The American Historian

The Future of the U.S. History Survey Text

David M. Henkin

Despite remarkable, rapid, and ongoing changes in American higher education, the traditional U.S. history college survey course has retained its value and power as one of the largest sustained conversations about civic identity, cultural change, and the national past. Approximately one million young American adults participate in this curated conversation annually (not counting Advanced Placement students), in a wide and widening array of settings. It is of course a diffuse conversation, and the curation is subtle and ostensibly decentralized. But because college survey instructors still typically assign textbooks, those publications remain extraordinarily influential vehicles for the dissemination of scholarship and for the reinterpretation of historical events and developments. Some two dozen texts of varying lengths and formats dominate the course, competing for the attention of instructors and adoption committees. Together they shape the way American history is imagined during what is, for most of their readers, the final formal occasion for thinking in broad terms about the subject we teach.

About seven years ago, when I undertook with my colleague Rebecca M. McLennan to produce an entirely new U.S. history survey for McGraw-Hill, I encountered two surprising and countervailing tendencies in the unfamiliar world of textbook publishing. The first was that these texts are subtly resistant to substantive change. Despite widespread complaints among instructors that survey texts are boring and staid, many of us are loath to rewrite our lectures or retool our assignments to accommodate new approaches or current scholarship—and textbook publishers are correspondingly loath to challenge us to do so. Repeatedly, McLennan and I had to defend our decisions to introduce entirely new material and to reassure editors and instructors that we were not sacrificing canonical coverage. Industry-wide aversion to change is reflected and reinforced in both the relative similarity of leading texts and the slow pace at which they revise their narratives. To take one example, the historian Ray Raphael conducted a detailed examination of how survey textbooks have incorporated the presumably influential scholarship of the late historian Pauline Maier into their coverage of the nation’s founding. Hardly at all, it turns out. Maier’s corrections of longstanding errors and misleading terminology go largely ignored, not because professional historians are indifferent or skeptical toward her findings, but rather because something about the laborious production and cautious consumption of survey textbooks encourages the repetition of older terms, arguments, and formulations.

Although publishers revise often, experimenting with new covers, new titles, new features, and new authors, it is notable how much remains from one edition to another. In the case of at least one prominent textbook (popular at the college level and especially among AP instructors) whole sections survive verbatim from ancient editions, the original author of which has been dead for thirty years. Fifteen editions and almost sixty years later, the textbook devotes a chapter to Manifest Destiny and the U.S.-Mexican War that provides today’s students with state-of-the-field scholarship on these crucial and contested subjects—circa 1956.

But if their narratives change slowly, in other respects textbook publishers are embracing wholesale changes in the way they do business. To publishing executives and the private equity firms that control chunks of the industry, the much-discussed challenges to traditional book publishing represent an opportunity. Instead of fighting the incursion of e-readers and web-based learning onto their turf, the traditional textbook publishers are trying to get ahead of this shift—not simply because many of them see the decline of the physical book as inevitable, but because they see that decline as desirable. Ironically, the problem with books is not their bulk or obsolescence, but their durability. Books survive their use in the college classroom, which allows them to be resold at lower cost, with much of the savings accruing to third parties and none of the resale income going to publishers and authors. Electronic, web-accessed texts offer ways around the resale problem, and this is the main reason why it will likely displace print in the survey classroom: not because e-books are cheaper to produce or more attractive to a generation of readers habituated to screens, but because publishers will price and bundle their wares in order to limit the circulation of books that can be resold.

How quickly this displacement will occur is hard to predict. Many publishing executives, investors, and observers, buoyed by blind faith in the powers of new media and boundless enthusiasm for the cult of innovation, expect the change to be swift and inexorable. To the extent that they control the product, this prophecy might prove self-fulfilling. But not all instructors welcome the disappearance of the bound book and not all students, especially in history courses, relish the prospect of losing access to their textbook after 180 days. Still, publishers are likely to push the change, and instructors and students will presumably come to appreciate many advantages beyond the financial and ecological benefits commonly associated with electronic publication. Whereas bound textbooks must be useable across different college schedules and educational levels, electronic versions of survey texts can be customized to include only those chapters covered in a particular course or to add or eliminate features to suit the needs of a particular classroom. Increasingly, electronic texts will come with interactive study aids and test-taking platforms. Not far down the road, electronic texts will include easy-to-access links to other content, introducing yet more pedagogical challenges and new conflicts over intellectual property. In theory, the electronic revolution might also make it easier to revise textbooks or expand their coverage, but this is unlikely to happen. If the history of the genre is any guide, substantive revisions come rarely and at considerable expense in terms of intellectual labor. And with the competition from the used-book market contained, one of the main commercial inducements to revise will have been eliminated. Counterintuitively, the shift from bound to virtual book may actually reduce the frequency with which our survey texts are updated.

As they try to anticipate and oversee these complex changes, traditional textbook publishers walk a fine line. They seek to rebrand themselves as learning companies rather than book producers. But they still need to insist upon the value of the traditional narrative, because it is their claim to that content that distinguishes them from the scores of competitors that provide educational tools. As someone who spent much of the last decade co-writing such a narrative—unquestionably the most difficult and time-consuming activity of my professional life—I am especially attached to the idea that a narrative cannot be replaced by a series of practice exams or glossary entries. And for all their public celebration of the brave new world of platforms and programs, textbook companies are attached to the older model as well. In the case of my co-authored textbook, McGraw-Hill invested lots of money in a spectacular team of editors, reviewers, cartographers, and designers. Whether they are producing print or electronic versions, textbook publishers continue to make history survey texts with introductions, chapters, and sections that are suited to familiar modes of scanning, skimming, browsing, and cross-referencing. Moreover, these texts build narratives and develop explanations in the order and at the pace of books, rather than encyclopedia entries, glossaries, catechisms, blog posts, or short-form journalism. This is probably for the best, even (perhaps especially) in the face of new media. Textbooks cannot possibly compete with Wikipedia as a reference guide or provide as many relevant historical images as a simple Google search. Instead, they need to get better and better at providing compelling stories, coherent explanations, and models of critical thinking. It is on this, rather than new technologies, that the future of the textbook depends.


DAVID M. HENKIN is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches the social and cultural history of the United States. He is the author of three books, including The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America (2006) and, with Rebecca M. McLennan, Becoming America: A History for the 21st Century(2014).