What Happened in Our History Books?

[imgbelt img=countyagentandfarmer.jpg]A study of textbooks over the past 50 years finds that high school
students increasingly are being taught that rural America is a deprived
and lonely place.


[imgcontainer left] [img:textruralfarmer320.jpg] [source]The Making of Modern America

In this illustration from a 1956 high school history book, a government agent enlightens a farmer about an ear of corn, asserting that rural America makes progress through state and expert intervention.

The future of rural economies, communities, and residents depends in part on what Americans at large think about them. What do they think rural people and rural places are like? And where do they get their ideas about rural people and places?

We examined the contents of six widely used high school history books to learn what these books teach their readers across the U.S. about rural life. Our study reveals that over the past 50 years the characterization of rural America has changed.

Earlier books emphasized qualities of individualism and community spirit, stability and adventurousness in rural America, but texts in the past two decades primarily characterize rural as deficient. While both these messages about rural life were present to some degree in the books across all five decades, there has been a decided shift in emphasis. In the more recent texts, rural Americans’ industriousness and contributions to the nation’s democracy are downplayed, supplanted by references to rural ignorance, recklessness and despair.

Americans of all ages, even children and adolescents, typically are critical readers of popular media’s representations of rural life. But they may have less reason to view textbooks with equal skepticism. Even in our digital age, textbooks still provide official knowledge; as shown in a number of recent scholarly studies, students regard the ideas presented in school texts as legitimate. Perceived as authoritative, the contents of schoolbooks may have the power to shape both individual action and public policy.

[imgcontainer left] [img:ruraltext1950s150.jpg] [source]The Making of Modern America (1956)

With the help of university librarians, we identified six high school history texts that were in wide use nationally between 1956 and 2009, one from each decade: The Making of Modern America from 1956; 1968 and 1975 editions of This is America’s Story; America: The Glorious Republic from 1985; History of the United States from 1993; and the 2009 edition of The Americans.

We examined the contents of the books to examine representations of rurality. We were especially intent on learning whether such representations had changed, how such changes (if present) were manifested in descriptions and accounts of rural people, occupations, values and politics, and how the textbooks might serve either to reinforce or challenge underlying relations of power.

After identifying passages in all the texts that made reference to rural people or places, we then summarized our best conjectures of what the authors were trying to convey in each of them. Twelve themes, in our view, captured the underlying messages of these diverse rural references.

• Rural is an Idyll
• Science ,Technology, and Business Improve, but Ultimately Change Agriculture
• Rural People are Political
• The United States Depends on Human Triumph Over Nature
• Rural People and Rural Life are Deficient
• Agriculture is Built on a Legacy of Slavery and Indenture
• Farmers Have Mixed Responses to Central Government
• America Dominates the World
• Geographical Features Influence Settlement Patterns, Land Use, and Ultimately Culture
• The Development of Infrastructure Provided Crucial Links Between Places
• Agriculture Feeds an Industrial Nation
• Rural and Urban Places Diverge

We then evaluated the emphasis on these themes in each of the books by counting the number of references that corresponded to each theme.