4 Textbook Analysis Lesson Ideas

Aaron Thacker

Option 1: Efficiency versus Effectiveness

What is the most efficient way to tell the story of an historical moment, and why may that not be the most effective way to tell that story?

Potential Assignment

choose a subsection of your textbook about a historical “villain,” and identify (an) area(s) that seem to be “shortcuts” around a more complex, nuanced discussion; compose a replacement for the shortcut(s) that explores the system factors surround the individual actor who is emphasized.


Option 2: Unpacking Binaries

Human beings tend to—and have always tended to—organize and simplify the complexities of the world around them into binaries (good/evil, right wrong, us/them, black/white, patriot/traitor, occident/orient, etc.). How does the representation of historical narratives in textbooks as a conflict between “heroes” and “villains” reflect this tendency?

Potential Assignment

Try to find a major historical moment in your textbook that is at no point reduced to a pair of mutually co-existent concepts (axis/ally (WWII), capitalism/communism (Cold War), Christian/Muslim (post-9/11), Indigenous/settler (colonization of Canada), men/women (women’s suffrage), black/white (civil rights movement), etc.). Hint: you may not find any.

Option 3: The Victors

 “History is written by the victors”—an axiomatic statement that is often attributed to Winston Churchill. Implicit in this widely accepted idea is the notion that history is composed exclusively of winners and losers, heroes and villains. What does this implication say about how textbooks are written (i.e., written by heroes)?

Potential Assignment

Find a primary source pertaining to D.C. Scott (perhaps one of his poems, such as “The Onondaga Madonna”), and try to write a textbook bio on him from his own perspective (an auto-bio).


Option 4: Mimesis versus Delineation

To what extent are history textbooks more mimesis (or verisimilitude) than delineation? If textbooks are indeed more mimetic than “accurate,” then should one engage with textbooks from an aesthetic perspective? In other words, are historical narratives more “narrative” than “history?”

Potential Assignment

Compare a section of Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel: A Comic-strip Biography” with the section on Louis Riel in your textbook. Write a response to the following question: which do you find more holistically informative, and why do you feel that way?


Option 5: Abstract and Individualized Villains

In fiction, antagonism can be individualized (e.g., human vs. human) or abstract (e.g., human vs. nature). How different would a Social Studies textbook look if it were written with abstract “villains” (i.e., systemic tendencies) rather than individualized ones (e.g., Hitler)?

Potential Assignment

Rewrite a subsection of your textbook (about a “villain”) in a manner that abstracts the characterization of evil.

Option 6: Clash of Titans

There is a tendency to construct history as a “clash of titans” (e.g., Hitler v. Churchill), but it is the average citizens of the times that enact the policies—or are enacted upon by the policies—of those in positions of power (e.g., Joe Axis v. Joe Ally or Joe SS v. Joe Jewish). These historical characters—the “every-people”—are as captivating as the power-players, as the our ongoing fascination with Anne Frank’s diaries testifies. Why do our textbooks value the object narratives of historical overview rather than the subjective perspectives of individuals who experienced these historical milieus?

Potential Assignment

Choose a subsection of your textbook, and find a collection of primary source, subjective documents from the era that could potentially replace the textbook materials. Potential creative assignment: create a composite from these perspectives—a collective subjectivity as opposed to the historical objectivity of the textbook.


Option 7: Function of Propaganda

What is the function of propaganda, and in what way does that function parallel the historical narratives in a textbook?

Potential Assignment

Find a piece of primary-source propaganda from each of two competing nations during a substantial historical event—e.g., USA and Germany in WWII, USA and Russia in the Cold War, even Israel and Palestine or North and South Korea if you’re feeling risqué—and compare/contrast these depictions to the description of the conflict in your textbook. Is the textbook more like one than the other? Are there any formal similarities?

(created by Aaron Thacker, 2018)


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The Grim Educator by Aaron Thacker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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