Most public schools in Michigan require fourth graders and sometimes older students to take a course in Michigan history. Students need to understand the past, the argument goes, so they can be prepared citizens in the future. The texts used to teach Michigan history, however, do not always describe the past in a reliable and responsible way.
On the positive side, students can learn some useful information about Michigan history from each of the four textbooks used in the schools. The McConnell books, which are the best, show clearly the stages of economic development in Michigan from furs to lumber to autos. Deur and Michels book does too. All four texts have useful material on Henry Ford and the rise of the auto industry. On the subject of political development, all four texts show clearly the transition from French to British to U. S. dominance in Michigan. In the McConnell texts and in the Deur and Michel text almost half the material is on Michigan up to statehood in 1837. Michigans roots are important and there is some merit in this decision.
On the negative side, the major problem is that of distortion. With few exceptions, students only learn one side of the issue on the growth of government and the rise of unions. The authors do not dwell on these issues, but students come away thinking that government was indispensable to solving economic problems and that unions were an unmixed blessing for Michigan.
In making these arguments, the textbook authors neglect abundant historical evidence from Michigans past. Two of Michigans earliest industriesfurs and railroadshad dramatic experiments with government intervention and both were disasters. Private investors greatly outperformed a government-operated fur company and the state-built rail system. Michigan citizens, in fact, were so disgusted with the $5 million failure with the state-built railroad and canal system that they rewrote the state constitution in 1850 to limit involvement by the state of Michigan in future economic development. Michigan students need to hear this story, but it is covered only briefly in the four texts.
The rise of Michigans economy to national and international prominence occurred after the state was constitutionally barred from interfering with economic development. Michigan lumber, copper, brine, furniture, and autos became popular throughout the world during the 70 years after the constitution of 1850 became law. The failure of government-directed enterprises in early Michigan history and the rise of Michigan to international prominence in a relatively free-market era ought to make the textbook authors question more seriously their praises for the growth of government in the 20th century.
The authors tell us that the New Deal was needed to get the country out of the Great Depression. But the high taxes, the failed programs, and the continued high unemployment are almost completely ignored. Unions are always presented as a friend of the Michigan worker. But what about those workers who were excluded from unions, especially minor-ities? And what about the higher costs of union-made products to all consumers, rich and poor alike? There are two sides to these stories and students, who after all are in school to learn, ought to hear both sides.
As stated earlier, when textbooks present distorted views the whole learning process is threatened. Instead of a healthy debate over historical issues, we close off certain avenues of discussion and leave the students poorly prepared to cope with different opinions in the outside world. Public schools are in the business to teach and train students, not indoctrinate them into a particular ideology.
Maybe we need to have a new author emerge and write a better text for students on Michigan history. Or perhaps the existing authors will improve their products. Three of the four textbook authors have read this study and we have exchanged pleasant letters. David McConnell even said he is already using this "analysis of my textbooks to change and improve future editions."
McConnells books are the best of the Michigan history texts because they provide the most reliable historical information. Except for his sections on the growth of government and unions, McConnell is usually well balanced. His narrative is readable and some of his photographs are excellent.
Vinyards text is the worst. It is well designed and is written by a qualified historian; but it has within its covers the worst excesses of the modern multicultural movement. It presents the story of Michigan Indians and blacks in a one-sided manner. This is sad because when all the facts are in we find much heroism and courage among Indians and blacks in Michigans past. We can tell this story in a dramatic and inspiring way without making these groups victims or glossing over their shortcomings. When we misrepresent the history of Indians, blacks, women, and white maleseven if it is from the best of motiveswe not only hide the truth from students, we increase the tension in class among the different groups and decrease the chances that students will see Michigan as a place where they can dream dreams and see their visions come to pass.