Background Reading. By Ray Raphael. 7 pages.
Based on his book Founding Myths, Raphael critiques the textbook portrayal of the American Revolution. The textbooks say that “a few special people forged American freedom” which “misrepresents, and even contradicts, the spirit of the American Revolution.”
In conjunction with my book, Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, I reviewed 22 elementary, middle school, and high school texts. Fourteen were displayed at a National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) convention that I attended, while eight are approved for use in California, which has among the strictest criteria in the nation. I compared the 13 mythologies of the American Revolution discussed in my book with those perpetuated in these texts, and the results are startling. Although some texts fare better than others, all contain some serious lapses.
… In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval. Again, textbook writers have watered down the legend while missing the main point. Many now state that Jefferson was part of a five-man congressional committee, but they include no word of those 90 documents produced in less-famous chambers.
Some say these myths are harmless—what damage can stories do? Plenty. They change our view of historical and political processes. Myths that celebrate individual achievement mask fundamental truths of great importance. The United States was founded not by isolated acts of heroism but by the concerted revolutionary activities of people who had learned the power of collaborative effort. “Government has now devolved upon the people,” wrote one disgruntled Tory in 1774, “and they seem to be for using it.” That’s the story the myths conceal.
For more critical reviews of textbooks, visit Rethinking Schools.
Ray Raphael’s website with articles, interviews, a quiz, a detailed critique of commonly used textbooks, and more.