Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writing American History Textbooks and Teaching Religion: An Interview with Paul S. Boyer

Randall Stephens

What to cover? What not to cover? What makes an event, individual, or movement worthy of our attention?

History professors and high school history teachers spend quite a bit of time thinking about those questions. If you have to get through the sweep of American history (pre-Columbian to 1865) in just one semester, then you're going to need to make some cuts. Goodbye obscure Puritan theologian. Hello slave insurrectionist. Hardly enough time in class to talk about how each colony took shape. King Philip's War is interesting, but how much time on center stage does it deserve? For those who teach Western Civilization or the West in the World, good luck figuring out content and coverage. The same questions about scope and range occupy the time of history textbook writers.

Last weekend I caught up with the historian and general bonhomie Paul S. Boyer at a conference on Adventism in Portland, Maine. Boyer, Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of a number of American history books, like Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968); Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), co-author with Stephen Nissenbau; Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); By
the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age
(NY: Pantheon, 1985); When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); and Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America's Half-Century Encounter With Nuclear Weapons (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998). He's also written articles for the Journal of American History, American Quarterly, American Literary History, The History Teacher, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the William & Mary Quarterly. But he may be best known as the author of a couple of very successful textbooks: The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (6th edition, 2007); and The American Nation (Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 4th edn., 2002).

In the 2-part Youtube video embedded here, I ask Boyer about the writing of history textbooks and how he thinks about the role of religion in history. He comments at length on how religion has shaped American history and considers some of the major questions textbook writers ask as they go about their task.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I'll be showing this clip to my history majors who are getting certified in secondary education. This is a great discussion of the issues that go into textbook formation--how to choose what to include and what to leave out.

I was struck by a comment made at the conference this past weekend--an offhand remark that writers like Boyer can single-handedly make sure that certain events and people are known by large numbers of Americans simply by writing them into his textbook. Boyer's reminder that space requirements mean that each edition requires something/one to be left out is instructive. The role of the historian will always be required in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out--it is what makes our work different than that of data-collectors....

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