Not Written in Stone: Learning and Unlearning American History Through 200 Years of Textbooks (review)
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Not Written in Stone: Learning and Unlearning American History Through 200 Years of Textbooks. By Kyle Ward. (New York: New Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 304. $22.50 paper)

Occasionally, a book comes along that brings back memories of learning history. Kyle Ward's Not Written in Stone is such a work. Many practitioners of Clio, whether precollegiate or graduate-level historians, should learn their craft as well as their content. As Ward points out, "Historiography … the process by which one examines historical writing and historical methods … is affected by personal bias, perspective, and interpretation" (p. xiii). Ward has chosen to use the rich resources of the Indiana State University Special Collections Department which houses over twenty-five hundred textbooks. His main focus is on elementary- and middle-school materials, as he believes that students learn their history at these grade levels. Since Ward wants to examine two hundred years of "learning and unlearning American History," he has chosen represented models from the pre–Civil War era through the 1990s to illustrate his themes and concepts.

Ward's six-part journey through American history begins with [End Page 272] the Columbian Era and ends with the Philippine-American War; no twentieth-century topic is examined. Ward has taken a series of twenty-nine interesting topics, some of which are often glanced over, "historical encyclopedias … bland to read" (p. xviii). Overlooked topics such as George Rogers Clark, the Barbary pirates, and Tecumseh often receive a cursory paragraph in many textbooks; they receive more attention while traditional themes, such as Anne Hutchinson, the Trail of Tears, and slavery, are also examined. Ward begins each section with a brief overview. The author examines several textbooks without making editorial comments as he wants the reader to become "an active learner," allowing the student to 'become a junior historian" (p. xv). One such excerpt is taken from Benson J. Lossing's 1860 publication: "Captain John Smith … had been in many fights with the Turks of Eastern Europe, and had done some wonderful things there. Many of the adventurers were rather bad characters, and became jealous of John Smith, for they knew he was smarter and better than them" (p. 39).

Each section concludes with some thoughtful questions and ideas to encourage further study and research. Ward's format makes Not Written in Stone a great teaching tool. Additionally, Ward concludes with comments reflective of the topic presented, such as "Throughout the 1800s … topics such as U. S. History … were offered in schools in order to help transform the children of new immigrants … and show what it means to be an American citizen" (p. 247).

Some small changes could improve Not Written in Stone. For example, an explanation of textbook selection would have been valuable and of interest to the reader. Why did Ward choose Noah Webster's History of the United States (1832)? Why this particular author? For what grade level is this selection meant? Such information would have been beneficial to placing the book in context. Ward's selection of modern materials is curious. He has avoided some more prominent names of the eras and more familiar materials teachers would have used in the 1950s–1990s. Instead, Ward chose James Davidson, Clarence Ver Steeg, and Wayne King. Ver Steeg's 1991 publication was [End Page 273] cited; he was one of a group of scholars from the 1950s and 1960s which was responsible for achieving a revival and expansion in the study of early American history and which seems to be curiously outdated. Although there are women authors identified, there are no African American contributors whose interpretation of various topics, such as slavery, would have been insightful.

Despite these minor criticisms, Kyle Ward has added another chapter to his ever-growing examination of the teaching of American history. Not Written in Stone should be used in every undergraduate preservice methods course in education at all grade levels. Furthermore, this book would also be beneficial to aspiring advanced-placement students along with undergraduate history majors as the materials would encourage them to become "active learners" and "junior historians."

James F. Adomanis

James F. Adomanis, the executive director of the Maryland...