Facts, Opinions, Indentured Servants, and My History Textbook

Hi, Awesome Readers! (You are awesome! I’ve now had more than 4,500 hits!)

When learning about anything, but especially something like history, it’s important to remember who’s point of view a source is describing. For example, take the Civil War. Something written by a Southern plantation owner would differ drastically from something written by a Northern soldier because it is human nature to talk about your opinions as if they’re facts. There is really no such thing as a neutral source. (Sources include written or oral primary and secondary… well, sources. It’s a pretty broad spectrum.) Obviously, some sources are more biased than others. Going with my Civil War situation again, things written by a Southern sympathizer would be different than a Northern sympathizer, even if both writers tried to state the facts only, which isn’t always the case.

I think that this brings up an interesting point in education. When we sit in History class, we don’t usually think about who wrote the textbook. As my teacher last year said, the winners usually write history. In my US History textbook, there are less stories about the British side of the Revolutionary war than there are the American side. This is partly due to the fact that it’s an American book and partly just because the Americans won the War. When the people who actually lived in that time sat down and wrote out what they saw happen, it was the Patriots who’s words got published and therefore more well known, even after more than 200 years.

Over the years, there have been many places in my Social Studies and History textbooks where it becomes transparent what the authors believe or want us to believe. I remember in 6th grade that we were learning about different religions. In the sections about Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism, the authors wrote about the different stories and beliefs that are central to the religions, but made sure to put “Muslims believe…” or “In Buddhism, people…” after every couple sentences. However, in the sections about Christianity, the book would go paragraphs without specifying that these were, in fact, Christian beliefs, and not necessarily cold hard facts.

There’s nothing wrong with someone believing that their religion is correct. It’s kind of what religions tend to do. It doesn’t even really bother me that the author has opinions or that he or she is religious. I just think that we as a society need to be careful about the way things are phrased in the books that we treat as having the answers to everything school-related.

Here’s another example. This one is less subtle and probably would be less controversial in the mainstream media, but since this is a blog, I decided to include the first example anyway because that’s one of the Awesome Things About American Rights. (To see more of my opinions on rights, click here.) As I may have mentioned, the 8th grade Social Studies curriculum is American History. Right now, we’re learning about the exploration and the colonies. Because I am someone who likes to go more in-depth than we can in class, I looked up some other things about this topic and immediately noticed a trend of the differences between my textbook and other sources I could find. (I will tell more about those sources in a moment) The trend was that our book tended to be more idealistic and mention, but downplay things like inequality, death, and the (lack of) rights for women.

One of the main things that was inconsistent between my textbook and the other sources was what it meant to be an indentured servant. Our book describes the concept of indentured servitude. You work for someone for a few years, and then you get to start a great new life in the great New World. However, in the other sources I saw, it seemed as though indentured servants faced much more hardships. First of all, the period of work was generally 7-10 years, not 4-7 years as our textbook says. Secondly, many indentured servants died before their time was up. And (Minor apology to my English teacher for starting a sentence with and… creative writing follows different rules :D) …And, the workload wasn’t just some minor housekeeping. Indentured servants were basically treated as slaves until they had worked off their debt. In the colonies, you could pretty much get away with doing anything to your slaves. The life expectancy for a slave was twenty-three. Twenty-three. That’s only 10 years older than I am now. If indentured servants survived this brutal, extended work, they didn’t just get to skip off into a beautiful rainbow sunset and leave that all behind. The early colonies inadvertently developed a kind of Feudal System where plantation owners were the bosses and everyone else had to scramble for a living. There was very little movement between these levels.

You might be wondering where I got all this information that basically contradicts my textbook. The first source I looked at was a series of YouTube Videos created by John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, which by the way I really want to read. Of course, I couldn’t let one source, no matter how entertaining and witty (I really do recommend that you check out those videos) change my opinions on everything. So I headed over to the lovely Encyclopedia Britannica to look up indentured servants. When I first searched this, the first two results where “indentured labour” and “slavery (sociology)”. The encyclopedia groups indentured labor and slavery together. I checked out their results for indentured labour. It pretty much confirmed what the videos said. The only difference between slavery and being an indentured servant is that indentured labor is voluntary.

So these got me thinking even more than the other stuff. Why is it that our history textbook creates a partially glossed over, idealistic representation of the past? Do they think that 13 and 14 year olds can’t handle it? Do they share the viewpoint of an eighteenth century British king? Or (Oops… not supposed to start a sentence with “Or” either. I’ll give my teacher that one.) Is there some other reason I’m not thinking of?

I personally believe that educators and textbook writers need to be careful of what they do and don’t include in classroom discussion. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to include every single gory detail of everything, but at the same time, you have to state facts as facts. Don’t teach us that becoming an indentured servant was a way to improve life when in reality it did more harm than not to the people who went through it. There has to be a balance between treating the past as a fairytale and giving kinds nightmares, and I think we should be able to find that. Shouldn’t we?

I’d like to clarify one thing. I’m not saying that my textbook is horrible or that it’s got everything wrong or that History teachers need to rework the entire curriculum. I am saying that differentiating between fact and opinion is important.

 

Thanks for reading and as always, feel free to leave your opinions in the comments!

Naomi

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7 thoughts on “Facts, Opinions, Indentured Servants, and My History Textbook

  1. Excellent thinking! I think it is cool that you are questioning everything and noticing bias. I notice that when you read about the American Revolution, usually the writing supports the Patriots as though it was a given that their’s alone was the just cause. When you realize that British subjects lived and worked in the colony for something like 170 years before Independence it seems more nuanced. Most colonists THOUGHT of themselves as British living in the Americas. It took a big political campaign, a lot of tarrifs, political cartoons and then the foolish attack of British soldiers on local farmers to make some, then many, and eventually most feel they could forge a new identity that would get them more freedom/money/power.
    I agree with you also about the Indentured Servants, it was a terrible situation and they were not always released at the end of their contracts.
    Keep on reading, thinking and writing, thanks!

  2. Naomi, you make so many good points. The tricky part of this kind of thinking is figuring out where the cherry picking of facts crosses over into distortion. When does it cross over into the abyss of relativism –– that the answer to every question is “it depends on your point of view”? We know, for instance, that a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and that has been documented by both Japanese and American eyewitnesses. But other questions like, “What caused World War II?” are legitimately open to debate, even when historians reach consensus. It is an ongoing challenge for those of us who document social life (whether history or sociology or learning) to track when we move into interpretations and do so with awareness.

  3. Dear Naomi,
    I appreciate the thoughtful, nuanced, respectful way you approached this topic.
    Now I want to write mushy grandmother stuff…but I am restraining myself!
    Grandma Paula

  4. What got you started on this thoughtful line of inquiry? Were you actually reading your textbook and it struck you? Or the idea struck you and you found compelling examples that supported it in your academics?

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