"History is bunk," Henry Ford once said, but Michigans schoolchildren have to study it anyway. And well they should because in this case Ford was wrong.
If we dont know what happened in the past, how can we make good judgments, recognize high standards, or comprehend the world around us? In short, we cant know where we are going if we dont know where we have been. Many public schools in Michigan teach a special unit on Michigan history to all fourth graders, and in some school districts, the junior high and high schoolers, too.
Are the schools doing a good job teaching Michigan history? We cant answer that question until we analyze the texts that students are being asked to read. "A teacher affects eternity," Henry Adams observed. "No one knows where his influence ends." What is true for a single teacher is even more true for textbooks because they influence and shape student learning in dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of classrooms each year. To impressionable students, texts are their authorities, their experts. The authors have poured out, in distilled form, the wisdom of the ages that students need to swallow in regular doses to improve their minds.
When textbooks present distorted views, the whole learning process is threatened. Instead of a healthy debate over the major issues of life, 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.
A major problem in Michigan education today is that the textbooks used to teach Michigan history are sometimes marred by distortions and omissions. This twisting of evidence may have the effect of undermining student faith in Americas economic institutions and creating in the student an unwarranted trust in a strong central government. We want accurate texts, of course, and its not right to omit or gloss over failures in our history. But we also want to give our students hope, help them build their character, and show them courage.
The students who read these texts will be Michigans leaders in a generation. If we want them to have the initiative, the self-reliance, and the entrepreneurial spirit to lead this state in the 21st century, we need to show students some of the problems created in Michigans past when government intervened in the states economy, and more of the dramatic accomplishments of free enterprise in the states history.
This study will analyze the four major texts used to teach Michigan history. The first two texts are written for junior high or high school students; the remaining two are for fourth graders. Thousands of students each year learn their history from these four books. They are readily available at Central Michigan University, which collects all textbooks used in Michigans public schools.2
Writing a text is, of course, a difficult task. Organizing and synthesizing massive amounts of information from hundreds of books is very challenging. Making this history readable for fourth and eighth graders also requires great skill and thought. So whatever the quality of these books, the authors are to be commended for attempting something noble and needed.