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Teaching to the textbook: critical thinking in the history classroom

| September 6, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Bill Bigelow

In 2006, with US troops occupying Iraq, the great historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn1 expressed his desire for the end of the war: “My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race.”

At least in a formal sense, our country’s memories of war are to be found in school history textbooks. Exactly a decade after the US invasion, those texts are indeed sending ‘messages’ to young people about the meaning of the US war in Iraq. But they are not the messages of peace that Zinn proposed. Not even close.

Textbook ignores protest Let me offer as Exhibit A the textbook adopted for global studies classes in Portland, Oregon, the district where I spent my career as a social studies teacher, and which is used in countless school districts across the country: Holt McDougal’s Modern World History.2

The section in Modern World History on the US war with Iraq might as well have been written by Pentagon propagandists. In an imitation of Fox News, the very first sentence of the Iraq war section places the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein side by side. The book presents the march to invasion as reasonable and inevitable, while acknowledging: “Some countries, such as France and Germany, called for letting the inspectors continue searching for weapons.”

That’s the only hint of any anti-war sentiment. In fact, there was enormous popular opposition to the war, culminating on 15 February 2003, a date that saw millions of people around the world demand that the US not invade Iraq – if you’re keeping track, the largest protest in human history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.3 This, of course, is a pattern in corporate textbooks: conflate governments with the people; ignore social movements.

Freedom’s just another word

Just as textbooks fail to begin the story of the Vietnam War in the 1940s4 (or before), so that students might have some context to evaluate later US military intervention, today’s textbooks similarly ignore an earlier US relationship with Iraq. For example, Modern World History says nothing about the role of the US in aiding the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein for years, as they crushed all opposition and later waged war against Iran – a history summarised in a recent article by Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who fled Saddam Hussein’s repression in 1969. As Ramadani writes, “But when it was no longer in their interests to back him, the US and UK drowned Iraq in blood.”5

The official title of the US invasion of Iraq was ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. Modern World History uses this term without any discussion of the ‘freedom’ that this invasion might offer. The section ends with the terse conclusion that “the coalition had won the war”. And what about that supposed freedom? Silence.

No investigation of Iraq post-Saddam Hussein

After a quick and bloodless description of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the textbook’s final section is headlined ‘The Struggle Continues’. It begins: “Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq.” The only thing missing from this rah-rah section is the confetti: “With the help of US officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”

This bland line in Modern World History about US officials helping to rebuild Iraq seems less aimed at teaching students history than it is at underscoring a key textbook myth: the US is a force for freedom and justice in the world.

Holt McDougal tells students that “numerous US troops remained behind to help maintain order in Iraq and battle pockets of fighters loyal to Hussein”. The book adds that “violence also increased due to growing opposition to the coalition’s presence”. Note the antiseptic “violence also increased”, the faceless “growing opposition”, and no mention of who is being violent or what this violence meant to actual human beings in Iraq – or, for that matter, to the US and ‘coalition’ troops who their governments put in the role of being occupation forces.

Indeed, Modern World History never uses the word ‘occupation’’.. No, “much work remained”, so the US was “rebuilding a nation”, and troops “remained behind to help maintain order”. The book could offer voices of dissent on this alleged rebuilding effort. For example, this 2005 quote from a Guardian newspaper article written by Howard Zinn would be a perfect addition to a text that is supposed to help students think about their country’s role in world history: Now we are the occupiers. True, we liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, but not from us. Just as in 1898 we liberated Cuba from Spain, but not from us. The US framed and imposed, with support from local accomplices, the constitution that would govern Cuba, just as it has drawn up, with help from local political groups, a constitution for Iraq. Not a liberation. An occupation.6

Silent Iraqis

Significantly, there is no Iraqi quoted in Modern World History – that omission itself is a powerful statement. The section is a primer in the legitimation of imperialism: the violent and squabbling Third World ‘others’ have no capacity to rule their own country; so ‘we’ will decide what’s good for ‘them’. Modern World History gives the last word to President George W. Bush: “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide. No act of the terrorists will change our purpose, or weaken our resolve, or alter their fate. Their cause is lost. Free nations will press on to victory.”

No critical thinking here

In a mockery of the term ‘critical’, the chapter closes with four ‘Critical Thinking & Writing’ exercises. Here is the sole ‘critical writing’ activity: “Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.” By what definition can this assignment be considered a ‘critical’ anything? Of all the possible ‘Imagine-you-ares’, why just this one from the individual who launched the war?

Of course, the huge corporations that produce texts like Modern World History have no interest in nurturing the kind of critical thought that might generate questions about the interventionist policies of our government – or especially about today’s vast inequalities of wealth and power, which these interventionist policies are intended to further. Holt McDougal is a division owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing behemoth, with annual sales of more than a billion dollars. Yes, billion, with a ‘b’.

Dissident perspectives needed This is why we need to search out – and to create – materials that help teachers not only “teach outside the textbook”, in the words of the Zinn Education Project, but teach against the textbook. (At the risk of sounding self-promotional, I recommend Teaching About the Wars, a collection of alternative resources just published by Rethinking Schools.)7We need to invite dissident perspectives into the classroom: those that challenged the baseless connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attackers, those that question the military recruitment tactics that target our students, those that expose the reality of war with honesty and compassion, and those that pose fundamental questions about the roots of empire. Let’s not allow the Holt McDougals of the world to decide what our students will learn about war and peace.


1. Howard Zinn (24 August 1922–27 January 2010) was an American historian, author, left-wing activist, playwright, intellectual and professor of political science at Boston University from 1964 to 1988. (Source:

2. Beck, Roger B., Black, L., Naylor, Phillip C., Shabaka, Dahia Ibo and Krieger, Larry, S. (2008) World History: Patterns of Interaction Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

3. See, for example,

4. See, for example, vietnam-war/.

5. See, for example,

6. See, for example,

7. See, for example,

Category: Spring 2013

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