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Journal of American History

Writing, Producing, and Using College-Level American History Textbooks

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses
Daniel J. Cohen

Reflections of a Longtime Textbook Author
Mary Beth Norton

An Interview with Alan Brinkley

Textbook Publishing: An Ecological View
Steve Forman

"The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth": Writing, Producing, and Using College-Level American History Textbooks

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser
Contributing Editors, Textbooks and Teaching

Editors' Introduction

Complaints about American history textbooks abound. Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently characterized them as "fat, dull, boring books that mention everything but explain practically nothing." He was criticizing secondary-school textbooks, but college-level textbooks have also come under fire, especially for their high cost. With sticker prices of new textbooks often exceeding eighty dollars, students increasingly question whether they are getting their money's worth. The California Student Public Interest Research Group last year issued a report titled Ripoff 101 that lambasted textbook publishers for their business practices. Politicians at the state and national levels have called for governmental intervention to curb textbook prices. Yet most teachers of United States history survey courses assign a textbook as core reading, and many assign only a textbook. Monographs influence professional historians' understanding of the past, but textbooks reach a much wider audience. American history textbooks shape how American college students encounter their nation's history and their society's cultural heritage.1

Given the importance of textbooks, we thought readers of the Journal of American History would like to know more about how they are written, produced, and used. For authors' perspectives, we invited Mary Beth Norton and Alan Brinkley, two longtime and highly successful textbook writers, to discuss how they began writing textbooks and how they view the process in light of their experience: What are the choices and constraints they face, their sense of audience and market dynamics, the trade-offs between writing textbooks and doing other kinds of scholarly work? A coauthor of A People and a Nation, now in its seventh edition, Norton discusses how that pathbreaking book--the first major textbook to incorporate the new social history--came into being and how it has evolved over time. She reflects on the challenges of working collaboratively with other authors and on the importance of regularly revising a textbook to incorporate new scholarship and to address criticisms based on classroom use. She makes clear that she and her coauthors, not editors or market specialists, decide what to retain and what to drop from edition to edition, though she also highlights the inevitable restrictions posed by page limits.

Alan Brinkley's comments are excerpted from an interview we conducted with him at his office at Columbia University on July 9, 2004.  Brinkley explains how he "inherited" authorial responsibilities for American History: A Survey in the early 1980s and why in his opinion that textbook, now in its eleventh edition, has attracted a large readership for more than forty years. He also reflects on his sense of audience, the general parameters of the textbook genre, and the special difficulties of writing about the whole of American history as a sole author who must sometimes reach far beyond his area of specialization. Like Norton, he addresses the question of authorial independence, the recurrent preparation of new editions, and the pros and cons of devoting large blocks of time to textbook writing.

To compose the text of a textbook is one thing; to convert that text into a printed volume and to place the final product (including ancillary materials) in the hands of teachers and students is a related but distinct process. For a view of textbook production and distribution from the perspective of an editor and publisher, we turned to Steve Forman, a veteran member of W. W. Norton & Company. We asked him to address the explosive issue of textbook pricing--to explain why American history textbooks today cost so much.  In response, Forman offers an ecological analysis of the textbook industry and its relationship to academic consumers.  The cause of recent price hikes, he explains, is not pure-and-simple profit mongering by publishers but a growing disequilibrium within a complex system of producers, sellers, buyers, and resellers, in which behavior that appears rational to each participant in the short term may be undermining the long-term interests of all concerned. Highlighting shifts in the operation and culture of higher education, Forman makes a few suggestions for systemic adjustments, but he leaves open the central question of whether equilibrium can be restored.

Finally, we wanted to learn more about how instructors actually use textbooks in their courses. Daniel J. Cohen, developer of the Syllabus Finder, agreed to analyze data on the nearly eight hundred U.S. survey courses included in his database of online syllabi.  According to his analysis, many instructors rely almost exclusively on textbooks to supply curricular content in the survey--a tendency he deems worrisome. He infers that many instructors adopt textbooks as packaged courses, relieving themselves of the hard work of teaching creatively. Yet he finds that relatively few instructors make much use of the ancillary materials that--according to Forman-- drive up textbook prices for everyone. Cohen also finds that, although no single title dominates the field, a handful of publishers produce the vast majority of textbooks commonly assigned in college courses.

What does the future hold? As historians well schooled in the law of unintended consequences, we know better than to offer firm predictions. Yet the combination of instructor dependence on textbooks and corporate concentration in the publishing industry prompts our concern about the health of history education. Even if topflight textbook authors retain their independent voices, the range of perspectives to which students are exposed in college classrooms appears likely to diminish. As the articles below reveal, textbooks occupy a multivalent position in the increasingly troubled marketplace of higher education.

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser are professors of history at Oberlin College.

Readers may contact him at <gary.kornblith@oberlin.edu> and her at <carol.lasser@oberlin.edu>.

1 Chester E. Finn Jr., "Foreword," in A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks, by Diane Ravitch (Washington, 2004), 5; Merriah Fairchild, Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks (Jan. 2004) <http://calpirg.org/reports/textbookripoff.pdf> (Oct. 3, 2004); Michael H. Granof, "A New Model for Textbook Pricing," Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 26, 2004, p. B16 <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/v51/i14/14b01601.htm> (Nov. 28, 2004)