Reforming the present by retelling the past: The progressive social and political ideas in nineteenth-century history textbooks
Scholars have characterized nineteenth-century America before the Civil War as a time of major social, economic, and political change. They have also argued that curricula, especially public school curricula, reflected this change by conveying a wide range of complex, and sometimes contradictory, set of values to students. While early school curricula sometimes reinforced traditional social ideals such as the acceptance of hierarchy and obedience, they at other times reinforced visions of a more democratic and egalitarian republic.
One might think that school history textbooks in the United States, a teaching tool many earlier studies of nineteenth-century education list as the backbone of that century's curricula, would reflect this complexity in democratic education. However, most studies of early American education portray textbooks as literature that featured primarily conservative ideas. Textbooks, many researchers contend, convey passive notions of citizenship to students that encouraged unquestioned acceptance of ideas presented. These textbooks, they argue, also sought to conceal social conflict, promote the acceptance of social control, and encourage students to accept traditional hierarchies rather than invite students to consider more egalitarian and democratic ways of organizing republics. There is a certain amount of truth in these conclusions. However, these conclusions also conflict with the more complex set of attitudes toward democratic and egalitarian ideals that researchers contend nineteenth-century schools advocated.
This dissertation revisits the nature of the social, political, and economic values embedded within antebellum-era history textbooks. My work examines how these values intersected with tensions between artisans and emergent capitalists, and informed debates regarding westward expansion, the place of women in a republic, and the appropriate levels of social control in American society. My study seeks to reconcile this apparent difference between the more complex ideas school curricula set out to teach students, and the seemingly conservative and straightforward values earlier studies claim that school textbooks presented. My work demonstrates that there existed a clearly reformist dimension to history textbooks, complicating what earlier studies have reported about democracy and history textbooks. My method differs from earlier studies not only in that I analyze secondary school textbooks, but also in that I focus on the social and political values conveyed through histories of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as history of the United States. My decision to analyze these specific textbooks is significant because, as I will show, both ancient republics had become metaphors for the kind of republic antebellum Americans were trying to build.
My dissertation concludes with a section that explores how early textbooks also exposed students to significant egalitarian and democratic social relationships that represented alternatives to the status quo. In this sense, rather than being what Ruth Elson labeled "The Guardians of Tradition," my study will show how textbooks often functioned as agents for reform by subtly encouraging the growth of a more democratic republic.
Social studies education
0520: Education history
0533: Secondary education
0534: Social studies education