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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 2000

Reviewing a high-school book in American history

The American Nation
2000. 940 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-434907-5. Prentice Hall.
(Prentice Hall is a part of Pearson Education, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River,
New Jersey 07458. Pearson Education is a division of Pearson PLC, a British
corporation headquartered in London.)

Myths, Guesses and Confusion,
Wrapped in Beautiful Packaging

Michael B. Chesson

The splendid cover of The American Nation displays a bald eagle's head, a background comprising a part of Old Glory and a bit of the Constitution of the United States, and a gold-bordered box in which Prentice Hall boasts that The American Nation was produced "In Association with AmericanHeritage."

Inside the book, on page ii, we learn that "AmericanHeritage" (with no space between the words) means American Heritage (with a space between the words) -- the title of a popular magazine that deals with American history. Prentice Hall tells us that American Heritage is "Dedicated to presenting the past in incisive, entertaining narratives underpinned by scrupulous scholarship."

That may be a tolerable characterization of American Heritage (though the articles in American Heritage almost never have notes that would enable readers to verify statements or sources), but you won't find "scrupulous scholarship" in The American Nation. If the writers of this schoolbook had shown respect for scholarship, and if Prentice Hall had cared as much for American history as for beautiful packaging, The American Nation would be a very different product.

Baffling Geography

Unit 1 of The American Nation, called "Early Heritage of the Americas," opens with a chapter whose curious title is "Focus on Geography (Prehistory-Present)." The chapter doesn't provide any information about how geography was done in prehistoric times, and its treatment of modern geography leaves much to be desired. Consider, for example, this material on page 4:

As you study American history, you will sometimes need to know the absolute, or exact, location of a place. For example, where, exactly, is Washington, D.C., the nation's capital?

To describe the exact location of Washington, D.C., geographers use a grid of numbered lines on a map or globe that measure latitude and longitude. . . .

The exact location of Washington, D.C., is 39 degrees (º) north latitude and 77 degrees (º) west longitude. In writing, this location is often shortened to 39ºN/77ºW. . . .

The longitude given by Prentice Hall's writers is acceptable, since the District of Columbia straddles the 77º line. However, the latitude given by the writers is wrong: The District of Columbia, with its northernmost point at about 38º53', lies wholly south of the 39º line. The reason why the writers have stated an incorrect latitude is that they have refused to deal with minutes of latitude or longitude, even though locations specified in degrees and minutes will appear in later sections of the book -- for example, in the section about the Missouri Compromise (see pages 424 and 431) and in the section about the dispute between the United States and Great Britain over the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory (see the map on page 347 and the text on page 359). These items will surely be baffling to students. High-school juniors or seniors, the supposed readers of The American Nation, can readily grasp the practice of stating latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds, and there are good pedagogic reasons for teaching students about it. It is an important aspect of geography, and students need to know about it so that they can understand geographic references as they learn history.

Confused, Erroneous "History"

Since my academic specialty is the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, I have focused my attention on how that history is treated in the three pertinent chapters of The American Nation -- chapter 16 ("A Dividing Nation"), chapter 17 ("The Civil War") and chapter 18 ("The Reconstruction Era"). All in all, the material is confused, is unacceptably superficial, and is marred by factual errors and unsuccessful guesswork. It appears to have been assembled by writers who plucked items out of old, unreliable, secondary sources, and who seldom understood what they were writing about. Here are some of the things that I have noticed during my reading of chapters 16 and 17:

I have found two items that deserve praise. On page 459 the writers provide an excellent passage about President Lincoln's caution in dealing with slavery, and they quote a statement in which Lincoln declared that his paramount objective was to preserve the union -- regardless of whether this might entail the elimination of slavery or the continuation of slavery. (Unfortunately, the Prentice Hall writers don't cite the source of the statement. It appeared in an open letter that Lincoln sent to the newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.) On page 468 there is a good four-paragraph account of Grant's Vicksburg campaign. The writers even mention that the Confederates' last stronghold on the Mississippi -- Port Hudson, Louisiana -- fell to Union forces on 9 July 1863, with this result: "The entire Mississippi was now under Union control. The Confederacy was split into two parts. Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana were cut off from the rest of the Confederacy."

More of the Same

The account of Reconstruction in The American Nation is much shorter than the account of the Civil War, but it is similarly flawed. It is incoherent and jerky, it lacks accuracy and specificity, and the writers too often promote myths and popular misconceptions as "history." For example:

The Writers Have Failed

In their chapters about the Civil War and Reconstruction, the writers of The American Nation have tried to do too many things, and they have failed to do any of them well. Wholly erroneous statements and blatant distortions of historical reality weaken their text, but The American Nation suffers even more from guesswork, omissions, half-baked presentations of events and individuals, and the substitution of vague generalities for real information. The prose is poor, too -- marred by tautologies and redundancies and such politically correct euphemisms as "enslaved people" (instead of slaves) and "enslaved African Americans" (instead of black slaves). See the passage that I have quoted above from page 464.

If schools are using textbooks like The American Nation, in American-history classes, it is easy to understand why so many students arrive in college with what is, at best, a hazy knowledge of their country's past.

A History Book It Isn't

William J. Bennetta

The American Nation, published by the Prentice Hall division of Pearson Education, is an American-history textbook for teachers who know nothing about American history and who will parrot anything, no matter how ridiculous, that they see on a printed page. Any resemblance between real history and the stuff in The American Nation is accidental.

I have written about The American Nation before, analyzing a case in which Prentice Hall's writers have engaged in plain, undeniable lying [see note 1, below]. Now I shall take a broader look at their product, and I shall begin by telling that these writers have refused to acknowledge the origins, or even the existence, of America's great national holiday.

America's great national holiday is Christmas -- our annual tribute to the power and glory of merchandising. Christmas Day comes on 25 December, soon after the winter solstice, but our celebration of Christmas spans several months. It begins slowly, in September or early October, when manufacturers start to run advertisements for newly invented gewgaws and gadgets that are "perfect for holiday giving." It gains momentum around the end of October, when shills pretending to be journalists start to report that retailers have loaded their shelves with wonderful stuff and are joyfully expecting a "holiday season" (or "holiday shopping season") that will yield record-breaking revenues and profits. In November the manufacturers double and redouble their advertising, the shills produce reports about eager shoppers and about what the shoppers are buying, and the retailers begin to stage pre-Christmas sales.

December brings the erection of Christmas trees -- in particular, the National Christmas Tree, which is installed near the White House. Christmas trees hark back to festivals in which ancient peoples celebrated the resurgence of the Sun after the solstice [note 2], but this information is absent from our national Christmas lore, and very few Americans know how they acquired the custom of displaying ornamented trees during the shortest days of the year.

As December progresses, even the humblest towns adorn their main streets with Christmas decorations, retailers turn their pre-Christmas sales into Christmas sales, the spectacle of shopping and selling becomes increasingly frantic, and the shills generate "news" stories about businesses that depend on the holiday season to produce their profits for the entire year.

In mid-December, as Christmas Day approaches, the big television networks lard their broadcast schedules with some religious shows to please Americans who enjoy recalling that Christmas was once a religious festival. Indeed it was. It originated about sixteen centuries ago, when Christians appropriated some pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, infused those celebrations with Christian symbols, myths and metaphors, and produced a new festival to mark the birth of the Christian messiah, Jesus of Nazareth [note 3]. It is not a mere coincidence or curiosity that Christmas Day comes a few days after the solstice. It is a reflection of how Christmas came into being.

Christmas in America retains other vestiges of religion too, including the installation of crèches in public places [note 4]. Crèches sponsored by city or county governments, or installed on sites owned by city or county governments, have spawned many legal actions based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment [note 5], and some of these cases have reached the Supreme Court of the United States. For example: In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible for a city government to join with a merchants' association in sponsoring a Christmas display that included Santa Claus, some reindeer, some candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, a wishing well, a banner that said "Seasons Greetings," and a crèche. In that setting, the Court said, the crèche was functioning as a traditional decorative structure that didn't endorse or advance Christianity. In Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989), the Court held that it was unconstitutional for a lone crèche, unaccompanied by any secular decorations, to be exhibited in a county courthouse. But in the same case, the Court found acceptable a display which had been erected at a government building and which comprised a Christmas tree, a menorah, and a sign that said "Salute to Liberty." The Court held that the menorah, when combined with the tree and the sign, wasn't an endorsement of Judaism but was a part of the message that Christmas and Chanukah occur during "the same winter-holiday season" -- a holiday season which had become a secular institution.

Though the celebration of Christmas is a conspicuous part of our national life and is bound up with a lot of cultural history and with some important constitutional law as well, the writers of The American Nation have ignored Christmas completely. Their book says nothing about it.

To be sure, these writers have ignored many other matters that are important, even indispensable, to an understanding of American history and American life -- the Norman Conquest, Vespucci's discoveries, the Atlantic cod fishery, fundamentalism, agricultural productivity, the Battle of the Atlantic, the petrochemical industries, antibiotic technology, contraceptive technology, overpopulation, the Pentagon Papers case, the Louisiana "creation-science" case, and the development of the Internet, to cite only a few. But the writers' failure to say anything about Christmas seems especially remarkable because they have given a third of a page to Kwanzaa, the fake "African" holiday that was invented by a black racist in 1966. On page 74 of The American Nation, we find a pair of pictures and this caption:

In many African societies, elaborate masks were used in political, religious, and social ceremonies. At left is a mask of a West African king, carved by African artists several hundred years ago. At right, a similar mask is present during an American family's celebration of Kwanzaa.

Admittedly, that isn't much. While it is infinitely greater than the Prentice Hall writers' coverage of Christmas, it still is close to nil. The writers fail to tell what the word "Kwanzaa" means, fail to tell what a "celebration of Kwanzaa" may entail, fail to explain that Kwanzaa is an outré hoax, and fail to tell about the colorful felon who dreamed it up. (See the article "The Kwanzaa Hoax," accompanying this review.) In The American Nation, Kwanzaa -- whatever it is -- has come from nowhere and is celebrated by American families for unknown reasons, in unknown ways, at unknown times.

Fundamental Features

I have called attention to the writers' ignoring of Christmas and to their vapid promotion of Kwanzaa because those things illustrate some fundamental features of The American Nation:

Various other characteristics of The American Nation will be elucidated later in this review, but one more of the book's fundamental features deserves to be noted immediately and right here: The American Nation is funny. Prentice Hall's writers have not laced their prose with humor or striven for comical effects, but their book is funny anyway, and sometimes hilarious. Here is why: Although The American Nation is loaded with false statements, distortions and absurdities, it boasts an "Accuracy Panel"! Yes! Page iii of The American Nation presents a lengthy list of "Program Reviewers" who allegedly have taken part in the creation of this blacksploitation farce, and the list includes:

ACCURACY PANEL
Esther Ratner
Greyherne Information Services
With Marvin Beckerman, Ph.D., University of Missouri--St. Louis; Muriel Beckerman, University of Missouri--St. Louis; Lynn D. Hoover, The Hoover Associates; Jane B. Malcolm, Professional Research Services; Bennet J. Parstek, Ed.D., St. John's University, NY; Alice Radosh, Ph.D., Academy of Educational Development; Lorraine Rosenberg, Baldwin School District, NY (Ret.); Cathy S. Zazueta, California State University, Los Angeles

What a gimmick! As you read further, you will see some of the reasons why Prentice Hall's attempt to associate The American Nation with accuracy is laughable.

3 Continents = 3 Cultures

While its blacksploitation items occasionally provide novelty, The American Nation as a whole is unremarkable. Like all the other "American history" books that the major schoolbook companies market to high schools nowadays, The American Nation has been built around multi-culti pseudohistory and is loaded with multi-culti deceits. These include phony "facts," prodigious distortions, fake "statistics" and misleading misnomers, all mobilized to promote multi-culti ideology and multi-culti stereotypes.

Prentice Hall's writers start by promoting, on page 1, the multi-culti "blending" fantasy -- the fiction that our nation arose from a fusion of Amerindian, European and West African cultures. But the writers don't know what the word cultures signifies, and they imagine that all Amerindians shared a single culture, that all Europeans shared a second culture, and that all Africans shared a third. In short, 3 continents = 3 cultures:

Over thousands of years [the Amerindians] formed diverse societies throughout North America. In the 1500s and 1600s, Europeans and Africans began to arrive in the Americas. The blending and clashing of these three cultures helped shape the nature of modern American life.

We needn't be surprised by the writers' queer notion that the Mohegans and the Catawbas and all the other Amerindians were culturally identical, or by their notion that the Estremadurans and the Bavarians and all the other Europeans pursued the same way of life, or by their notion that the Ibos and the Yorubas and all the other Africans were culturally indistinguishable -- after all, we expect deep ignorance in the hacks who cobble schoolbooks for Prentice Hall. But how about Esther Ratner and her Accuracy Panel? How could an entire Accuracy Panel have failed to notice that the writers' claim is nonsensical?

After putting forth their one-culture-per-continent rule, the hacks serve up chapter 1, a hasty mess that is called "Focus on Geography: Prehistory-Present" but is devoid of any material about prehistoric geography or even about the geography developed by the ancients. Then, in chapter 2, they return to the business of peddling their pseudohistory.

Chapter 2 bears the title "The First Americans" -- and in The American Nation, as in most multi-culti schoolbooks, the phrase the first Americans means prehistoric wanderers from Asia. Prentice Hall's writers don't even pretend to tell how prehistoric Asians could have been Americans or could have had anything to do with the history of America, but never mind. In multi-culti pseudohistory, unexplained appearances by irrelevant groups of people, and by irrelevant individuals too, are common [note 7]

The Asians wander across two pages and then are succeeded by some Amerindians, who occupy more than twenty. The pages given to the Amerindians are laden with certified multi-culti baloney. On pages 34 and 35, for example, we read about the Anasazi, a group of Amerindians who went extinct during the 1200s and who, manifestly, had no connection at all with America. The writers tell of the multistoried buildings that the Anasazi erected, they note that the Anasazi went extinct, and then they say: "Today, descendants of these early people preserve traditions of the ancient Anasazi culture." That's baloney. Because the Anasazi had no written language, there are no primary records to tell us about Anasazi myths, customs, beliefs or social practices -- and as a result, no one can know whether, or to what extent, any "traditions of the ancient Anasazi culture" may persist anywhere today. These points evidently eluded Esther Ratner and all the other luminaries of the Accuracy Panel.

The writers now dump the one-culture-per-continent rule and inform us that Amerindians comprised "many different people," had "many distinct cultures," and were divided into "many different tribes." Then they say:

The tribe felt a strong bond with the land, plants, and animals in the region where they lived. As they hunted animals or raised crops or gathered wild plants, members of the tribe tried to keep a balance with the forces of the natural world. Their religious ceremonies and daily customs were designed to help them maintain that balance.

Don't ask what "balance" means, or how the Indians divined customs that would "maintain" the balance, or what "forces of the natural world" means. That woo-woo about "balance" is completely meaningless. It is merely a restatement of one of the multi-culti crowd's favorite noble-savage fantasies -- the never-explained claim that Indians lived "in harmony with nature."

On page 38 Prentice Hall's writers purport to describe "People of the Northwest Coast." They casually claim that these people had "plenty of food" (whatever that may mean) and hence "could stay in one place," living in permanent villages and prospering from "trade with nearby groups." The writers don't mention that this trade included an extensive commerce in slaves [note 8]. And when the writers pretend to tell about potlatching, they produce a paragraph of sanitized stuff that ends with this:

At one potlatch, which took years for the family to prepare, gifts included 8 canoes, 54 elk skins, 2,000 silver bracelets, 7,000 brass bracelets, and 33,000 blankets.

Brass bracelets? Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Indians of the Northwest had neither zinc nor brass till those metals were introduced into North America by Europeans.

When the writers turn to the "People of the Great Plains," on page 41, they outdo themselves:

Large herds of animals grazed on the Plains, including buffalo, antelope, elk, deer and bighorn sheep. Plains people hunted the animals on foot. In winter, men hunted near the village. In summer, however, they often traveled for miles in search of buffalo and other animals. They carried their belongings with them on a travois (truh VOY), or sled, pulled by dogs.

The notion that "Large herds of animals" obligingly stayed "near the village" during the winter, so that Indians could kill them without having to travel, is ludicrous -- and so is the pseudozoological fancy that "buffalo, antelope, elk, deer and bighorn sheep" all occurred in "Large herds." Bison ("buffalo") form permanent herds comprising thousands of individuals, but the other species named by the writers do not. A herd of bighorn sheep, for instance, rarely has more than a few dozen individuals. Further, the different species exhibit different habits. Elk, for example, migrate to elevated regions where bison never tread -- and bighorns spend most of their time in montane or submontane habitats, even during winter, so they seldom are seen on the open plains.

As for the writers' guess that a travois is a sled: A travois isn't a sled and doesn't even resemble a sled. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) tells us that a travois is "a primitive vehicle used by the Plains Indians of No. America consisting of two trailing poles serving as shafts for dog or horse and bearing a platform or net for the load." If Esther Ratner had tried to learn what a travois is, she could have found the answer easily.

Page 43 is given to cutaway diagrams of some Indian dwellings -- a stone-and-adobe pueblo, a tepee, and a long house. The diagrams aren't memorable for any artistic merit, but they are notable because they are the only diagrams of dwellings in the entire book. Nowhere in The American Nation is there a diagram to show any architectural or structural features of, say, the White House or Monticello or a barrack in colonial New England or a townhouse in 18th-century Williamsburg or a sod cabin on the Kansas prairie or a mass-produced balloon-frame house in the Chicago of the 1840s or a Greek-revival house in antebellum Georgia or a brick rowhouse in the Boston of the 1870s or a 20th-century bungalow in California or a Levitt house on Long Island or a housing project in St. Louis. Prentice Hall thus teaches a lesson in multi-culti racism: Indians' ways of building houses were important, but the designs and the construction techniques developed by white people aren't worth noticing.

On page 55 Prentice Hall's writers try to con students and try to bolster the multi-culti "blending" fantasy by declaring:

Native American influences also show up in language. Europeans adopted words for clothing (poncho, moccasin, parka), trees (pecan, hickory), and inventions (toboggan, hammock).

That is multi-culti cant, and we have encountered similar stuff in other schoolbooks [note 9]. The writers make hypey claims about Amerindian "influences" on our language, but they refuse to provide any numbers. Here is the number that conveys the essential truth about those "influences": Among all the verbs and common nouns that are used in everyday American English, only 200 or so are Amerindian terms or derivatives of Amerindian terms. As sources of American English words, the Amerindian tongues are about as important as, say, Persian or Maylay.

Near the end of chapter 2, Prentice Hall's writers recycle their noble-savage fantasy about Indians and nature, and this time they say outright that Indians "sought to live in harmony with the natural world." Since that claim has no meaning at all, I must wonder how Esther Ratner and the other savants of the Panel were able to certify its accuracy.

Vulgar Prose, Coarse Content

The prose in The American Nation is carefully grammatical, punitively dull and persistently vulgar, and the writers' devotion to vulgarity often leads them into absurdity. Here is a sentence, from page 177, about the American Revolution:

It is estimated [by whom?] that about 5,000 African Americans fought against the British.

After reading that silliness, I expected to read that the African Americans used molten lead to make ballistic missiles. Applying the 20th-century term ballistic missiles to 18th-century musket balls would be no less absurd than applying the 20th-century euphemism African Americans to 18th-century blacks [note 10].

Anachronistic "African Americans" show up repeatedly in The American Nation, in a multitude of contexts. One of their most memorable appearances occurs when (with a little help) they win World War 2 for the Allies. I'll say more about this later.

The vulgarity of the prose in The American Nation is matched by the coarseness of the book's content. In picking their subject matter, Prentice Hall's writers have aimed very low, have effectively shunned intellectual affairs, have ignored America's great intellectual institutions, and have conspicuously refused to describe America's ascent to eminence in science, technology and medicine. In my reading of The American Nation, I haven't seen anything about any American university or research institution, let alone any profiles of Americans who have won Nobel prizes for their scientific achievements. Nor have I observed any systematic exposition of how American life has continually been altered, and often has been revolutionized, by scientific discoveries and technological innovations.

Worse Than Worthless

The treatment of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in The American Nation is much like the corresponding material in all the other multi-culti books. The slave-trafficking operations conducted by indigenous Africans are whitewashed; the fact that many slaves died in the custody of African owners and African slave-drivers is concealed; and the practices of European and American slavers are misrepresented. On page 77, for example, Prentice Hall's writers promote the popular, false belief that slaves invariably were tight-packed during the Middle Passage:

Below the decks of the slave ships, slaves were crammed tightly together on shelves. One observer noted that they were "rammed like [fish] in a barrel." They were "chained to each other hand and foot, and stowed so close, that they were not allowed above a foot and a half for each in breadth."

That snippet is colorful, but it isn't history.

Later on the same page, the writers proffer a pseudostatistic:

Records of slave ships show that about 10 percent of Africans loaded aboard ship for passage to the Americas died during the voyage. Many died of illnesses that spread rapidly in the filthy, crowded conditions inside a ship's hold.

Such bogus "history" is worse than worthless. It misleads students, it blurs the fact that mortality rates showed huge variations, and it conceals the known correlates of mortality. Students are led to infer that death rates were essentially stable (at "about 10 percent") for some four centuries, and that crowding was a prominent cause of losses -- but both of those inferences are false. Let me describe some of the real history that pertains here:

Real history always is much more interesting than the tripe served up by schoolbook-company hacks.

Propaganda and Fluff

Prentice Hall's writers use pseudostatistics in other cases too. Here are two of them:

Notice too that the question posed in the caption is mere fluff and can be answered without any application of knowledge. The student doesn't have to know or find out any reasons why any women have joined the armed forces. He doesn't even have to explain how he might make an attempt to uncover such reasons. He merely has to invent a guess about a subject that he hasn't investigated. This sort of goofiness -- this practice of leading the student to imagine that an ignorant guess is an achievement -- is common in dumbed-down schoolbooks, and it recurs at various places in The American Nation. (See also the article "Glorifying Ignorance," accompanying this review.)

Missed Connections

The information-free box about women in the military is one of a dozen boxes marked "Linking Past and Present" that appear in The American Nation. They are gimmicks at best: flashy, empty decorations in a book which continually fails to show how important features of American life have evolved, and which continually fails to make connections or comparisons between conditions that existed in the past and conditions that prevail in America today. To illustrate this failing, I'll describe the Prentice Hall writers' material about freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

Freedom of Religion       The useless index in The American Nation has no entry for freedom of religion or for religious freedom or for separation of church and state or for state religion, but I have found that the book's text contains several passages that ostensibly deal with church-and-state matters. The first such passage appears on page 88:

Pilgrims Seek
Religious Freedom
In 1620 [thirteen years after colonists landed at Jamestown] another band of English settlers, the Pilgrims, sailed for the Americas. Unlike the Virginians or the Spanish, these colonists sought neither gold nor silver. All they wanted was to practice their religion freely.
In England, the Pilgrims belonged to a religious group known as Separatists. They were called that because they wanted to separate from the official church, the Church of England. The English government bitterly opposed this and took action against the Separatists. Separatists were fined, jailed, and sometimes even executed.
The Pilgrims' journey
In the early 1600s, a group of Separatists left England for Leyden, a city in the Netherlands. The Dutch allowed the newcomers to worship freely. Still, the Pilgrims missed their English way of life. They also worried that their children were growing up more Dutch than English.
A group of Pilgrims returned to England. Along with some other English people, they won a charter to set up a colony in Virginia. In September 1620, more than 100 men, women, and children set sail aboard a small ship called the
Mayflower.

Read it again. The headline depicts the Pilgrims as seekers of "religious freedom," and the first paragraph declares that "All they wanted was to practice their religion freely." But then we read that after the Pilgrims found a place where they could "worship freely," in the Netherlands, they packed up and went to the New World on the Mayflower. So much for the notion that "All they wanted was to practice their religion freely."

Prentice Hall's writers later tell us that the Mayflower sailed to Massachusetts rather than to Virginia, and that 41 Pilgrims then signed a compact in which they said that they had undertaken their venture in colonization "for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith." They meant, of course, that they intended to set up a colony in which their particular species of "the Christian Faith" -- their particular species of Anglicanism -- would be the established religion.

On page 100, in a section about New Netherland, the Prentice Hall writers say: "Most settlers lived in the trading center of New Amsterdam. They came from all over Europe. Many were attracted by the chance to practice their religion freely." Then the writers purport to quote a nameless observer who allegedly wrote, "People do not seem concerned what religion their neighbor is. Indeed, they do not seem to care if he has any religion at all." That material is distorted and misleading. Even if most of the inhabitants of New Amsterdam were indifferent to religion, the government of New Amsterdam was not: The privilege of staging religious ceremonies in public was restricted to members of New Amsterdam's established sect, the Dutch Reformed Church, and people who adhered to other denominations had to keep their observances under wraps.

On page 102 we see that William Penn wanted his proprietary colony, Pennsylvania, to be "a model of religious freedom," but English officials later "forced Penn to turn away Catholic and Jewish settlers."

On page 107 the Prentice Hall writers say this about religious toleration in the colony of Maryland:

To ensure Maryland's continued growth, Lord Baltimore welcomed Protestants as well as Catholics to the colony.
Later, Lord Baltimore came to fear that Protestants might try to deprive Catholics of their right to worship freely. In 1649, he asked the assembly to pass an Act of Toleration. The act provided religious freedom for all Christians. As in many colonies, this freedom did not extend to Jews.

On page 188 the writers say that the constitution of the State of Virginia protected "freedom of religion," but there is no explanation of what "freedom of religion" may have meant in 18th-century Virginia. Then the writers mention "freedom of religion" on page 209 and on page 219, with no explication whatever, in fluffy little paragraphs about the federal Bill of Rights -- and that's all for freedom of religion.

The writers never explain what freedom of religion means in the United States of America. The writers never elucidate what freedom of religion means to us now, and they never tell what it signified to the Founding Fathers. The writers fail to explain that our American concept of religious freedom shares nothing with the Pilgrims' vision of religious unanimity and of a polity devoted to nurturing an eccentric brand of Christianity. The writers never contrast our freedom of religion with mere toleration, like the toleration that existed in Peter Stuyvesant's New Amsterdam. The writers fail to quote any of the statements in which the Founding Fathers rejected the idea of an official religion -- statements that, we may guess, would have seemed odious or incomprehensible to the Pilgrims. The writers fail to tell that freedom of religion in America begins with freedom from religion -- with the First Amendment's clause that outlaws the establishment of any official church. They fail to tell that our freedom of religion is defined by a body of constitutional law that has evolved over the years and is evolving still, often in response to the "tension" between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. And they fail to describe any of the modern cases in which that body of constitutional law has been shaped and refined by the Supreme Court. The American Nation says nothing about McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) or Engel v. Vitale (1962) or Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963) or Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) or Stone v. Graham (1980) or Edwards v. Aguillard (the Louisiana "creation-science" case; 1987) or Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU. In The American Nation, no one has given any thought to freedom of religion since the 1780s, no Bible-thumpers have ever tried to subvert or destroy it, and the Supreme Court has never had to say anything about it.

Freedom of the Press       The expression "freedom of the press" occurs for the first time in a lame passage about the Zenger case. On page 122 Prentice Hall's writers characterize the Zenger case as "a dispute over freedom of the press," and on page 123 they describe the case thus:

[In New York City in 1734, Zenger] was arrested for publishing stories that criticized the governor. Zenger was put on trial for libel, the act of publishing a statement that may unjustly damage a person's reputation. Zenger's lawyer argued that, since the stories were true, his client had not committed libel. He told the jury:
"By your verdict, you will have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our descendants, and our neighbors, the liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth."
The Jury agreed and freed Zenger. Freedom of the press would later become recognized as a basic American right.

Prentice Hall's writers have not studied the Zenger case, and their account (starting with their botched definition of libel) is fakery. The crux of the Zenger case was Zenger's manifest guilt: He clearly was guilty of seditious libel under the prevailing law. The jury's absurd verdict was an expression of the jurymen's own feelings about that law, and it was a display of the behavior that we label "jury nullification" when we see it today. The Prentice Hall writers have failed to recognize this and have failed to make any connection between the Zenger trial and any modern instance of jury nullification.

The writers finish their fakery with the claim that "Freedom of the press would later become recognized as a basic American right." Really? What does that have to do with the Zenger case? Were publishers "later" endowed with a basic American right to engage in libel and get away with it? Is that what "freedom of the press" means in America?

No, it isn't, but no one will learn what "freedom of the press" means by reading The American Nation. After appearing twice in the context of the Zenger case, the phrase "freedom of the press" shows up five more times (as far as I can tell). On pages 188, 209, 215 and 219 it occurs in lists, without any explanation or development. Then, on page 260, it is mentioned as a basis for objections to the Sedition Act (1798) -- and that's all for freedom of the press. Prentice Hall's writers make no effort to tell what freedom of the press means in modern America; they make no effort to explain how the First Amendment's proscription against abridging the freedom of the press has been interpreted and applied by the Supreme Court; and they again fail to describe any cases. There is not a word in The American Nation about Near v. Minnesota (1931) or New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) or New York Times Co. v. United States (the Pentagon Papers case; 1971) or Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) or Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc. (1974) or Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia (1980) or Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990). In The American Nation, no one has thought about freedom of the press since 1798. No government agencies have made attempts to muzzle journalists or publishers; no courts have upheld the freedom of the press by scotching such attempts; and no courts have punished journalists or publishers who have sought to use the freedom of the press as a license to libel and injure their fellow citizens.

What a spectacle! The writers of this "American history" text have devoted page after page to baloney about Indians, to trite misrepresentations of the Atlantic slave trade, and to cheesy gimmicks, but they have refused to say anything substantive about our freedom of religion or about our freedom of the press -- or, for that matter, about any of the other freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment. In The American Nation, our First Amendment freedoms are relegated to incomprehensible allusions and dead-end mentionings.

Factoids and Gee-Whizzery

Lots of other things are reduced to dead-end mentionings too -- mentionings that don't lead anywhere, that don't have any connections to anything else, and that often recall the factoids and the bits of gee-whizzery that one finds on quiz-game cards, on cocktail napkins, or on the backs of breakfast-cereal boxes. For example:

Protracted Fakery

The chapter about World War 2 -- chapter 27 -- merits further attention here because it is rubbish from start to finish, and it constitutes one of the Prentice Hall writers' most protracted exhibitions of fakery. It starts with an overview (on page 728) in which the writers say:

Millions of Americans joined with troops from Britain and other allies to fight for victory. At home, civilians worked hard to support the soldiers. First, Italy was defeated, and then Germany. Finally, in 1945, the United States defeated Japan by using a new weapon -- the atomic bomb.

That is cereal-box stuff, even if Esther Ratner has mistaken it for history. The Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to put an end to the war, but Japan had long since been defeated and had been rendered defenseless -- and by the spring of 1945, Curtis LeMay was using incendiary bombs to devastate Japan's cities at will. Listen to the historian David M. Kennedy:

[Starting in March of 1945] LeMay's bombers attacked sixty-six of Japan's largest cities, destroying 43 percent of their built-up areas. They demolished the homes of more than eight million people, killed as many as 700,000, and injured perhaps one million more. Hiroshima and Nagasaki survived to be atomic-bombed only because LeMay's superiors removed them from his target list. [note 14]

The next page of Prentice Hall's textbook is dominated by an illustration, titled "Battle of the Coral Sea," which shows an American airplane flying near a Japanese carrier that is afire. The caption for the illustration fails to identify the airplane, fails to identify the carrier, and fails to tell when the Battle of the Coral Sea took place, but it provides another fluff-question so that the student can again dabble in guesswork: "How do you think new technology affected the way World War II was fought."

Even if the student reads the entire chapter, his ignorance will remain intact, because the Prentice Hall writers have excluded all but one of the technological innovations that continually shaped and reshaped combat, and continually shaped and reshaped the lives of fighting men, during World War 2. The only one that the writers have acknowledged is radar, which is mentioned in a 36-word item on page 736: "Britain used the new invention of radar to detect incoming German planes. Radar works because radio waves bounce off things. When radio waves bounce off an airplane in the sky, a blip appears on a screen."

I suppose that those 36 words filled all the available space on the cocktail napkin that the writers consulted. In any case, their dead-end mentioning of radar is plain buffoonery, as some real history will demonstrate: During the 1920s physicists in America, in Britain, in France, in Germany and in Japan independently showed that radio waves could be employed for remote detection, and the military forces of several countries developed workable detection systems during the 1930s. The use of radio-wave detection wasn't unique to Britain, and the British detection system wasn't called radar: It was called RDF, for "radio direction finder." The name radar, a contraction of "radio detection and ranging," was coined by the United States Navy, which adopted radio-wave systems for finding vessels at sea. Finding vessels at sea was, in fact, the paramount application of radio-wave detection in World War 2. From the Battle of the Atlantic to the Battle of Leyte Gulf -- in which an American fleet led by Thomas C. Kincaid used radar-directed guns to destroy a Japanese fleet in the dark of night -- radar proved to be a decisive factor, again and again, in naval combat. (Esther the Accuracy Queen evidently failed to notice any of this.)

As chapter 27 proceeds, it becomes an inane and bewildering mishmash. Sometimes quasichronological, sometimes oblivious to chronology, it bears no resemblance whatever to military history -- and the war that it purports to describe bears only a trifling resemblance to World War 2. Prentice Hall's writers mention a few campaigns and battles, but they consistently fail to tell what happened or why. On page 747, for example, we find another reference to the Battle of the Coral Sea, and we read that "After a three-day battle, the Japanese fleet turned back." Turned back? From where? What was the Japanese fleet's objective? The writers don't say. On the same page, the writers devote all of 37 words to the Battle of Midway: They characterize Midway as a "stunning victory" for the United States Navy, but they don't say anything about how that victory was achieved.

As for the Battle of Leyte Gulf: Prentice Hall's writers haven't even mentioned it. Though it involved nearly 300 ships and some 200,000 sailors and airmen, and though it was the biggest battle ever fought at sea, the writers have ignored it.

Even when battles are mentioned, field commanders are not. From the narrative in The American Nation, one must infer that World War 2 was largely an affair in which leaderless bunches of men wandered around and occasionally ran into each other and fought. One also gets the impression that the bunches who fought for America consisted chiefly of heroic blacks, augmented by some Nisei, some Latinos and some Amerindians. This impression is inescapable because Prentice Hall's writers have worked hard to create it. In a display of racism that seems extreme even in the context of The American Nation, the writers give half a page to telling of heroic performances by "African Americans," lesser quantities of space to telling about the military feats of Nisei, Latinos and "Native Americans," and no space at all to the whites who, in truth, constituted a majority of America's men in uniform. As far as one can learn from The American Nation, the only Americans who flew airplanes in combat were the black pilots known as the Tuskegee airmen, two of whom are shown in a photograph on page 743; and the only Americans who won decorations were blacks, Nisei or Latinos. (Apparently there was one white guy -- Douglas MacArthur, shown in a photograph on page 751 -- who fought for the Allies, but he didn't get any medals.) As I looked at Prentice Hall's racial effusions, I was reminded of the ravings of the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shanequa.

Why This Book Exists

Schoolbooks are mass-market products that can't be profitable unless they can be sold to multitudes of customers. The book that I've reviewed here exists because Prentice Hall's market research has indicated that a substantial number of the people who pose as history teachers in America's schools will buy such a book -- and I have little reason to doubt the efficacy of that research. Most of the people who pose as history teachers in America's schools haven't studied history [note 15], and I easily can believe that many of them will be attracted to the melange of Kwanzified rubbish, faddish cant and Victimist clichés that Prentice Hall is selling as The American Nation.

I thank the mammalogist Douglas Long, of the California Academy of Sciences, for informing me about some of the mammals of western North America. I thank The Textbook League's manager of research, Earl Hautala, for helping me to gather information about the Atlantic slave trade. And I thank Esther Ratner for supplying a comedic presence that made me laugh, now and then, during the grim work of reading The American Nation.

Notes

  1. See "Taco Tales" in The Textbook Letter for July-August 1999. [return to text]

  2. For an informative and skillfully written history of the Christmas tree, see Simon Schama's article "Whose Tree Is It Anyway?" in The New York Times for 24 December 1991. [return to text]

  3. The television networks' religious shows are reliably ridiculous. Some of them are old Hollywood movies, such as The Robe (a melodrama that involves Jesus's death but has nothing to do with his birth) or The Ten Commandments (a DeMille epic that deals with Moses but does not deal with Jesus at all). Some others are made-for-TV pseudomovies which are based upon New Testament tales about the young Jesus and which are so mawkish that they make reruns of Leave It to Beaver look like deep stuff. [return to text]

  4. The word crèche, in this context, means a Nativity scene -- an imaginary representation of the birth of Jesus. Almost always, American crèches reflect modern Christian myths that conflate and contradict the New Testament's two passages about the Nativity (Matthew 2:1-12 and Luke 2:7-18). [return to text]

  5. The Establishment Clause forbids the erection of any official religion by any unit of government or any public agency. [return to text]

  6. The word blacksploitation originated in the entertainment business in the 1970s. To learn more about the terms exploitation product and blacksploitation, see the review "McDougal Littell's Baadassss Song" in TTL for September-October 1997. [return to text]

  7. I must note, too, that some purveyors of multi-culti rubbish give a wholly different meaning to the term the first Americans: They use it to mean the people who supposedly met in the New World, some 500 years ago, and started the fictitious "blending" process. (To top things off, the charlatan Joy Hakim has written a schoolbook in which the phrase the first Americans carries both of its multi-culti meanings: Hakim applies it to ancient Asian wanderers and also to 15th-century blenders, and she makes no effort to resolve the contradiction! See "Multi-Culti Joy" in TTL, March-April 2000.) [return to text]

  8. Slavery was widespread among the Indians of North America and was exceptionally important, both socially and commercially, among the Indians of the Northwest, e.g., the Chinooks, the Tlingits, the Tsimshians, the Nootkas, the Makahs, the Quilleutes and the Kwakiutls. The Chinooks enjoyed special prominence as slave-traders, acquiring most of their merchandise by conducting slave raids. [return to text]

  9. One of these is West Publishing Company's monumentally deceitful high-school text United States History: In the Course of Human Events (1997). See "Tom-Tom Tommyrot" in TTL for November-December 1996 (or at http://www.textbookleague.org/75injn.htm on the Web site of The Textbook League). [return to text]

  10. The term African American (or African-American) gained popularity in the 1980s. It must not be confused with Afro-American, a phrase that dates from 1880 or so. Afro-American failed to catch on, and it fell into obscurity when the Bureau of the Census (in 1891, on the advice of Booker T. Washington) officially adopted the term Negro. See the article "Negro" in Hugh Rawson's fine book A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk, issued in 1981 by Crown Publishers, Inc. [return to text]

  11. See Curtin's section titled "A Postscript on Mortality." The Atlantic Slave Trade was issued in 1969 by the University of Wisconsin Press. [return to text]

  12. See the chapter titled "The Middle Passage" in The Transatlantic Slave Trade, by James A. Rawley, published in 1981 by W.W. Norton & Company. [return to text]

  13. See the chapter "The Atlantic Slave Trade" in John Reader's book Africa: A Biography of the Continent, issued in 1998 by Alfred A. Knopf. [return to text]

  14. These are the closing sentences of Kennedy's magnificent article "Victory at Sea," which appeared in the March 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. To read more about Kennedy's piece, see "Superb Work" in TTL, July-August 1999, page 11. [return to text]

  15. See the speech (titled "Who Prepares Our History Teachers? Who Should Prepare Our History Teachers?") that Diane Ravitch delivered to the National Council for History Education on 18 October 1997. [return to text]


Michael B. Chesson, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has written or has edited numerous publications dealing with the American Civil War. These include the book Exile in Richmond: The Confederate Journal of Henri Garidel, which will be published by the University Press of Virginia.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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