Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. Highly recommended.
Sociology professor James Loewen wonders why American history is, for many high school students, their most hated and least memorable subject. After all, given the clash of Native peoples with Europeans, Europeans with each other, a revolution and the founding of a republic, a bloody civil war, two world wars, the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and hundreds of years of racial tensions, American history is inherently dramatic. Moreover, studies have shown that minority students who perform well in math, sciences, and other subjects consistently underperform in American history. By examining the contents of a dozen representative textbooks, Loewen discovers what’s wrong with American history as taught — it truly is boring and bland, and, in many cases, consists of lies and half-truths. Almost worse, it is written in a simplistic, declarative style more evocative of grade-school primers than of the college-level works many high school students will soon face.
The simplest example Loewen offers is that of Helen Keller, whose touching story of overcoming disability becomes the entire story of her life, as most of us know it. Like Tom Sawyer, she is stuck in perpetual adolescence in our minds. The real Keller, however, grew up and became an outspoken advocate for the working class and the poor. In fact, she became a radical socialist. As a symbol, Keller is two dimensional, almost like a character in a moving TV movie. As a real person, Keller is also a whole person, sharing why she empathizes with the lower classes, showing courage in supporting the NAACP in the 1920s, and even revealing embarrassing lapses in judgment, like her gushing support of the Russian Revolution.
The example of Keller, paired with what the history textbooks leave out about Woodrow Wilson (his racism and imperialism, and, I would guess, his feud with progressives like Theodore Roosevelt) are minor compared to what follows. There’s the “discovery” and “exploration” of America, with the pertinent question of how a land settled for centuries can be either “discovered” or “explored.”
There’s also the largely ignored question of other possible forays into the “new” world by peoples ranging from Scandinavia to Africa. American history texts treat history as a sacred text and each explorer as an archetype, ignoring Columbus’s avaricious and vicious behaviour toward the Arawaks. One explorer is portrayed overlooking his “discovery” while wearing full armor — when, in reality, he and his party had been left with nothing but rags.
Lies covers a great deal of territory, from Columbus to the whitewashing of even recent history, like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. History texts make several egregious errors: They tell blatant untruths. They perpetuate popular myths (e.g., the first Thanksgiving). They lie by omission. They leave false impressions (e.g., the civil rights movement had no causal relationship to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965). They avoid negative images even from primary sources (e.g., the disgust Columbus’s contemporaries felt about his treatment of the Indians). They fail to portray whole people (e.g., Lincoln and Douglas are carefully edited). They distort events and attitudes (e.g., Reconstruction). They avoid conflict and controversy at all costs. They fail to make critical connections (like that between the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act). Fundamentally, they shun anything that would put history, people, and movements into context.
All fail to do what intellectual inquiry should: engage students and require them to examine information and draw conclusions about its credibility and cause and effect. Instead, students memorise (badly) the archetypes and the myths built around them without thinking about their likelihood — or improbability. And, without being asked to engage themselves with the material or the people who make history, it’s no wonder students can’t remember anything and that they see history as irrelevant today.
How have history textbooks reached this point? The fault lies with everyone from absent and indifferent authors, publishers who need to sell books, interest groups, states that prefer myth to reality, review boards that have their own agendas, and, of course, each of us who learned this myths and believes them as untouchable as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Popular culture perpetuates them.
Of course, there are the teachers who are overburdened with administrative and disciplinary tasks rather than teaching. Loewen also notes that, while math and sciences are generally taught by people with degrees in these areas, history is so low priority that it often falls to a coach, who must justify his or her sports role by holding a teaching position, whether they are qualified or not.
Loewen proposes a number of correctives. For example, he suggests teaching fewer topics. Is it necessary to memorise every European explorer who “discovered” something, or would it be more relevant to show the impact that Columbus’s expeditions had, not only on the Americas, but on the cultures, economies, and futures of Europe, Africa, and the Islamic world? Rather than regurgitating facts, students can learn the skills of criticism — how to examine the credibility of primary and secondary sources based on the writer or speaker’s viewpoint and agenda and how to put information into its broader context.
History as it happened is why we are where we are today. Rather than distort it into “feel-good” nationalism, we need to learn what it has to teach us to engage with it. I recommend this to anyone with a serious interest in American history and in the current sad state of American history education.
20 March 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf