California and Texas textbooks have their differences when it comes to teaching teenagers about American history and the way that subjects like race, gender, and immigration weave through it. But a new Stanford University study has found the two states’ U.S. history textbooks are surprisingly similar when dealing with climate change and environmental topics.
Published May 23 in Environmental Education Research, the study analyzed each word and sentence in 30 of the most popular U.S. history textbooks in California and Texas. The results suggest widely used history textbooks in the two states, which strongly influence textbook content nationwide, tend to emphasize controversy in discussions of climate science and prompt students to think about our planet’s rapid warming as a matter of opinion or a two-sided issue.
“When teaching history, it’s an important skill for students to be able to consider alternative viewpoints,” said senior study author Patricia Bromley, an associate professor at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Stanford Graduate School of Education. “But the way that this skill is being applied to climate change falsely suggests that the science is undecided.”
Scientific evidence unequivocally shows human activities, mainly through emissions of greenhouse gasses, have caused global warming. The planet’s surface temperatures are now 1.1 Celsius (2 Fahrenheit) hotter on average compared to when burning fossil fuels for energy took off in the 1800s.
Bromley and lead study author Hannah D’Apice, a Ph.D. student in international comparative education, say a better approach—found in a few of the popular textbooks they analyzed—is to invite students to consider the complex social dimensions of climate impacts and political processes for creating policies, without misrepresenting the scientific consensus around climate change.
“It matters how students are taught to see climate change as a civic issue and integrate scientific information into their understanding of what it means to be an engaged community member and citizen,” said D’Apice. “Scientific literacy is really important for social issues, public health, and long-term public well-being.”
More information: Hannah K. D’Apice et al, Climate change discourse in U.S. history textbooks from California and Texas, Environmental Education Research (2023). DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2023.2206595