Textbook History started as a journal of social history as filtered through twentieth century American biology textbooks. Inspired by the work of Jim Endersby, John Rudolph, Donna J. Drucker, and Ronald L. Numbers, among other notable historians, it has evolved into an exploration of the intersection of popular history, popular science and popular culture since the industrial revolution.…
In the decades following Reconstruction, a decade-plus (1863-1877) effort by Congress to enfranchise and empower the 4,000,000 formerly enslaved people who resided in those states, American history textbooks, academic histories and popular histories constructed a narrative that provided white citizens absolution by positioning Reconstruction as a “tragic era” of “scalawags” and “ignorant negroes” manipulated by invaders from the North, “carpetbaggers,” who “swarmed” South after the Civil War to pillage and humiliate.
This essay traces the development of this supposedly “tragic” narrative through a review of American history textbooks published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
To our Rachel Carson-tuned ears, the word conservation means allowing nature to hold sway, to designate areas as wetlands, protected habitats and forever wild, to be humble and accept that nature is usually smarter than we are. But to biology textbook authors in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, influenced by the eugenic ideas of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and others, conservation meant something else entirely. It meant first, preserving select symbols of American virility, like the redwood tree, the bison, and most importantly, their own “great race,” and second, managing the rest of nature – forests, water resources, wildlife, and soil – so that it could be exploited maximally without collapse.
After a 96-year embargo (thanks, Sonny Bono), copyrighted works from the early- and mid-1920s are finally entering the public domain. As of January 1, 2022, this list will include textbooks and other works by prominent biologists and educators published in 1926, including Samuel. J. Holmes, George W. Hunter, Truman J. Moon, and Alfred Kinsey (yes, that Alfred Kinsey – see related article).
Why is 1926 so important? It was the year after the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Publishers, spooked by the possible loss of sales in the south and everywhere else evangelicals held sway, encouraged authors to edit their texts in response. For an overview, I encourage you to read Adam R. Shapiro’s article on the topic … and mine. But now that you can do your own primary document research, you can also examine these textbooks for yourself.
A visionary naturalist in the early 1940s on the order of Rachel Carson, by the 1960s, college biology professor Gairdner B. Moment devolved into a reactionary critic of the emerging culture of environmentalism he had helped spawn, and is remembered today as the scientist who wanted grizzly bears eliminated.
By 1940, biology’s core eugenics-based narrative had been dramatically weakened. Yet the demand for a curriculum that could control adolescent sexuality, had, if anything, only increased since the 1920s. Worries about what their sons and daughters were getting up to in the backseats of their new cars or in the sketchy motor courts popping up at the edge of town provided a fertile landscape for experimentation, even in a down market.
Downloadable PDF of Ella Thea Smith’s 1932 mimeographed and hand bound textbook.
Piltdown man’s dramatic entry into textbooks starting in the mid-1930s was a reactionary effort by Henry Fairfield Osborn to infiltrate the debate on human origins and freeze in place his favored ideas of human evolution and the necessity of eugenic management.
The consequences were tragic.
By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.
The relative priority of the topic of eugenics in the American biology curriculum graphed based on direct examination of 83 high school biology textbooks and 43 college-level biology textbooks published in the United States between 1904 and 1973. (Also see associated database).
Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries gained global fame in the first decades of the twentieth century for being the guy who finally figured out how evolution worked. Today he is all but forgotten. Should he stay that way? Or are their good reasons to remember “dead end” scientific theories and the people who loved them?