Union, when the truth is that Senator McCarthy exposed many Soviet agents whose guilt cannot be honestly denied.

And like all but one of the textbooks, this one labors to portray the Soviet side of every question in as positive a light as possible. Americans are portrayed as the villains in Korea and Vietnam, and no mention is made of the many crimes of Communist leaders like Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Still, The American Journey doesn’t go as far as the worst textbooks. Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty and Howard Zinn’s ridiculous A People’s History of the United States are both much worse than this book in their slanders against anyone and anything anti-Communist.

Religion

This book is also less bad than most of the others in its treatment of religion. For example, it describes pretty accurately how “Protestant missionaries” led the fight against the Indian Removal Act.

Role of Government

This book does take a decidedly pro-Government stand on economic issues, although no more so than most of the other textbooks. Its portrayal of FDR’s New Deal policies, for example, is overwhelmingly positive. “Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal,” the book states, “revived hope among millions of Americans.”

The authors of this book rather laughably lament that “Despite the early New Deal’s pro-business character, conservatives complained that the expansion of government activity…weakened the autonomy of American business.”

Still, all things considered, this book is less bad than any of the others except America’s Promise.

# 5 Nation of Nations4

Partisanship

It’s easy to see that the authors of this book are all Democrats. There is a definite double standard used in its coverage of American politicians.

The authors of this book labor to put a positive spin on President Jimmy Carter’s disastrous term in the White House. All the hardships and humiliations America suffered under his leadership are portrayed as results of circumstances outside of the President’s control. (Example: “Even the weather seemed to conspire against Carter.”)

President Reagan, on the other hand, is described as a clever liar who “used his skill as an actor to obscure contradictions between his rhetoric and reality.”

The book describes Senator J. William Fulbright’s opposition to the Vietnam War in glowing terms, but does not mention the Arkansas Democrat’s devotion to racial segregation; that he joined with other Democrats in a filibuster to block the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Segregation is portrayed as solely the work of “conservatives.”

Race Issues

Most history textbooks describe the complex history of racial interactions as a simple dichotomy: light skinned people are evil, and dark skinned people are virtuous, long-suffering victims. While Nation of Nations generally sticks to this narrative, it does make a couple attempts at balance. In its coverage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, for example, it does admit that many Cherokee Indians owned black slaves and operated cotton plantations before being forcibly relocated to Oklahoma.

Anti-Anti-Communism

The most biased section of every textbook I’ve read, without exception, is the section on the Vietnam War. While textbooks disparage anyone who ever fought against Communism the American GI’s who served in Vietnam suffer the worst slander

Many of today’s male college professors were yesterday’s draft dodgers, and they clearly feel a need to take the moral high ground on the issue. Textbooks portray the American men who served in Vietnam as criminals and fools, and those who avoided service as martyrs taking a stand on principle.

Nation of Nations is as guilty of this as any of them. It is full of falsehoods like “Most Americans sent to Vietnam were chosen by the draft.” (Only about a quarter of the men who served in Vietnam were draftees, as any historian should know.) 

In a further attempt to vilify our troops, the book claims that “GI’s regularly took out their frustrations on innocent civilians.” It states as proven fact left wing journalist Peter Arnett’s highly apocryphal claim than an un-named American officer told reporters “We had to destroy the village to save it” after a battle in the city of Ben Tre. 

 Religion

Like all the other textbooks, this one portrays religion and rational thought as incompatible opposites. Even in its descriptions of late twentieth century politics it brings up the eighteenth century French Enlightenment, claiming that the anti-religious attitudes of the Enlightenment had inculcated a “rational spirit of science and technology” that had “dominated Western thought for 200 years.” The book laments that this laudable devotion to pure reason was largely destroyed by religious conservatives during the 1980’s.

Conclusion

It’s hard to find anything to praise even in the best of the mainstream college history books. The left wing bias of the authors stands out like a sore thumb to anyone who has studied the history of this nation independently, although it might not be apparent to a typical eighteen year old college freshman. To go beyond a simple political indoctrination, and get an actual education, a student would have to go outside the classroom and study the other half of the story.

My next two columns will address some of the worst offenses of the worst textbooks.

Al Fuller

1Rorabaugh, Critchlow, & Baker; America’s Promise

2McCarthy’s committee spent several months investigating security problems in the US Army before one of his assistants, David Schine, was drafted. Soon after Schine went on active duty, the Army brass accused McCarthy of trying to get special privileges for Schine. Many history textbooks, including America’s Promise, reverse the order of events. America’s Promise tells readers that McCarthy began investigating the Army “after” Army officials accused him of trying to get special treatment for Schine. The real chronology is described and footnoted in detail in M. Stanton Evans excellent book Blacklisted by History.

3Goldfield, Abbott, Anderson, Argersinger, Argersinger, Barney, & Weir; The American Journey

4Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, & Stoff; Nation of Nations

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11 thoughts on “Rating College History Textbooks, Part I: The Least Biased Books

  • I happened upon this site by googling “American history college textbook reviews.” I’m a full-time American History instructor at a community college.

    This is not exactly what I was looking for. I was hoping to find something where instructors gave their opinions on the various textbooks on the market as I’m re-evaluating my textbook choices. There is not much of that online, unfortunately, or at least not recent.

    Currently I use “Experience History” which is technically the same thing as “Nation of Nations,” which I think ended with the 6th edition in 2007 or 2008. McGraw-Hill revamped the presentation of it for the 7th edition, re-named it, added a new author and added a lot more graphics, extras and online bells as whistles to it. The new author – Brian DeLay – writes about more of the Native American history you seem to be looking for.

    Generally speaking I think your criticisms are nit-picking, but some are reflective of weaknesses in the publishing process. The various authors don’t read or proofread the finished work, just the parts of it they wrote, so that’s how those factual errors like the ones about Vietnam don’t get fixed. The editors don’t have the knowledge or time to double-check content.

    I might recommend Robert Divine et al, “America: Past and Present.” It does not have everything you’re looking for but I do know it’s more positive about President Reagan.

    ** Sorry for the double post, there was a sentence in there I had meant to delete but didn’t before I pressed “post.”

  • This passage from my Freshman History Class at Post University.
    “Given the fact that many southerners threatened secession if Frémont won, Democrats could claim a vote for Buchanan was a vote for the Union. Moreover, the Democrats suggested the Republicans wanted to end white supremacy and enact racial equality. The Republican Party found it very difficult to counter the charges, even though they were not true.” 59 (Locks, 2013.p.670)

    59 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 157-159.

    I went to the textbook source document and found that is a complete fallacy. Also, the textbook conveniently compares the party of Lincoln as Republicans (ok) to the opposition party known as Southerners not Democrats which they clearly were. This is just one example of liberal bias out of hundreds I have found while reading this textbook.
    ~Brett
    Reference
    Locks, C.; Mergel, S.; Roseman, P.; and Spike, T., “History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877” (2013). UNG Press Books. Book 1. http://digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/books/1

  • This site is interesting. We’re using American Journey in our honors history course right now, and encountering the bias issue is more than a little frustrating. Probably more so for me because I’m an older student so I lived through some of this history and know where the book is lacking. I found myself looking at the index and scratching my head. Conservatism gets no mention, nor does liberalism, but there are a long list of citations about the glories of Progressivism. The book is replete with examples like that. On the other hand, no one deserves this more than the Republican Party for being too lazy to tackle how public universities we are all required to fund manage to get away with setting up a church of progressivism that only speaks for a sliver of us. I always end up feeling like how weak is your ideology if you can’t make space in the public sector for competing views?

  • At Teresa Cowser:

    I appreciate your question. If you want a short survey of all of American history in just two volumes, I would recommend America’s Promise over any other book. Only a history textbook would cover that much territory in just a couple volumes, and, as you know, I consider that one to be the least biased.

    As for finding books that are completely without bias, I’m not sure that such books exist. The older I get, the more sure I am that all human beings have bias, and that we just can’t help but let our biases color the way we see the world. What I would recommend is that you settle for balance; reading materials written by both liberals and conservatives that cover the same topic.

    Of course I’m just full of ideas about specific books about persons and subjects in our nation’s history. If you’d like some targeted recommendations feel free to send me an e-mail at al.fuller@historyhalf.com

    Regards,

    Al

  • Hi Mr. Fuller,

    I would like to read a comprehensive text on the history of America, but am willing to read several books to cover the subject. This article has been helpful, but you state that America’s Promise is the best of a bad bunch. I want your opinion on a textbook or other book or books that are the best of a good bunch, that relate the facts and offer conclusions that are intended to inform rather than persuade. I am conservative, but I don’t need to have history slanted in my direction. I just want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! Is this too much to ask for? If it is, maybe you can suggest a book or books that offer the next best thing, whatever that might be!

    Thank you in advance for your help.

  • Alright Greg, I’ll answer your question as succinctly as I can. A conservative is someone who believes that each of us is responsible, as an individual, for his actions and the consequences thereof. A liberal is someone who believes that we are all collectively responsible.

    Other people might define the terms a little differently, but most people probably understand fairly well what the word “liberal” means, I would think.

    Fair enough?

  • Al,

    Please also remember that it is YOU, not I, that created this website. It is YOU, not I, that has taken to attacked “liberals.” I simply want to you answer my question so as inform your readers. Unless you think it is beneath your readers for you to define the terms that you use.

    -Greg

  • Al,

    It would be nice if you answered my question. Just simply answer my question. That would be nice. And, in all honesty, if I had to locate my political beliefs on a some sort of left-right grid, I’d probably fall more on the conservative side. But, of course, it’s always more complicated than that. Or, perhaps you don’t think it is?

    -Greg

  • I always enjoy reading the comments left wingers leave on these pages. Gregorgy Jones-Katz left a good one yesterday, when he tried to refute the idea that most college professors are liberal by stating that no one in the world is a liberal!

    I wonder if Mr. Jones-Katz would claim that he’s never met a conservative…

  • You wrote: “The purpose of this website, as regular readers know, is to point out the liberal bias that permeates college history faculties and the textbooks they write.” That’s a heck of a generalization. I was wondering: Perhaps you traipse around college and university campuses in disguise and “get the dirt” on those “liberals”? (What is a “liberal” precisely? I’ve never actually met one! It’s basically a fiction).

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