History Of Textbooks Essay

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Textbooks are an invention of the early modern period and reflect the emergence of the new technology of the book, as well as the realization that children have separate needs and lives from adults. Over the years, textbooks have covered more and more subjects, and they have become increasingly subject to controversy. This entry looks at the history of textbooks, particularly in the United States, and examines some of the more recent and powerful controversies.

Early Texts

Although catechisms were common by the end of the sixteenth century, the first modern textbook is widely recognized as being John Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus. The Orbis Pictus was approximately 400 pages, with an illustrated text, originally published in both Czech and Latin. It literally had as its purpose introducing the child to all of the major objects and things found in the world. The Orbis Pictus is important because it identifies the child not only as a subject to be educated, but also as someone who can be shaped by the technology of print and an illustrated text. The influence of Comenius’s work is clear when one looks at the first textbook used in the American colonies, The New England Primer.

The New England Primer was first published about 1690 by Benjamin Harris. A small book that could easily be held in the palm of a child’s hand, the text was heavily illustrated and incorporated many elements into its content, such as an illustrated alphabet, found in the Orbis Pictus. The book, as textbooks in general, reflected the values and beliefs of the culture for which it was produced: in this case, a conservative Protestant and biblically oriented tradition. The book begins with a prayer, followed with lists of words, many with religious overtones, such as benediction and purification, for the children to recite. Even its famous rhyming alphabet was religious in nature.

Early textbooks were primers, spellers, or reading books. Primers provided learners with a basic introduction to reading, whereas spelling books dealt with more advanced word and sentence construction. Spellers typically concluded with simple reading passages—in particular, fables. Readers, as their name suggests, provided advanced reading material, often increasingly difficult in its content.

A New Nation

Prior to the American Revolution, British textbooks were used in colonial schools such as those by Lindley Murray. With the success of the American Revolution, the need to develop American textbooks with distinctive American versus British themes came to be seen as increasingly urgent. Most important of these efforts was the work of Noah Webster (1758–1843), who published the three-volume Grammatical Institutes of the English Language in 1783. This work, whose first volume eventually came to be known as “The Blue Back Speller” because of its blue covers, was deliberately political in its content (anti-British and pro-American).

Later known as The American Spelling Book, and, after 1829, as the Elementary Spelling Book, Webster’s spellers continued to be used into the twentieth century and sold tens of millions of copies. Webster’s speller was not the only textbook published after the Revolution that had a political agenda. Jedidiah Morse’s Geography Made Easy (1784) very consciously promoted political, social, and moral values—ones that were consciously American.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, more than a dozen different primers, readers, spellers, and arithmetic books were being published in the United States. Among them were Nicholas Pike’s New and Complete System of Arithmetic (1788) and Nathan Daboll’s School Master’s Assistant (1800). Operating under the assumption that students could already read, the arithmetic books taught that there were “rules” for every problem. Even in the arithmetic books, patriotic heroes such as George Washington appeared in the word problems.

An Expanding Field

In 1836, a professor from Ohio, William Holmes McGuffey (1800–1873), published a multivolume collection that included a primer and a set of six readers that came to dominate the American textbook market for the next fifty years. The first of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers largely reflected the moral values of the day. One distinction that set them apart was their emphasis on pacifism. The readers also included literary selections from Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare, George Gordon (Lord Byron), Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Geography textbooks such as Arnold Henry Guyot’s Physical Geography (1866) likewise reflected the biases of their authors and the beliefs of the society by dividing and ranking the races of people. Blacks were typically depicted as being childlike and unintelligent—stereotypes that continued well into the twentieth century. Religious prejudices were also found in textbooks. Jews and Catholics were often depicted in a discriminatory way: the Pope as a tyrant and Roman Catholicism as a threat to the American democracy. So serious was the prejudice against Catholics that by the 1840s, the Catholic Church began to produce its own textbooks to be used in parochial schools.

Textbooks have often been the source of controversy in American culture because they reflected regional values. Prior to the Civil War, there was a general feeling on the part of the South, for example, that most textbooks were antisouthern and reflected a northern bias against institutions such as slavery. This is not surprising because most of the textbook authors in the United States at that time came from the northern states. During the Civil War, the production and sale of distinctively southern textbooks became an important issue for the Confederate states.

Textbooks And Values

Textbooks are almost never value free: A primer teaches a child to read while introducing social values; a reader provides role models in its stories; and an American history textbook is written from a particular political point of view. The issue of the cultural content of textbooks remained an important issue during the twentieth century and even into the current era. During the late 1930s, the Progressive educator Harold Rugg (1886–1960) produced a series of American history textbooks that strongly emphasized critical thinking and the criticism of the failure of capitalism as reflected in the economic Depression that was holding the country in its grip. A systematic campaign was organized throughout the country to have his books removed from the schools.

Until very recently, history textbooks have ignored the accomplishments and roles of women in American history. The history of men, instead, was emphasized, particularly in textbooks published prior to the 1970s. In doing so, a null curriculum was promoted—in other words, the teaching of a way of knowing and understanding by not teaching about it. Cities, much less slums, rarely appeared in readers: Non-Black, nonHispanic, non-Native American children always seemed to be playing on neat lawns in front of houses surrounded by white picket fences. Slowly, the situation changed as history books began to mention more women and Black historical figures.

During the late 1960s, textbook critics such as Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas, and founders of Educational Research Analysts, a textbook evaluation group, consistently called for a more conservative political content in textbooks that reflected their rural, middle-class, and conservative Christian values. Their impact was particularly important, because they strongly influenced the adoption of textbooks at the state level. This practice, which occurs primarily in the southern states, strongly influences textbook publishers because the state committee determines whether or not public funds can be used for the purchase of textbooks at the local level.

These adoption committees and procedures are particularly important for publishers in states such as Texas, California, and Florida because of their size. A large state such as Texas, for example, guarantees millions of dollars in sales for a publisher. As a result, most publishers are not willing to risk their investment by producing textbooks that could potentially offend a broad spectrum of the population. As a result, textbooks—particularly in subjects such as history and literature—follow safe and long-established traditions, try at all costs to avoid controversy, and try to appeal to the largest audiences possible. As such, they represent consensus and often conservative works.

More textbooks are sold each year than any other type of book. As textbook authors and editors try to please the many different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in the United States, the result, more often than not, is that textbook content is more likely to be bland and acceptable rather than critical and provocative. What makes a particular textbook acceptable to an individual parent or community may make it unacceptable to another parent or in another part of the country. The pressure from special interest groups is particularly strong when considering elementary and secondary textbooks. Because the profits from these books are potentially the greatest for publishers, they are going to produce books that appeal to the largest number of people.

Increasing Controversy

Attempts to keep textbooks out of controversies do not always succeed. In March 1974, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, a controversy erupted over the content of 325 language arts textbooks that appeared on a list submitted by five teachers to the board of education for adoption. The protestors objected to the textbooks because they considered some of the authors (such as the radical African American Eldridge Cleaver) whose work was included in them to be unsuitable. They also objected to the violence, sad themes, and “dirty language” they found in the books.

What became known as the “battle of the books” raged on into the fall. Textbook protesters kept 8,000 (out of 42,000) students from attending school on September 3, 1974. Wildcat strikes broke out among local businesses and industries that supported the protestors. When the school board’s attempts at compromise with the protestors failed, they were forced to completely close the schools to protect the students. The school board removed the most controversial books from the approved list and had the books shelved in the library rather than being used in the classrooms. But the protestors were not happy with the board’s compromise: Students were removed from the schools and buses were fired upon. The Upper Kanawah County Valley Mayors Association obtained arrest warrants for the superintendent and the school     board, charging them with contributing to the delinquency of minors by adopting “un-Christian” and “anti-American” textbooks.

The school board responded by drawing up a set of guidelines for textbook adoption. The acceptable books could not contain profane language, had to encourage loyalty to the United States, and show respect for the sanctity of the home and one’s parents. By the beginning of 1975, the controversy had quieted down. Even though unusually violent, the controversy did, however, highlight the fact that dramatically different viewpoints about what should be taught in the school can exist within a particular community.

Controversies over textbooks continue to appear on a regular basis and will almost certainly continue to do so in the future. They are, by definition, the most public and easily available material found in the curriculum and can be easily subject to political and social criticism. As the most publicly visible evidence of the curriculum being taught in the schools, they are particularly fascinating to those interested in studying the educational values of a culture.


  1. Altbach, P. (Ed.). (1991). Textbooks in American society: Politics, policy, and pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Apple, M., & Christian-Smith, L. K. (1991). The politics of the textbook. New York: Routledge.
  3. DelFattore, J. (1992). What Johnny shouldn’t read: Textbook censorship in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Elson, R. M. (1964). Guardians of tradition: American schoolbooks of the nineteenth century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  5. Ravitch, D. (2004). The language police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage.

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