Leaving Reality Out

How Textbooks (Don't) Teach about Tyranny

In the summer of 2003, I turned 65. I was born in 1938. I have seen a lot of history in my lifetime. I remember World War II. I remember rationing books, blackouts, my family's "victory garden," German prisoners-of-war behind a barbed-wire fence in Galveston, Tx., President Roosevelt's death, and V-J day. In the 1950s and 1960s, I met survivors of the Holocaust who had blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. I remember racial segregation: The Houston schools were segregated, and so were drinking fountains, public buses, movie theaters, and every other public facility.

When I went to college in the fall of 1956, I met Hungarian students whose families had fled to the United States after the failed revolution there. I vividly remember Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech at the March on Washington in 1963 because I participated in the march. I have firsthand recollections of President Kennedy's assassination, demonstrations against the Vietnam war, President Nixon's resignation, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember Franklin D. Roosevelt as a distant figure but have clear memories of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

The same is true for others my age. The longer you live, the more history you witness. Experience, it is said, is a great teacher, and it is true. Experience gives you a personal fund of knowledge of events and people. And, it gives you a sense of context to which one can relate new events.

By virtue of their age, students have little direct knowledge of history. A typical 15-year-old student in 2003 was born in 1988. He or she is likely to remember only two presidents: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Youngsters of this age cannot recall a world in which the Soviet Union existed. For most, September 11 was the only historic event they have personally known in their young lives. Because of their age and inexperience, whatever they know about the history of the past century—and the centuries that preceded it—will largely depend on what they learn in school. As our nation faces a period of continuing peril from threats of terrorism, as concern grows about how to find the right balance between security and civil liberties, students need a historical context to understand today's issues. Certainly they need to learn about the system of government that has made possible the freedoms they enjoy. They need to know where those freedoms originated and how they were established. But to fully appreciate and understand freedom, students need to know what it means to live in a society that does not have the rights and freedoms that we take for granted.

Our students know that our democracy has many flaws; they learn about them in school. They can also read about them on any given day in the newspaper or see them described on television. We regularly hear critics enumerate the errors of our foreign policy, our energy policy, our tax policy, our environmental policy, even the character of top officials in national, state, and local governments. We know that there are injustices in our society, and we expect the press to expose them and teachers to discuss them in their classes.

Living in a free society, it would be easy to imagine that people in other societies enjoy the same rights and freedoms as we do. Some do, most do not. According to the most recent annual Freedom House survey, 35 percent of the world's population live in nations that are "not free" and another 21 percent live in "partly free" nations. As children grow to maturity, as they study history and civics, it is important for them to understand the differences between living in a democratic society and living where freedom is limited or nonexistent. It is important not because we want to congratulate ourselves, but because we want the younger generation to be prepared both to defend and improve democratic institutions.

In order to understand our rights and freedoms, young Americans need to learn about their absence. They need to know what it means to live in a world where one lives in fear of the rulers. What does it mean to live in a society where one expects the telephone line to be tapped, where one expects personal mail to be opened, where one cannot publish one's views or criticize the leaders without punishment, where critics of the regime disappear without a trace, where one dreads a knock on the door in the middle of the night? For almost all young Americans, such knowledge is remote from their personal experience.

Few American students have ever lived in a society where there were no elections or where elections were a sham; where criticism of the leader was a crime punishable by years in prison; where the press and all other media served the government; where there was no independent judiciary to limit the powers of the government; where individuals were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned; where individuals were not free to travel abroad or to join organizations (like labor unions) with others; and where individuals had few or no rights.

If students don't study the reality of tyranny in school, they're unlikely to learn of it anywhere else. And their potential for political judgment will be limited by their political naiveté.

There have been tyrants throughout human history, people who wanted to exercise complete control of their subjects, but only in the 20th century did dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao have the bureaucratic and technological tools to achieve their fearsome ends on a grand scale. These men killed tens of millions of people. How they took power, how they controlled huge numbers of people, and how they stamped out individual freedom should be an important part of history studies. Students should also know tyranny is not merely a historical phenomenon. They should be prepared to recognize its earmarks today in societies like North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Cuba, where dictators hold a monopoly on power and ban free expression, and in Iran, where an iron-willed theocracy squelches dissident voices.

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But schools are not well-prepared to teach about tyranny. I assign much of the responsibility for this failure to history textbooks, upon which most teachers of history depend for accurate information about far-flung societies. Even when teachers are well-educated in history (and many are not—thanks to teacher-education programs and teacher-assignment policies that are dismissive of content knowledge), it is unrealistic to expect teachers to know everything about the history of the entire world, and this elevates the power of the messages in the textbooks.

In my view, based on a careful reading of widely used textbooks in world history, these texts do a poor job of explaining what it means to live under tyranny. I think there are three main reasons for this.

First, some of today's world history texts exhibit a deeply ingrained cultural relativism. They are reluctant to make the judgment that a democratic system of government is superior to nondemocratic ones. They express a neutral tone of voice in which some people prefer democracy and respect human rights, and other people prefer local traditions that are different. This studied tone of neutrality implies that a preference for democratic institutions reflects Western values that should not be "imposed" on those who have other values.

Second, world history textbooks seem quite willing to condemn dictatorships that are extinct, like that of Hitler and Stalin, but in general are remarkably deferential to regimes that are still in power, like those of Iran, Cuba, and China. Mao—who was responsible for the deaths of more people than any other world leader, including Stalin and Hitler—is treated with great deference in almost every textbook.

Third, and most important, the textbooks give scant attention to the realities of living in a tyranny or to abuses of human rights because they must compress major events to bare details. It is not merely that judgment is not rendered, but that factual details about life in a dictatorship are so scant and so abbreviated that students get no sense of reality or context, thus limiting their ability to make their own judgments. A single book that attempts to tell the history of all the world's civilizations, from ancient times to the present, cannot afford to spend much time on any one of them. Students cannot possibly understand what it was like to live in fascist Europe or the Ba'athist Middle East or Idi Amin's Uganda when the textbooks barely mention the political character of most regimes or sum them up in a few sentences or short paragraphs. Even in the rare case when the excesses of a brutal regime merit three or four pages, the treatment is so superficial that it lacks the narrative power to kindle students' desire to learn more on their own.

Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union get more attention than other tyrannies. Each receives a number of pages detailing how these regimes came to power; facts about their brutal use of power; and even one or two vivid firsthand accounts of individuals who suffered under their rule. Even for study of these two countries, however, teachers would do well to supplement the textbook with outside readings that would give students a more sustained exposure to the workings of the regime and its effect on real people, to the daily routine of the Nazi concentration camps or the medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors, life in the gulag, or Stalin's purges and show trials.

But after Stalin and Hitler, the facts and vignettes that would convey the texture of life under tyranny are few. The 20th-century's string of Latin-American dictators (and sometimes its guerrilla movements) elicit harsh words and phrases, but usually only in the context of one or two sentences and rarely with the facts, faces, or numbers that make the harsh words meaningful. In Prentice Hall's Connections to Today, the Somoza regime of Nicaragua "looted" the population; in McDougal Littell's Modern World History, Somoza's regime is referred to as a dictatorship, without further elaboration. Connections has a strong paragraph about human rights abuses in El Salvador, explaining that "right-wing death squads slaughtered church workers, student and labor leaders, and anyone else thought to sympathize with leftists," and that the Archbishop of El Salvador was "gunned down as he celebrated mass in a chapel." (It fails, however, to even mention the murders committed by the country's Marxist guerrillas.) But Modern World History dismisses El Salvador with no more than a brief, nonjudgmental paragraph. Connections reports that Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti "used his brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, to crush opposition and terrorize the people," but neither Modern World History nor Holt, Rinehart & Winston's World History: Continuity and Change mentions Papa Doc or modern Haiti.

None of these texts is wholly unworthy or inadequate, but they can't possibly "cover" everything in sufficient detail to evoke a sense of reality or even mention everything that might be important for students to know. Typically, the textbooks provide superficial coverage of no more than a few sentences or paragraphs, or they give passing mention to events, names, and terms that are added so that the textbook complies with every state's checklist of topics and names.

Even when a textbook gives a relatively ample treatment to a single nation, as Holt, Rinehart & Winston's People & Nations gives to modern Argentina, it is still quite brief—a little over two pages, including three paragraphs about the criminal outrages perpetrated by the military junta. Sometimes the references are even shorter. For example, Glencoe's World History: The Human Experience (hereafter referred to as The Human Experience to avoid confusion with Glencoe's text titled World History) allots eight short paragraphs to modern Argentina. One of these paragraphs sums up the military dictatorship of this era: "Argentina's military leaders sparked an economic recovery, but ruled brutally. Death squads roamed the country, torturing and killing those who dissented. About 20,000 people simply disappeared. Mothers of missing children brought these human rights abuses to the world's attention through their weekly silent protest in Buenos Aires." It is an editorial feat to boil down this frightening period in the history of modern Argentina to four compact sentences.

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Another region that is usually neglected in the textbooks is Eastern Europe, whose nations were trapped in the Soviet orbit for half a century. They receive scant attention, a few pages at best, and they are usually lumped together as a single unit. Based on the typical treatment of this historically important region, it is nearly impossible for students to learn much about the unique experiences of Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Albania, or Romania.

Most textbooks provide accurate, if bare, factual details about Eastern Europe as part of the Soviet bloc, briefly mentioning the Berlin airlift, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But no textbook adequately conveys the political history of any of these countries, the events that caused them to lose their independence, or the oppressive conditions that prompted dissidents to risk their lives to escape or protest.

The books have so little space to devote to each topic that students cannot possibly imagine what life was like for an ordinary citizen in any country that was ruled by a tyrant, whether fascist, communist, or a garden-variety dictator.

In today's textbooks, cultural relativism, deference to existing regimes, and the imperative of textual compression are interchangeable elements. As a consequence, world history textbooks today send a confusing signal about tyranny. The textbooks point out the bad features of tyrannous regimes, but when writing about modern-day tyrants like Mao and Castro, they seem to feel compelled to show their accomplishments as well as their flaws. Textbook publishers must believe this approach to contemporary dictatorships shows that their books are "balanced." But of course these books do not write about Hitler in terms of his "success" in reducing unemployment, building new highways, launching the popular Volkswagon, and controlling inflation.

Surely a text must consider, when teaching about democracy and undemocratic alternatives, whether egregious brutality may ever be justified: Can one accept human rights abuses, liquidation of opponents, rigged elections, censorship, and repression if the ruling authorities are able to produce gains in education, health care, and economic growth? Those who believe that good ends never justify evil means would surely answer 'no.' Which of us would want to live in a utopia of fear? Classroom discussion about the issue of means and ends is important and must occur. That discussion never happens in today's textbooks. This explains why the books are unable to speak unequivocally against regimes that are cruel, racist, anti-Semitic, oppressive to women, and indifferent to human life.

This article presents a close review of how recent textbooks from major publishers* handle four cases of tyranny: Cuba, the longest-running dictatorship in this hemisphere; China, the largest unfree country in today's world and (cumulatively) the most murderous totalitarian regime of the last century; fundamentalist Islam, in which theocracies have created a new model of tyranny, especially for dissidents and women; and some of the most notorious dictatorial African regimes.


The textbooks acknowledge that Fidel Castro is a dictator, but most (an honorable exception being World History: Continuity and Change) feel compelled to point out the benefits of his repressive rule. Connections says, "While Castro imposed harsh authoritarian rule, he did improve conditions for the poor. During the 1960s, Cuba provided basic health care for all, promoted equality for women, and increased the nation's literacy rate." On the other hand, the book notes that the "communist dictatorship angered middle-class Cubans. Critics were jailed or silenced, and hundreds of thousands fled to the United States." An accompanying photograph shows six people on a little raft and asks why people were willing to risk the voyage from Cuba to Florida. Why indeed would so many flee from a society where health, welfare, education, and other basic needs were allegedly achieved? A student would have a difficult time answering the question if the only information available were the material in the text, which says little about the brutality of Castro's regime.

In its very brief treatment of Castro's Cuba, Glencoe's The Human Experience offers two heroic quotations about him. One quotes him on the nature of a true revolutionary: "one acts to move the masses, the other waits for the masses to have a conscience already before starting to act." The other quote describes January 1, 1959, the day he overthrew dictator Batista: "Along the road to Santiago, crowds of people waved and cheered as Castro's ragtag troops passed by in battered jeeps and trucks. 'Viva, Fidel! Viva la revolucion!' they cried. So delirious were the throngs, so swept away by the power of the moment, that a friend of Castro's later recalled, 'It was like a messiah arriving. We were walking on a cloud.'" The text does not mention that some of Castro's revolutionary colleagues were subsequently jailed or executed. We learn that Castro suspended elections, but "he did improve wages, health care, and basic education." A student who knew nothing about Castro other than what was in this textbook would have a one-sided portrait.

Glencoe's World History begins its chapter on modern-day Latin America with an heroic account of the revolution led by the Castro brothers. We learn that the two brothers received a 15-year jail sentence because of their failed military attack in 1953, but were released after only 11 months. We do not learn that prison conditions under Castro are more squalid than they were under dictator Batista or that Castro today metes out lengthier sentences to writers, doctors, lawyers, economists, teachers, peasants, and human rights activists than he received under Batista for leading a military attack. We read of the Castro regime's success in providing free medical services and education to all, but we also see a photo of an elderly black Cuban woman being carried ashore by a U.S. marine in 1975. In this account, no reason is suggested why anyone would flee Cuba.

The entire story of the Cuban revolution is told in two short paragraphs in Patterns of Interaction. Batista was unpopular, and he was corrupt, and he was overthrown by a popular revolution led by Fidel Castro. The text says: "At first, many people praised Castro for bringing reforms to Cuba and improving the economy, literacy, health care, and conditions for women. Yet Castro was a harsh dictator. He suspended elections, jailed or executed his opponents, and strangled the press with tight government controls." That's the whole story. According to the text, he achieved great things, he did some bad things. Based on this scanty text (which does not note that any economic improvements were a result of decades of Soviet subsidy, not Castro's economic "achievements"), students might conclude that dictators deliver impressive social gains, despite some errant abuses. The text does not give enough information, however, to evaluate the evidence or debate the question.

People & Nations gives a page to the Cuban Revolution, in which it balances the good works of Castro (a literacy rate that was "the highest in Latin America") against censorship and suppression of dissent. The text suggests that Castro was popular among the poor, but lost the support of intellectuals and of the middle- and upper-classes. The implication is that Castro's worst crime was to stifle differences of opinion, rather than the kinds of crimes against individuals (spying on personal behavior, torture, summary trials, and executions, etc.) that are associated with a police state. The most remarkable statement in this text is about the Mariel exodus of 1980: "When the Castro government realized how many dissidents, or people who disagreed with the government, were among its citizens, it allowed anyone to emigrate, as long as he or she informed the authorities." This wrongly suggests that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba needed only to ask for permission from the proper authorities and it would have been graciously granted.


The current world history texts do not call Mao a dictator, despite his leadership of a totalitarian regime in China that was directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese. They readily acknowledge that Hitler practiced religious and ethnic genocide, but do not explain that Mao practiced class genocide. Glencoe's World History, for example, contains simple one-paragraph thumbnail sketches of Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao. Mussolini, it says, was the "Italian dictator"; Stalin was the "Soviet dictator." But Mao is referred to as the "Chinese leader." The same book describes Chiang Kai-shek as a "Chinese general" who established a "dictatorship" in Taiwan but does not attach the same opprobrious label to Mao's rule.

In most of today's texts, Mao and his Communist troops receive what sometimes seems to be adulatory treatment. Most textbooks describe the Red Army's "Long March" in glowing terms. McDougal Littell's Patterns of Interaction describes the flight of Mao and his troops with breathless admiration. The fleeing Communists "crossed many rivers and climbed over mountain ranges. They fought several major battles and faced minor skirmishes almost every day. They also crossed miles of swampland. They had to sleep sitting up, leaning back-to-back in pairs, to keep from sinking into the mud and drowning."

Glencoe's The Human Experience quotes a romantic first-person account of the Long March: "If it was a black night and the enemy far away, we made torches from pine branches or frayed bamboo, and then it was truly beautiful. At the foot of a mountain, we could look up and see a long column of lights coiling like a fiery dragon up the mountainside. From the summit we could look in both directions and see miles of torches moving forward like a wave of fire. A rosy glow hung over the whole route of the march." Glencoe's World History also contains a quotation from a survivor of the Long March, praising the endurance of the Red Army; students are asked to "Describe the difficulties Mao Zedong's forces had to overcome to reach safety in North China." The text invites students to consider what would have happened if Mao—described by the text as China's "greatest leader"—had died on the Long March, if he "had not survived this ordeal." One would think that the nonsurvival of a tyrant would not be such a terrible thing to contemplate. One guesses, however, that this is not the answer the text envisions. As a matter of fact, the students have not been offered enough information to debate the "what if" question. Nor does the text suggest the possibility that with a humane, democratic leadership, perhaps China might have been spared decades of totalitarianism, mass murders, indoctrination, and government-created famine.

Connections calls the Long March "an epic retreat" that is a "symbol of heroism" to those who opposed the Kuomintang. It notes that the Red Army imposed "strict discipline" and required its soldiers to follow three rules: "Obey orders, 'do not take a single needle or a piece of thread from the people,' and turn in everything you capture." This background is used to explain that the Red Army was welcomed by the peasants, a view repeated in most textbooks. In contrast to other texts, Continuity and Change writes critically about China under Mao, eschewing romantic images about the Long March and collectivization.

What the textbooks neglect to explain, except for brief mentions, is how Mao crushed opposition in his "anti-rightist" campaign; purged scientists and intellectuals; murdered landlords and land-owning peasants; imposed a disastrous collectivization of agriculture (known as the "Great Leap Forward") that created a famine in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death; imposed a harebrained scheme of backyard furnaces that diverted agricultural workers from the fields, thus worsening the famine; and launched the Cultural Revolution, which caused millions of teachers and professionals to be hounded as "enemies of the people."

According to the respected Black Book of Communism, some six to 10 million people were killed by Mao's forces; another 20 million counter-revolutionaries died in prison; 20 to 43 million died between 1959 and 1961 because of the Great Leap Forward. This was one of the most disastrous regimes in human history; why should our children read about their military exploits with a sense of admiration for their courage and daring? Why do they not read about the hypocrisy of Communist leaders who preached asceticism, but lived in luxury or about the individuals and families whose lives were destroyed by men who held unchecked power?

Teachers will have to look beyond the textbooks if they want their students to understand the reign of this fascinating and powerful dictator.


World history textbooks become tongue-tied when the subject is the rise of militant, fundamentalist Islam. None of them explains why and how Islamic civilization declined from the heights of intellectual leadership in the middle ages to its current state of economic and cultural underdevelopment. Why now the turn to fundamentalism?

Connections maintains that various Muslim nations turned to the Qur'an and Sharia law because Westernization had failed to improve life for many people and so they became disillusioned. This is a perfect example of a textbook interpretation that explains very little. The text does not tell readers that Westernization would mean such practices as separation of church and state, public education, democratic institutions, and equal rights for women, which were not widely adopted by Muslim nations. The text says that many Muslim leaders concluded that "a renewed commitment to Islam was the only way out of their current problems." Now, it was true that many leaders said this, but the text does not offer any examples of theocratic states that had actually solved modern economic and political problems by returning to fundamentalist religious principles. The text is careful not to take sides between the "Western model" of secular democracy and the fundamentalists' call for a return to Sharia law and economics.

Were the Islamists right? Was Westernization really tried in all these nations that are now apparently disillusioned with it? Does the Qur'an hold the key to current economic and political problems? Can a modern economy function effectively on the basis of a seventh-century religious text? The textbook offers no judgment and few facts that would allow students to form their own judgments; it just says, in a characteristically encyclopedic tone, that "many devout Muslims...urged political restructuring to put power in the hands of religious leaders." It is left to the imagination of the reader to figure out whether a theocratic government might be more successful in solving the problems of Muslim societies today than the Western model of secularism and liberalism.

Some basic facts about life in theocratic Muslim nations would help students in thinking through the merits of the separation of church and state. Take Saudi Arabia for example, a nation ruled by a king who adheres to a strict interpretation of Sharia law called Wahhabi. According to Freedom House, Saudi Arabia is one of the nine most repressive regimes in the world today. Not only are church and state united, there is also no separation of powers among the executive and judicial branches of government—and there is no legislative branch at all. The king has the power to appoint (and remove) judges, no political parties are allowed, and no elections are held at any level of government. The government (controlled by the royal family) censors the press, fires editors, and prohibits foreign journalists from entering the country. The people may not form unions, hold demonstrations, or publicly express non-Islamic religious beliefs. Worse still, citizens are arbitrarily arrested and held for long periods of time without trials. Women, no matter what their age, never gain autonomy; responsibility for them is passed from one male relative to the next as they move through life's stages. They cannot drive, enter men's stores or restaurants, or study engineering, journalism, or law. Under Sharia law, they may be given in marriage as young as age nine.

Very few of these facts appear in today's world history textbooks. Patterns of Interaction says that Ibn Saud, who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932, "carried on Arab and Islamic traditions. Loyalty to the Saudi government was based on custom, religion, and family ties. Alcoholic drinks were illegal. Like Kemal and Reza Shah [the modernizers of Turkey and Iran], Ibn Saud brought some modern technology, such as telephones and radios, to his country. However, modernization in Saudi Arabia was limited to religiously acceptable areas." Consider how amazingly understated that last sentence is!

The textbooks are especially perplexed when they must explain the position of women in contemporary Islamic states. They prefer to put a positive spin on other societies, to accept whatever their practices may be without criticism.

People & Nations addresses the problem of women's rights by diving for the cover of cultural diversity, saying that, "The concept of human rights does not have a single, universal meaning. Different cultures have different perspectives." Here comes the familiar textbook dodge of putting words into the mouths of "many people say....." In this case, says the text, many people "criticize Western nations for trying to impose their ideals and values on other nations." The case in point is the issue of women's rights, which "has different meanings in different societies. In the Islamic world, for instance, women's rights are viewed within the concept of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam." So all nations (and the readers of the textbook) "must try to understand cultures and values that are different from their own." Since the textbook never describes the differences between the rights of men and women in an Islamic nation, it is impossible for a student to try to understand them or for the class to discuss whether women should have equal rights only in Western societies.

Connections tries to carry out a political balancing act that ends up confusing rather than enlightening. It begins by noting that women in most Middle Eastern nations have made great strides in the past half century. Many urban Muslim women in some nations, the text says, have given up wearing the hejab, that is, covering their head and body; but some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, oppose Western secular influences, which, translated from textbook-speak, means that women in those countries are compelled by law to wear the hejab. Then follows a lively paragraph to demonstrate that some educated women want to wear the hejab to show their sincere loyalty to Muslim values. To make things even more confusing, the book asserts both that Sharia law allows women to play "important economic roles" while at the same time, it is interpreted by some nations to forbid women from voting, working, or driving cars.

The reader gets a conflicting mélange of positive and negative assessments, but no clear picture of the role of women in an Islamic society today. Nowhere does the text suggest a critical view, for example, that Muslim women should be free to wear the hejab or not wear the hejab, without legal compulsion either way. The textbook, deferring to cultural diversity, is nonjudgmental.

Continuity and Change attempts to confront the issues with honesty, but quickly backtracks into a posture of cultural relativism. It points out that the Shah of Iran had abolished polygamy, child marriage, and death by stoning for adultery, but the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism “often forced [women] to accept a return to the traditions of the past.” The authors suggest that this was a step backward, especially for Westernized women who were professionals. But the next paragraph insists that many women “embraced” these religious traditions because they provided a “sense of security and stability” and had “stood the test of time.” Furthermore, the reversion to Islamic traditions (presumably like polygamy, being stoned to death for adultery, and being required to cover their head) “became a symbol of their pride in their Islamic heritage and their rejection of Western values.” The book does not say which “Western value” was rejected, but presumably it is the right of women to equal treatment in society.

Certainly there are women who voluntarily renounce any claim to equal treatment and who choose to hide their face and to forego education. But just as surely, there are women who do not wish to be subject to the whims of the religious police and their male relatives.

One would expect a thoughtful discussion of the social and economic consequences of denying equal rights to women. One would expect the books to inform their readers that half the women in the Middle East are illiterate, a point recently made by Arab intellectuals in a report for the United Nations Human Development Fund. But this discussion does not occur in the textbooks.


The textbooks become incoherent when the subject turns to modern-day African nations. The compression problem becomes especially severe because the texts do not have space to mention every African nation, and the history of even a few nations cannot be adequately told in the text's typical abbreviated format. There is seldom enough detail to allow the reader to tell one nation from another. Glencoe's World History allots seven pages to the story of modern Africa, but more than half of that limited space is devoted to graphics. The text dispenses with Zimbabwe and Rwanda in three sentences: "Conflicts also broke out among ethnic groups in Zimbabwe. In central Africa, fighting between the Hutu and Tutsi created unstable governments in both Burundi and Rwanda. In 1994, a Hutu rampage left some 500,000 Tutsi dead in Rwanda." The terrible Rwandan genocide is thus dispatched in two sentences. Can any student learn anything from such skimpy sentences? (For a glimpse of the genocide, and the tyranny that made it possible, see "Genocide in Rwanda.")

Connections is frank enough to acknowledge that the United Nations failed to intervene during the Rwandan massacre (it claims one million massacred, in contrast to the figure of half a million dead in most other textbooks and 200,000 dead cited in People & Nations), but about the only explanation for such slaughter is "ethnic conflict," which seems to be a tautology (ethnic conflict causes ethnic conflict). The same textbook says in a tight nine sentences that in Nigeria, military dictators cracked down on critics, imposed censorship, and sometimes executed dissidents. In only five sentences, this text tells readers that Mobutu Sese Seko created a "brutal dictatorship" in Congo, and that he bilked the treasury of billions, slaughtered rivals, and ran the economy into the ground." Two candid sentences is all the editors can muster in their discussion of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe. When they describe his one-man rule of the past 20 years, they say, "He called for a one-party system to promote national unity and tolerated little opposition. In 2000, tensions over land ownership led to renewed violence." Perhaps with more space, they might have explained that Mugabe in recent years has jailed his opponents, muzzled the press, expelled white farmers and given their land to his cronies, destroyed the nation's agricultural economy, and plunged Zimbabwe into a famine that threatens the lives of millions of Zimbabweans.

Unlike most of the other world history texts, Patterns of Interaction attempts to focus on the importance of achieving democratic institutions. It doesn't attempt to provide the usual thumbnail sketch of a variety of African nations; instead, it gives short (very short, two-page) histories of contemporary Nigeria and South Africa, with particular attention to the struggle for democracy. The text rightly shows how colonial powers distorted the economies of their colonies, disrupted family and community life, and failed to develop good education systems, all of which reduced the prospects for democratic stability. Although it does not mention the misrule of dictators such as Mugabe and Idi Amin, it does provide a reasonable context for understanding the political and economic problems of former colonies.

Continuity and Change devotes only five pages of text to "Independent Africa." That is far too little to provide a context for understanding the political problems of the continent. The text refers generically to leaders who "resorted to the same kind of autocratic methods used by earlier colonial rulers," but provides meager information about those autocrats, dictators, and tyrants. A one-paragraph summary of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe's history fails even to mention Mugabe. In its favor, this text, like others, devotes more than the usual attention to South Africa (in this case, a relatively generous four paragraphs), which is a great success story for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Continuity and Change has an editorial board of distinguished historians who surely know that it is not possible to summarize the complex history of modern Africa in five pages.

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The editors and authors of world history textbooks mean well. They earnestly want students to know about the world and about other civilizations. But sadly, the very format of the textbook defeats their purposes. The books demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of cramming a reasonably interesting history of the entire world into a single volume, even one that is usually about 1,000 pages. This difficulty becomes even more pronounced when such a large proportion of the textbooks is devoted to flashy graphics. Despite the visual glitter, the textbooks suffer from terminal dullness. Their accounts never touch the wellsprings of emotion that make a topic genuinely engaging to the reader. They skim across the surface of events, summarizing factual tidbits and trends without regard to whether there is a thread that makes a coherent story. There seldom is. Stuff happens. The young person trying to see how the events connect to one another, looking for an explanation that will help make sense of the world today, will all too often be disappointed.

Sadly, the textbooks waste an opportunity to expose young minds to the reality of life in tyrannical regimes and the valiant efforts to overthrow them; to help them understand how such regimes come to be and how they sustain themselves; and to instill in them a clear knowledge that such inhumane regimes don't belong only to the past, but are, in fact, a current reality.

But of course the problem with the textbooks begins with the courses they're designed for: world history or world cultures courses. These courses, in which students gallop through time and across the globe, usually in one or two years (and rarely, three), are now seen by administrators and curriculum-developers as a way to instill cultural pride and build the self-esteem of students from diverse backgrounds. Based on this approach, it is hard to exclude any region or nation since Americans come from every continent and nation in the world. Thus, the necessity to "cover" everything.

No nation can be left out, no civilization can be ignored, everything must be "covered." That is a recipe for superficiality, and superficiality guarantees loss of context, which is critical to student comprehension—and lack of gripping details, which is necessary for high interest.

In short, the world cultures approach that now dominates the paradigm for world history textbooks virtually assures that the books will be boring. Students don't learn when they are bored. They learn and remember when there are great stories, vivid biographies, amazing anecdotes. Students would be awed by the stories of life in apartheid South Africa, Mao's China, Stalin's Soviet Union, Somoza's Nicaragua, Idi Amin's Uganda, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Students would understand and identify with fighters for freedom who defied Ceausescu in Romania or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. They could connect with those who courageously built the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square or demonstrated for freedom in Budapest, Warsaw, and Prague. In those instances, and in many others, men and women put their lives at risk to demand freedom and democracy. These are exciting and inspiring stories. Our students should learn them.

Students learn when there is a coherent and well-written narrative rather than a parade of disconnected factoids and assertions. Bowing to the gods of coverage assures that students won't remember what they were taught.

And there is a further price to be paid for using history courses to teach ancestral pride. If that is the goal, it is extremely difficult to encourage critical thinking. Critical thinking and ancestral pride do not really go together well. Ancestral pride requires that we emphasize the good and neglect the bad, but good history teaching demands honesty and accuracy, not deference to the readers' sensitivities.

The world history program cannot be—as it is now—just a meaningless, forgettable tour through every civilization from ancient times to the present. What our students need to understand is that human beings have within them the capacity for unspeakable cruelty to one another. We have ample examples in history—and at the present time—of people slaughtering other people; almost any reason may be invoked as justification: race, religion, ethnicity, culture, appearance. Whites killing whites; blacks killing blacks; Mesoamericans killing other Mesoamericans; group against group; brother against brother. There is a beast within us, one might say, and it must be tamed by civilization. It can be tamed, as some dictators have done, by compulsion, by fear, by brute force. And it can be tamed, as democracies attempt to do, by building a stable institutional framework of law, coupled with educational and religious organizations that teach the rules of civilized behavior and the bedrock principles of a just society.

What students are not learning today from their world history courses are the lessons of history. They are getting a superficial canoe ride across the oceans of experience that many people and nations have accumulated. They are racing across centuries, not sure why they are studying this or that civilization other than to learn that people everywhere are creative and have wonderful traditions. Maybe that is all they will remember when they have forgotten which civilizations they studied.

We should aim higher. If our intention is to alert the younger generation to what has been learned about humankind's striving for a just and humane society, if we hope to inspire in them a lifelong interest in studying about other worlds, then what we are doing now is a failure. We must devise a far better way to introduce them to studies of the world.

Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. A leading education historian, she has written and edited many books including Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform and The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation. This article builds on the research she began while writing her most recent book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.

*This review discusses: World History: People & Nations; World History: Connections to Today; Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction; World History: The Human Experience; World History: Continuity & Change; and World History. The first five are among the most widely used high school world history books, according to the American Textbook Council's survey of 1999 and 2000 textbook adoptions by selected states and large districts. The sixth is a brand new text, just entering the market. See reference below for authors, publishers, editions, and page citations. (back to article)


World History: People & Nations (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2000)
Argentina: 863–866; Cuba: 857–861; Islam: 917; Rwanda: 824.

Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: Connections To Today (Prentice-Hall, 2001)
Nicaragua: 946–947; El Salvador, 948–949; Haiti: 949; China: 736–737, 862–867; Cuba: 940–941; Islam: 892–893; Africa: 811, 919, 921–924.

Roger B. Beck, et al., Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction (McDougal Littell, 1999)
Nicaragua: 493; El Salvador: 493; China: 402–404, 482–485; Cuba: 492–493; Saudi Arabia: 408; Nigeria: 537–538; South Africa: 538–540.

Mounir A. Farah and Andrea Berens Karls, World History: The Human Experience (Glencoe, 2001)
Argentina: 990–991; Cuba: 972, 979, 982–984; China: 805–806, 901–905.

William Travis Hanes III, et al., World History: Continuity & Change (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1999)
Cuba: 808–810, 814, 845; China: 673–675, 750–754; Iran: 790; Africa: 772–777, 791–796.

Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History (Glencoe/McGraw Hill, 2003)
Cuba: 900, 907–908; China: 795–797, 940-944; Mussolini: 760; Stalin: 761; Mao: 797; Chiang Kai-shek: 797; Africa: 921–927.

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American Educator, Fall 2003