ERIC Identifier: ED301532
Publication Date: 1988-12-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
High School Government Textbooks. ERIC Digest.
Textbooks are important indicators of the quantity and quality of content in
the secondary school curriculum. They tend to conform to curriculum guides of
state-level departments of education and large local school districts. And they
tend to be the dominant instructional medium in high school classrooms.
Therefore, an examination of widely-used textbooks is likely to indicate
important strengths and weaknesses of standard high school courses. This ERIC
Digest discusses four questions about widely-used high school government
textbooks: (1) What are the distinctive characteristics of these textbooks? (2)
What are the major weaknesses of high school government textbooks? (3) What are
some criticisms of textbook treatments of the Constitution? (4) What are some
recommendations for improving these textbooks?
WHAT ARE THE DISTINCTIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH SCHOOL GOVERNMENT TEXTBOOKS?
Publishers produce textbooks that fit national
curriculum patterns. Consequently, they publish high school government textbooks
for upper-level students, because in most states and school districts in the
United States students must complete a course in American government to graduate
from high school; and these courses tend to be offered to twelfth-grade students
(Council of State Social Studies Specialists 1986).
Widely-used high school government textbooks from different publishers are
remarkably similar in content, format, and style. Without exception, these books
are large compendiums of information about institutions of American government,
political processes, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. They
include principles of constitutional government in the United States, such as
federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, and representative
democracy. The textbooks are "encyclopedic in scope and impressive in their
comprehensiveness. They strive, with considerable success, to encompass the
broad range of the history and operations of American government" (Carroll et
al. 1987, v).
High school American government texts are designed for passive learning,
transmission of facts and ideas rather than active involvement of learners in
the pursuit of knowledge. Many themes, topics, and terms are mentioned, but few
are developed in detail. The superficial survey of subject matter, rather than
in-depth treatments of critical issues or core ideas, is the prevailing style of
These textbooks tend to be visually appealing, filled with attractive
pictures, graphs, and diagrams. The pages usually are colorful and engaging in
format and design. Treatments of topics, by contrast, tend to be bland and
uninteresting. Matter-of-fact presentations of content, which avoid or gloss
over controversy, tend to fill the pretty pages of the high school government
WHAT ARE THE MAJOR WEAKNESSES OF HIGH SCHOOL GOVERNMENT TEXTBOOKS?
A 1966 review of textbooks began with the statement that "the
entire teaching profession is presently being assaulted by an avalanche of
criticism particularly related to the quality of textbooks being used in
schools" (Price 1966, 21). Common criticisms of high school government textbooks
of the 1960s pertained to
-- superficial and simplistic coverage of material;
-- abstract or lifeless treatment of ideas and events;
-- idealistic and unrealistic presentations of society;
-- fragmentation of subject matter;
-- avoidance of controversial topics or issues;
-- emphasis on low-level cognition in questions and
activities for learners;
-- unattractive format and design;
-- misrepresentation or avoidance of content about
ethnic and racial minorities and women.
These common criticisms of the 1960s textbooks tend to be repeated in the
1980s, with two exceptions. First, textbooks today tend to be rather attractive
in format and design, especially in the use of graphics. Second, textbooks of
the 1980s are likely to reflect the ethnic/racial diversity and social pluralism
of government and citizenship in the United States. However, some 1980s critics
have judged current textbooks to be excessive in their emphasis on social
pluralism and cultural diversity and deficient in treatments of national unity
and the common good (Harrington 1980; Janowitz 1983, 91-105; Glazier & Ueda
High school government textbooks were roundly criticized in a study sponsored
by People for the American Way (Carroll et al. 1987). The reviewers faulted the
books for lacking a sound sequence of topics and ideas, covering too much
information, avoiding in-depth discussions of important ideas and events,
glossing over or omitting controversial topics, failing to emphasize citizen
participation in a democracy, and ignoring opportunities to develop students'
capacities for criticism and creativity. The reviewers also blasted these
textbooks for static and lifeless presentations of subject matter. They claimed
that inherently interesting subjects--politics, applications of law to daily
life, public issues, governmental decisions, citizen action in community
affairs--were shorn of dynamism and drama by tedious and simplistic prose
presented in rigid formats.
WHAT ARE SOME CRITICISMS OF TEXTBOOK TREATMENTS OF THE CONSTITUTION?
Valuable studies of textbook treatments of the U.S.
Constitution were done in recognition of the Bicentennial of this document (Remy
1981 and 1987; Katz 1985).
Remy's studies revealed such common weaknesses as superficial treatments of
landmark Supreme Court cases, failure to show how the Constitution influences or
limits actions of government officials, and shallow discussion of core
constitutional principles. Remy concluded that the texts were virtually devoid
of detailed discussions of fundamental ideas, such as constitutional government,
democracy, republicanism, and liberty under law.
Katz reported that the five high school government textbooks in his study
included mostly "dry institutional descriptions" with only slight attention to
political processes, ideas, and issues. Federalism, for example, was treated
mainly as a set of legal relationships with scant attention to federal-state
relationships and little discussion of the theory underlying this core principle
of the Constitution.
A major criticism in the textbook review sponsored by People for the American
Way was inadequate treatment of values in the Constitution. Furthermore, the
reviewers faulted the textbooks for failure to examine issues in United States
history associated with core values of the Constitution. The reviewers concluded
that "the books do not sufficiently emphasize the values and processes that have
emerged from this document to shape our society, such as due process and equal
protection" (Carroll et al. 1987, vi).
WHAT ARE SOME RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GOVERNMENT TEXTBOOKS?
Current reviews of high school government textbooks
include several suggestions for improving the contents of these volumes. Four of
these recommendations are listed below.
1. Emphasize fundamental concepts and values of constitutional democracy in
the opening sections of a textbook and weave these core ideas throughout the
2. Highlight critical issues of our American constitutional democracy, which
are associated with the operation of fundamental concepts and values in the
lives of citizens in the past and present.
3. Use case studies to infuse vitality and drama into treatments of political
and legal processes.
4. Develop processes and skills in critical thinking and decision making;
challenge students to use these higher-order cognitive processes in their
studies of fundamental concepts, values, and issues of our constitutional
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of
resources includes references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by
an ED number are in the ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) system
and are available in microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about prices, write EDRS, 3900
Wheeler Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22304 or call 800-227-3742. Entries followed by
an EJ number are annotated monthly in CIJE (CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN
EDUCATION), which is available in most libraries. EJ documents are not available
through EDRS; however, they can be located in the journal section of most
libraries by using the bibliographic information provided below.
D. et al. WE THE PEOPLE: A REVIEW OF U.S GOVERNMENT AND CIVICS TEXTBOOKS. Washington, DC: People for the American Way, 1987. ED 288 761.
Council of State Social Studies
Specialists. NATIONAL SURVEY: SOCIAL STUDIES EDUCATION, KINDERGARTEN-GRADE 12. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education, 1986. ED 289 800.
Glazer, Nathan and
Reed Ueda. ETHNIC GROUPS IN HISTORY TEXTBOOKS. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1983. ED 232 941.
Harrington, Charles. "Textbooks and Political
Socialization." TEACHING POLITICAL SCIENCE 7 (July 1980): 481-500. EJ 228 986.
Janowitz, Morris. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF PATRIOTISM: EDUCATION FOR CIVIC CONSCIOUSNESS. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1983. Katz, Ellis. "Federalism in Secondary School American History and Government Textbooks," in TEACHING ABOUT AMERICAN FEDERAL DEMOCRACY, edited by Stephen L. Schechter. Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University, 1984. ED 248 161.
Patrick, John J. and Sharryl Davis Hawke. "Curriculum Materials," in SOCIAL STUDIES IN THE 1980s: A REPORT OF PROJECT SPAN. Arlington, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1982. ED 221 449.
Price, Robert D. "Textbook Dilemma
in the Social Studies." THE SOCIAL STUDIES 57 (January 1966): 21-23. Government Textbooks," in TEACHING
ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION IN AMERICAN SECONDARY SCHOOLS, edited by Howard D. Mehlinger. Washington, DC: Project '87, American Historical Association & American Political Science Association, 1981. ED 279 580.
C. "The Constitution in Citizen Education." SOCIAL EDUCATION 51 (September 1987): 331-336. EJ 343 086.