Selecting a textbook is one of the most important choices that any instructor can make. When designing a course on American history, the process is even more critical. Some standard history texts are blatantly biased, while far more subtly tilt historical information in favor of a certain point of view.
Many current works suffer from a modern historiography that reads the American story almost exclusively through a prism of race, class, and gender. These topics are important, but the overspecialization and simplistic approach of much contemporary scholarship have combined to turn history into a tale of woe and sorrow.
Americans have started to notice. Debates and controversy over the objectivity of history textbooks have eroded the trust of students, parents, and many others who have a stake in American education.
The Need for a New Approach
As a veteran American history teacher, who has taught for sixteen years at three different high schools and one university, I have encountered a variety of recommended textbooks and curricula. Examples run from Howard Zinn’s radical, bottom-up explanation of American history to patriotic versions that whitewash all negative events, all the way to those enormous, co-edited, professional texts that many of us carried and stored in lockers during our youth. The cliché that “somewhere in the middle you will find the truth” has lost some of its meaning over the course of my career. That “middle” has grown, and I now fear young history teachers and students will get lost in it.
Most Americans will learn only one account of their country’s history during their formative years. It is anyone’s guess which account that may be, but its impact on the general public will be greater than we might want to admit.
In his latest work, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, University of Oklahoma history professor Wilfred McClay offers a new survey of American history. When I was asked to review it, I put myself on guard. I was skeptical that I would find a new and “fair” American history text. Instead, I expected to find yet another work with a political angle, whether sharp or hidden.
Experience has taught me that bias more often enters history textbooks through what their authors omit from the standard account, rather than through any new topics they might add. So, I immediately turned to the chapters that would be most vulnerable to revision.
What I encountered was a rich account of American history that had me rethinking historical events from new perspectives. My skepticism soon gave way to curiosity. As I began to race through the pages, I felt that I was learning much of the material for the first time.
A Thought-Provoking, Balanced Point of View
Land of Hope showcases a nuanced approach that presents the American story as a series of difficult choices. It promotes critical thinking as well as anything I have read. McClay invites the reader to assess carefully what leaders and average Americans thought at the most important junctures of change and continuity in American history. Material is deftly woven into a chronological narrative that helps one understand events in context and keeps the reader yearning to learn more.
In a chapter entitled “Becoming a World Power,” for instance, Land of Hope provides an insightful look into America’s drift away from traditional isolationism and toward imperialism in the late nineteenth century. The narrative context highlights the complexities of the topic. McClay effectively places American motives and actions in a global setting while showing their continuity with the ideas and values of the Founding.
Multiple works that I have encountered present this shift as either a haphazard, racially insensitive venture or a calculated power grab aimed at economic exploitation. McClay does not hide the controversy that surrounded the change and diligently examines the arguments that ensued. But more importantly, the chapter casts new light on the situations in Cuba and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War―a critical point on which most texts remain silent. McClay uses primary sources to show how a commitment to principles guided much of the nation’s thinking, and the reader comes away without an overwhelming sense of national shame.
This achievement, an overarching goal of Land of Hope, should move us to have greater concern for how our students view their nation’s history. The patriotic paternalism that marked textbooks of the early twentieth century has nearly been erased—and rightly so. But in the last twenty-five years, a Marxist indictment seems to have filled the void. Poisonous cynicism has supplanted naïve bluster, both of which result from academic dishonesty and employ historical sleights of hand. Land of Hope largely succeeds in bringing balance to the historical scales.
Telling the Whole Story, Religion Included
Another strength is the book’s careful attention to the role of religion in shaping the American mindset. Many chapters explore in depth how faith guided Americans’ decisions at pivotal moments.
A great example is McClay’s analysis of President Abraham Lincoln’s actions at the end of the Civil War. McClay states,
[W]e know from Lincoln’s personal papers that he had been increasingly preoccupied with the problem of God’s providential will, of discerning how He had steered these events and to what end, and it seems clear that Lincoln had searched the Bible and various theological writings for answers.
McClay even compares specific passages of scripture with Lincoln’s writings to show the sources of Lincoln’s inspiration. He cites the influence of the Psalms on Lincoln’s rhetoric, and concludes that “the Christian virtues [Lincoln] was espousing in his speech were not only morally right but also practically right and politically wise.”
Faith also appears in other portions of the book to explain Christianity’s influence on abolitionists, reformers, and civil rights activists. While most texts make this same connection in passing, they either lack any valuable analysis or downplay faith’s role in creating and sustaining important American movements. Religion has stood as an important pillar of strength for countless Americans who have confronted many different and daunting struggles. Any worthy portrait of American history must acknowledge this fact, and Land of Hope does so well.
McClay surpasses most texts’ authors in his treatment of other areas of the American story as well, including urbanization, the New Deal, the Great Society, and the 1970s. Land of Hope does not attempt to smear one side of the political spectrum and uplift the other. Instead, McClay presents multiple perspectives on these subjects and challenges the reader to think about the intentions behind people’s actions and the results that followed.
Perhaps Land of Hope’s greatest strength is that it illuminates how the American story has moved forward by dint of courage and an inspired determination to improve the lot of many. Villainy, victimhood, and exploitation do not saturate the pages of this text. Rather, its evenhanded approach reveals America’s ability to meet challenges and promote justice while still addressing the nation’s shortcomings. This is a welcome change, indeed, and one that will benefit many history teachers.
Hope for Students of American History
Narrow-minded history textbooks share some responsibility for many of the ills that grab headlines today. Americans’ dismal civic knowledge, ahistorical attitudes, cynical rancor, and general apathy pose real dangers to the future of the republic. One does not have to create a fairytale or propagandize the American story to correct these negative trends. An honest account of America’s ideals and triumphs will do. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story is one of the best such accounts that I have found.
McClay enters a crowded field of publishing companies and authors who hope their textbooks end up in the hands of students across the nation. Land of Hope should outshine the competition thanks to its balanced approach to American history, its superb narrative style, and its reintroduction of topics and themes that have long since fallen from the pages of most classroom editions. Students, parents, and educators who choose this text will find in it a faithful restoration of the American story.