American textbook publishers are writing increasingly bland history texts in order not to offend pressure groups, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frances Fitzgerald '62 told a small audience last night.
Fitzgerald said publishers face a dilemma in choosing between writing history to please the majority and "asking the majority to swallow what the minority thinks is good for their children," and often write "marketplace history" as a result.
A free-lance journalist who received the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for her account of the Vietnam War, "Fire in the Lake," Fitzgerald's latest book, "America Revised," explains how textbooks present American history.
Texas's system of choosing one textbook for all state public schools gives that state's textbook selection committee disproportionate influence on the views presented in the nation's history textbooks, Fitzgerald said, adding that publishers often skew history accounts to a "Texas viewpoint." Texas has been the site of divisive battles over textbook selection in recent years.
Publishing houses "have no philosophy at all," Fitzgerald said, calling the firms "receptors" that try to determine what the public wants and present it without angering any interest groups.
"There's hardly any sentence in history books with an active voice anymore," Fitzgerald said, citing textbooks' attempts to describe the Vietnam War without implicating the U.S. government or distorting factual events.
"Instead of saying, 'The United States escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War,' texts will say, 'The Vietnam War started, and grew, and grew, and soon became full-fledged,'" Fitzgerald said. "I call it the 'Crabgrass Theory' of the Vietnam War," she added.
"Inquiry textbooks" that draw on primary sources to present varied views of historical events and teachers who encourage students to seek outside sources can help to alleviate history books' blandness, Fitzgerald said.
"Everything is 'a problem' today," Fitzgerald said. "There's the 'pollution problem,' the 'problem of unemployment,' and 'the problem of Watergate.' In some textbooks, Watergate even turns out to be a problem for Nixon," she added.