Jonathan Zimmerman: What’s Not Being Taught About the Iraq War

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Jonathan Zimmerman, textbooks, Iraq War, school curriculum

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.

Upon the 10th anniversary of America’s war in Iraq, a critical question with serious ramifications has been little explored: What are our children being taught in schools about the conflict, as it passes from “current events” into history?

To answer this question, one obvious place to start is school textbooks. I looked at several of them, and was happily surprised. The books present a fairly complex and balanced view of the war in Iraq, avoiding the falsehoods and sugarcoating that has so often marred American history instruction. But textbooks only tell part of the story.

Just as important is what is actually emphasized in the classrooms, and the ability of teachers to engage in real inquiry. Unfortunately, a combination of school policies and judicial decisions have made it so that many kids learn little or nothing about what we have done in Iraq, or why we have done it.

I’m a professor of education and history, and wrote a book examining conflicts over history in American public schools. But for me, this probe is more than theoretical: My daughter is an 11th grader in a suburban public high school, where she takes Advanced Placement U.S. History.

Her textbook, “The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People,” has a 2009 edition that carefully examines the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It includes lengthy passages about controversial issues, including prisoner abuse overseas and domestic surveillance at home. Ditto for the 2009 edition of another textbook, “Out of Many: A History of the American People,” co-authored by Yale’s John Mack Faragher, which is also used in many high schools around the country. Its new section on the Iraq War leads off with a picture of George W. Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” photo op in May of 2003, when Bush declared that “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” But they hadn’t, of course, and the book pulls no punches about that. Parts of Iraq “plunged into chaos” after the U.S. invasion, which “strengthened a new generation of terror networks now drawn to do battle with American forces,” the book declares....

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