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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1999

So Much for History!

Sheldon M. Stern

Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery is a series of four television programs produced by WGBH (Boston) and distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service. When the series was broadcast for the first time, in October 1998, it was carried by many public-television stations.

In conjunction with the release of the television series, WGBH issued two publications. One was a 494-page companion book that closely followed the scripts of the four programs. The other was a 32-page Teacher's Guide for middle-school and high-school educators. The Teacher's Guide displayed an endorsement from the National Council for the Social Studies, but it wasn't endorsed by any professional historians. It purported to offer eight "lessons" based on the television series -- two "lessons" for each program.

Soon after the television series made its debut, I wrote a review in which I analyzed how the television series and the companion book and the Teacher's Guide presented the Atlantic slave trade and the early evolution of slavery in British America. My review appeared in the September-October 1998 issue of The Textbook Letter.

I found that in the television series and in the companion book, the treatment of the slave trade and of slavery in the British colonies was candid, informative and historically sound, reflecting work by responsible historians. But in the Teacher's Guide "lessons," the treatment of those same topics was full of distortions, half-truths and politically correct illusions -- all contrived to produce a fictitious picture in which flawless, innocent blacks were victimized by evil white villains.

For example, the television series and the companion book dealt honestly with indigenous African slavery and told how the Atlantic slave trade worked -- African royal families, African slave raiders and African slave merchants furnished human cargo to European exporters. The Teacher's Guide, however, pretended that the Atlantic trade was a wholly European enterprise. It never disclosed that Africans were enslaved by other Africans. It never explained that millions of these African slaves were marched to death, by their African owners, on their way to coastal slave-trading posts owned by Africans. And it never told that the slaves who survived the march to the coast were often slaughtered on the spot, by their African owners, if Europeans didn't purchase them. The Guide -- which had been cooked up by "multiple-perspective activists" and had been printed before the television programs were finished -- was the worst example of educational disinformation and historical deception that I had seen in several years.

Here is a footnote to that 1998 review:

Recently (in April 1999) my mail brought a flyer from Goodman Research Group, Inc., a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The logo of WGBH appeared on the cover of the flyer, along with: "Your opinion counts. Please open immediately!" Inside, I found a letter from Colleen Manning, Goodman Research's "evaluation project manager." Manning described her company as "an educational research firm," and she announced that WGBH had hired the company to conduct "an independent evaluation of the Africans in America Teacher's Guide that you requested." Then she presented a sixteen-part questionnaire, aimed at a classroom teacher.

I was disturbed, but not surprised, to see that not even one of Manning's sixteen questions dealt with the historical content of the Guide. In typical questions, Manning asked whether the teacher had watched any or all of the Africans in America programs on television, whether the teacher had used any or all of the programs in the classroom, whether the teacher had used any or all sections of the Guide, and whether the Guide had been useful in "identifying strategies for using multiple perspectives in your teaching of early American history."

Though the Guide had presumably been designed to promote the teaching of history, matters of historical content were obviously not important to WGBH or to Goodman Research. The questionnaire didn't provide any opportunity for the respondent to say anything about the accuracy of the material in the Guide, and there was no opportunity for the respondent to comment on the chasm of contradiction which separated the genuine, honest history presented in the television series from the false, duplicitous "history" seen in the Guide. Perhaps WGBH and Goodman Research weren't even aware of that substantive chasm. Or perhaps they thought that no teacher was sophisticated enough to notice it. Or perhaps they thought that no teacher would be courageous enough to decry it (and thus infuriate the agents of political correctness). In any case, Goodman Research's survey was clearly concerned with marketing, not with education.

The fact that the people who devised the survey were oblivious to historical content was underscored by question 15: "What subjects do you teach?" The teacher was to respond by marking "English" or "Social Studies" or "other." History, apparently, did not qualify as an intellectual discipline or even as a school subject.

So much for history!


Sheldon M. Stern, a specialist in 20th-century American history, is the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston. Since 1993 he has directed the Library's American History Project for High School Students, helping teachers develop lessons in which students work with primary sources and learn to evaluate historical evidence.

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