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U.S. Textbook Representations of Nonviolent Resistance During the Abolition Movement

There are multiple examples of nonviolent resistance during the Abolition Movement in the United States yet, as this research points out, the role of nonviolence during this movement is absent from four of the country’s most popular history textbooks. The teaching and learning of national history is an important aspect of most countries’ education systems. However, how these histories are taught and what they contain can vary from classroom to classroom or from book to book. The seemingly small additions or omissions in history education can have a substantial impact on a student’s national identity, historical perspectives, and understanding of democratic change.

This research analyzes four prominent high school U.S. history textbooks (see textbox). The textbooks were selected based on national textbook adoption trends and through consultation with high school educators and curriculum specialists in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. From a larger list of potential textbooks, four were selected based on the diversity of reading levels and perspectives they represented.

The authors’ analysis focuses on the types of social messaging found in the selected textbooks as they relate to accounts of nonviolence as a path to conflict resolution, specifically relating to the Abolition Movement. Three areas of focus are used to categorize the textbooks’ social messaging: narrative framing, positioning, and stance. Narrative framing draws attention to how a topic is presented so that a reader can identify with a familiar storyline, such as “the triumph of courage through the face of adversity.” Positioning highlights which historical actors are included or excluded, which actors are featured more prominently, who is the “we” and who is the “other,” and how these actors relate to important events. Stance focuses on what the textbook is arguing for or against, and the narrative tone used when making an argument. By analyzing the narrative framing, positioning, and stance used in the textbooks, the authors can compare how the textbooks depict the role of nonviolent action during the Abolition Movement.

The results of the analysis showed that all four textbooks, to varying degrees, presented the Abolition Movement as a contributing factor to the “climate of violence” that led to the Civil War and obscured or “silenced” the large network of nonviolent abolition and peace societies working to abolish slavery. By utilizing the analysis framework of the three categories of social messaging (narrative framing, positioning, stance), the authors identified key themes across textbooks and rated the intensity with which each textbook communicated these ideas:

  • Narrative Frame: the Civil War was a foregone conclusion. All four textbooks create a narrative depicting the Civil War as inevitable and the Abolition Movement as a key contributor to the development of large-scale violence but never as a nonviolent group working to prevent violence.
  • Positioning: abolitionists contributed to a climate of violence. All four textbooks label the Abolition Movement, and/or its key actors, as radical. Only one textbook clarifies that nonviolent tactics were important to many members of the Abolition Movement, but the brief attention given to the movement’s nonviolent history is quickly dismissed and overshadowed when violent action takes command of the narrative.
  • Stance: the Abolition Movement undermined national unity. All four textbooks represent the Abolition Movement as a divisive force responsible for disrupting national unity and give little attention to the movement’s contribution to creating ethical and practical arguments against slavery.

The authors suggest that these themes—and, more generally, the omission of narratives of nonviolent resistance in the Abolition Movement—can limit a student’s conception of the full range of tools available to effect political and social change. This case also illustrates the importance of providing students with access to multiple sources of historical scholarship to help them build a more complex understanding of history and how past events can influence the future.

Analyzed Textbooks:

  • The American Pageant: A History of the American People. Kennedy and Cohen, 2009.
  • A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Norton et al., 2009.
  • Out of Many: A History of the American People. Farragher et al., 2009.
  • America: Pathways to the Present. Cayton et al., 2009.

Contemporary Relevance:

Nonviolent action as a tool to achieve social or political change is often dismissed as unrealistic or nonviable. However, thanks to pioneering research by Erica Chenoweth, Maria Stephan, and others, we now know that nonviolent resistance is more than twice as effective as violent resistance. There are certainly many reasons that may explain why some still dismiss nonviolent resistance as a pipedream, but high on any list of reasons is surely the lack of attention to historical examples of nonviolent action achieving, or working towards, social or political change. The well-known historical examples of Gandhi and Indian independence and King and the Civil Rights Movement are praised, yet often dismissed as anomalies—perhaps because there is insufficient appreciation for the much broader range of contexts where nonviolent resistance has been used and changed the course of history.

The lack of attention textbooks give to nonviolence during the Abolition Movement is a prime example of how we have failed to pass down important historical narratives. The ideas and methods used during the U.S. Abolition Movement helped shape the framework of the League of Nations, influenced the various 20th century civil rights movements, and constituted an important example of choosing nonviolence over violence. When these narratives are included in the classroom, students benefit from a more complex understanding of history and of how to effect social and political change. 

Talking Points:

  1. Analysis of four prominent U.S. history textbooks revealed that all four ignored or significantly downplayed the important role of nonviolent resistance during the Abolition Movement.
  2. By omitting successful nonviolent action from our history, we encourage students to accept the view that organized violence is required to ensure a nation’s security, freedoms, or social/political growth.

Practical Implications:

Although the scope of this study was limited to four textbooks, their popularity in U.S. classrooms and their shared themes point to a serious concern in the way the United States teaches its history. At first glance, one might consider historical events as matters of fact and therefore indisputable. The telling of history is always a selective act, however, where certain voices and acts are included, while others are excluded. This comes with the danger of present-day interests constructing “official national histories” that can be exclusionary of peoples, practices, and ideas that are undesirable or uncomfortable—or that simply reinforce common-sense, but perhaps flawed, assumptions about our history and national identity.

By omitting examples of nonviolent movements in our past, students are less likely to regard nonviolent methods as viable tools in the present and more willing to accept a national identity that includes violence as a necessary step to achieve social or political change. Furthermore, this research shows how even the most popular history books will leave out important aspects of U.S. history. Educators can learn from this study and press the importance of providing students with multiple avenues of historical learning that are not contingent on the content of just one textbook and ensure that students are given the knowledge, skills, and opportunity to critically examine historical narratives. Educators can consciously employ a historiographic lens—a focus on the way history is studied and written—in their teaching, making students better aware of the problematic aspects of inclusion and exclusion of different narratives.

Continued Reading:

Citation:

Stoskopf, A., & Bermudez, A. (2017). The sounds of silence: American history textbook representations of non-violence and the Abolition Movement. Journal of Peace Education14(1), 92-113.

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