It’s Time to Rethink Our Reliance on Standard Textbooks Put Out by Big Name Publishers

tags: environmental history, textbooks

Dan Allosso is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation in Environmental History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Dan also has an M.A. in Latin American History and a B.S in Agricultural Economics. Before returning to graduate school, Dan spent 25 years in the technology industry, in a variety of sales, marketing, and systems engineer roles in large and small companies. Dan runs a website for his American Environmental History class at and blogs about Environmental History at He is the author of American Environmental History: Part One (2015), which is now available on Apple’s iTunes and iBooks for free.

Earlier this year I wrote about the deficiencies of textbooks and why I think US History needs to incorporate Environmental History. The post drew comments from Dr. Jim Loewen, an HNN blogger whose book Lies My Teacher Told Me is the core text in the setting-the-record-straight genre. In addition to reminding me of this, Dr. Loewen chided me for an editing error in my post. I'm not writing today about that, but to make the case for self-publishing, which Dr. Loewen implied might be a bad idea if it led to editorial errors like the slip that appeared in the post.

I could argue that I've seen plenty of typos and punctuation errors in professionally-published books, but I'm not going to. Both professionals and amateurs seeking a wide audience should try to produce perfectly-edited copy. That's obviously a bigger job for the self-publisher who is paying out of pocket for editorial services or self-editing. But it's a responsibility we accept when we take on the role of publisher.

The bigger issue, I think, is specifically what Dr. Loewen discussed in the rest of his comment to my post. In the decades since he wrote Lies, not that much has changed in American History textbooks. Although his work spawned a popular genre with people as diverse as Glenn Beck and John Stewart intervening to tell the stories left out by history textbooks, I think Dr. Loewen has a point when he says "my book had obviously little influence on publishers" of textbooks. Why then are we still looking to those same publishers to produce a better batch of textbooks? We keep getting the same; only the prices seem to change.

In addition to a business model that allows much lower prices, the key advantage of self-publishing is that revisions are instant. A typographical error can be corrected by the simple upload of a revised master file into the production system. More important, as new data becomes available, a text can be revised to reflect the best current information. My American Environmental History textbook begins in prehistory and traces the migration of early humans across Eurasia and ultimately into Beringia and the Americas. This is a period where new evidence and interpretations are reported regularly, especially from ongoing genome studies. Being able to update the text with new information, just as I update my lectures each semester, has already been very useful.

The most common argument against self-publishing, I think, is the lack of quality control through peer review. Again, I could argue that I've read plenty of professionally-published  work I thought could have used a little more review. But again, that's not the point. Ideally, both professionally-published and self-published books should be held to high standards of accuracy, good prose, and readability (not the same thing, as readers of academic monographs well know!).

So here we are, writing and reading about this online in what could be part of a peer-review network for the digital age. What would it take for serious historians and educators to begin engaging with authors who are serious enough to make the effort of writing and self-publishing their work? The advantage of critiquing a self-published work is that the critique goes right to the author, who is more likely to consider it and act accordingly. An author interested in accurate historical representation and fair interpretation isn't likely to ignore the types of criticisms Dr. Loewen made of the textbooks he reviewed. And an author deliberately trying to deceive or mislead his or her readers is more easily discredited. The situation certainly wouldn't drag on for two decades, as it has with the textbook industry!

The downside, of course, is there may be a couple more typos in a book produced by one or two people than a book produced by an invisible army of corporate employees. The upside, in my opinion, would be books that are more up to date, more relevant to contemporary issues, and more original than what often makes it through the corporate publishing mills. 

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