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Professor’s Textbook Promotes Greater Understanding of History Through Visuals

Saul Cornell, Ph.D., says that visually representing historical information brings a new dimension to history studies.  Photo by Gina Vergel

Saul Cornell, Ph.D., says that visually representing historical information brings a new dimension to history studies.
Photo by Gina Vergel

Saul Cornell, Ph.D., the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History, is regarded as one of the nation’s top authorities on the Second Amendment.

His books, including A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control (Oxford University Press, 2006), have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

His writing has been cited by legal scholars, historians, state supreme courts and the United States Supreme Court. Recently, he joined an amicus brief in McDonald v. Chicago in which petitioners are seeking to overturn a handgun ban and several aspects of gun registration.

In addition to being an active researcher and respected scholar, Cornell said he is deeply interested in teaching and how history is taught, particularly at the freshman level. Now, he hopes that his new collegiate history textbook will leave a lasting impression on future generations.

“It’s been adopted by 100 schools in its first semester,” Cornell said of Visions of America: A History of the United States(Prentice Hall, 2010), a two-volume set that he wrote with colleagues from Chapman University and the College of the Holy Cross.

“Writing a textbook is considered by some in the profession to be the least prestigious thing to do, yet it has the biggest impact,” Cornell said.

He and his co-authors took on the introductory-level survey textbook because most of the history textbooks out there were, quite simply, too boring, he said. They thought to create a book with graphics that would lend impact to the facts and figures normally associated with the study of history.

“I was one of the first historians to jump on the multimedia bandwagon,” Cornell said. “At first, you start doing it as eye candy, but then you begin to approach a course in a more visually sophisticated way.”

He sensed that the publisher had a similar vision when it approached him a decade ago with the idea. From the book’s inception, Cornell and his colleagues researched all of the photos themselves, a decision that he said has defined the project.

“The title of the textbook suggests the very visual nature of the design,” he said. “The visuals actually tell the stories.”

Cornell and his co-authors felt the book should feature competing visions that have defined America.

“This isn’t the first time in American history when the nation has been deeply divided,” he said. “We felt the book should look at those divisions and how they shaped the country. When we’re talking about the original view of the separation of church and state, we include people who were not so keen on it and also those who were keen on it.”

Images are usually subordinate, or even an afterthought, in a traditional textbook, Cornell said. “You never see one of the most powerful pedagogical techniques, which is compare and contrast. You see two political cartoons—one pro-Andrew Jackson and the other anti-Jackson—which shows students the history, not just tells them about it.”

Students will get a look at these ideas in a feature Cornell helped develop called Choices and Consequences, which is laid out visually, much like a flow chart.

For instance, the book presents three options available to President George Washington when western farmers began an armed rebellion to protest the whiskey tax of 1791.

• Call up the militia and immediately dispatch them to subdue the rebels by force.

• Make any necessary concessions to the rebels, including repealing the tax, thereby avoiding an armed response.

• Offer the rebels a chance to end their protest; mobilize the militia and have it ready to march if the offer was rejected.

In the end, Washington opted for the third choice. After efforts failed to peacefully persuade the rebels to stand down, he acted decisively to quash the rebellion.

In another example, the Powhatan woman Pocahontas faced a choice after Virginians kidnapped her in an attempt to keep her tribe in check.

“She has to decide what to do: wait in captivity, escape, or what she ends up doing—marrying one of her captors,” Cornell said.

In addition to relaying the historical narrative, the authors explore areas of unsettled knowledge. For instance, was Pocahontas really in love with John Rolfe or was it Stockholm syndrome, in which abduction victims fall in love with their captors?

“Women in Indian culture have a unique role to play in diplomacy because they establish blood connections with rival tribes,” Cornell said. “From Pocahontas’ point of view, she might have wanted to be a cultural ambassador. So rather than being a victim or a starry-eyed romantic character, her story becomes one of diplomacy through marriage.”

Obviously, Visions is not the first textbook to include information about Pocahontas.

“But unlike most textbooks, ours features an active learning process in which we emphasize the agency of the historical actors,” Cornell said. “The idea of Visions is not just pictures, it’s visually representing information. The flowchart of Choices and Consequences is a different way to do that.”

After reading the chapter on “Politics in Jeffersonian America,” a student said that it was the first time she truly understood Jefferson and slavery so graphically, according to Cornell.

“We included a large pictogram that represents Monticello, the mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson. It shows Jefferson, his family of nine, his 14 white laborers and the 108 slaves working on his mountaintop so he can live in the big house,” he said. “That presentation utilizes a dimension that is not part of traditional textbooks because the information there is static.”


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