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Setting the Record Straight on Textbooks

By Matthew Yglesias on January 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm

"Setting the Record Straight on Textbooks"

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Writing about the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 having very little presence in our consciousness, I wrote:

But in some ways the most interesting thing about the Spanish Flu is the extent to which its occurrence has been purged from our historical memory despite the fact that it was extraordinarily deadly—killing more people than World War One. But it’s barely mentioned in our history textbooks, doesn’t seem to come up much in famous books by Hemingway or Fitzgerald. In part, I suppose this reflects a preference for “great man” historical narratives rather than a focus on impersonal things like disease.

To which Eric Loomis replied:

As a history professor, let me state that modern textbooks don’t really reflect great man theories of history anymore. Nor have they for some time. I suppose that there is a textbook or two out there that still pushes these ideas, but they’d be a distinct minority that very few professors would assign.

There is also an increasing environmental history presence in the textbooks and certainly the study of the history of disease is on the rise.

I guess I’d like to ask Matt how many history textbooks he’s actually read? Do you know this to be true or are you repeating received wisdom about history textbooks still just wanting to talk about presidents and wars?

I should apologize for a poorly worded sentence and an ill-considered dragging of textbooks’ good name through the mud. As Prof Loomis guesses, I of course have read very few history textbooks. In terms of books that cover the relevant period, there’s just two and I don’t even remember anything about them. What I should have said is that popular consciousness of history tends to be pretty dominated by “great man” accounts as reflected in media discussion, books that sell well (although even here you do see things like Cod and Salt as well — the Great Commodity theory of history) and so forth. The textbooks I should have just left out of it.

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