When history texts are poorly written, students are merely bored. But when history texts are distorted and biased, students may act on false ideas and live out a lie.
This happened to G. Mennen Williams, whom some regard as Michigans most influential governor of the 20th century. In high school, Williams read and believed history books that distorted the Industrial Revolution and presented intervention by government as needed to overcome oppression by entrepreneurs. These books, Williams later wrote, "determined me to go out and fight for the underdog." Indeed, as governor of Michigan, Williams strengthened the power of state government to redistribute wealth. However, the histories that Williams trusted were later discredited; the foundation of his philosophy was shattered.
Are the textbooks used today to teach Michigan history more reliable? Most students in Michigan are required to take Michigan history at least once, usually in the fourth grade. This study rates the four available texts in Michigan history for reliability, clarity, and lack of bias.
Of the junior-high texts, David McConnells Forging the Peninsulas received a three-star rating (out of four) because it is reliable, clear, and usually unbiased. McConnell gives excellent coverage to Michigans early fur and lumber industries; he clearly describes the French and British periods of Michigan history. Finally, he capably narrates stories of the entrepreneurs and businesses that made Michigan a major industrial state.
McConnell could improve his text by explaining more clearly why Michigan prospered. After the Constitution of 1850 became law, Michigan had a splendid mix of entrepreneurs, individual liberty, and a state government that protected contracts but stayed out of economic development. Even before assembly lines at Ford cranked out cars for the world, Michigan led the nation in the making of lumber, salt, cornflakes, and carriages.
Also, McConnells coverage of unions is one-sided. Certainly unions benefited those members who used their collective force to raise their wages. But higher wages also meant, for example, that less capital was available for the auto companies to expand or improve their product. As wages were raised, the increased costs of the finished product were passed on to consumers. The higher costs for cars tended to stifle the hiring of new employees and made foreign cars more attractive. Unions are not always, as McConnell says in his chapter title, "a new friend at the factory."
The chief competitor to McConnell is Lynne Deur and Sara Michels The Making of Michigan, which receives a two-star rating. On the plus side, it is informative and well organized. Students can learn much about Michigans political and economic history from this text. On the negative side, Deur and Michel, like McConnell, only give the positive case for unions. Also alarming is that Deur and Michel regularly praise the growth of government in 20th-century Michigan. From workers compensation to railroad regulation to the New Deal, Deur and Michel describe government as the effective solver of problems. They ignore the high taxes and the problems created by failed government programs.
Of the two fourth-grade texts available, one is Discover Michigan by David McConnell, the author of Forging the Peninsulas. Discover Michigan received a two-star rating. The short length and simple style of the book are pluses. So are the clear chronological organization and the many biographical sketches of famous Michiganians. McConnell, however, needs a balanced treatment of unions in his text. He cites no negative effects of unions, only positive ones. Also, McConnell needs to show students that historically government programsfrom state-financed railroads 150 years ago to public schools todaycome with a cost, and that the citizens of Michigan, even as early as the fourth grade, need to ask if the costs outweigh the benefits.
The other fourth-grade text is JoEllen Vinyards Michigan: The World Around Us. The Vinyard text has many problems and rates only one star. It is gorgeously illustrated with excellent graphics, but its content is weak. Vinyards work is a product of the multicultural movement; she highlights the "struggles" of Indians, blacks, and women and cuts out much political and economic history. Multiculturalism in and of itself is not bad. Indians, blacks, and women played important roles in Michigan history and that needs to be described in history texts. The problem is that Vinyard uses evidence selectively to make her minorities almost always virtuous and courageous in a world often marred by the misdeeds of white males. Students are urged to see minorities as victims; few heroes and historical role models appear in this text.
Teaching multicultural history to fourth graders has its dangers. Students see the past as a tale of conquest and oppression, not opportunity and hope. Michigans past is indeed marred by inequities and tragedies. However, more often it has been the story of different groups working together to transform a wilderness into an industrial society that has brought opportunities and an improved standard of living for most people who came here and for their descendants as well. Telling this story in an honest and inspiring way is our challenge.
Students rarely rise above our expectations for them. When history texts 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.