Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Teaching and Learning the Truths of Our History: James Loewen’s New Book

When scholar and educator James W. Loewen published Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong in 1995, he based his claim on careful examination of the 12 most influential US history textbooks in our public schools. At that time, “the” textbook was a teacher’s main resource, the stuff of the curriculum. Schools purchased 1000-page survey texts that chronicled (usually literally chronologically) the history of America.

Loewen examined the content of those widely used texts and found them to be at best incomplete and at worst completely inaccurate.  From partial accounts that omitted the least savory of America’s past to “facts” that were in fact erroneous, Loewen revealed the content of these textbooks, and thus of much of the “history” that America’s youth were encountering in their required history courses, to be creating a false narrative of America’s successes and a silence about its injustices, failures, and questionable policies.

For his comparisons, he often sought out official US government documents of historical events; the textbooks’ brief and often uncritical accounts of the US war in Vietnam were prime examples of textbook content that directly contradicted even official sources.   Similar investigations of such historical periods as Reconstruction and of such American luminaries as John Brown and Abraham Lincoln contrasted the historical record, as documented by numerous and varied serious historians’ analysis of the record, with “hero-villain” and other simplistic renderings in the texts.   His discussion of the portrayal of Native Americans throughout our history as well as at pivotal moments of treaties, Indian “removal” and oppression are vital corrections to the record, as are his calling out the lack of information about Japanese internment and other systemic injustices.

Lies My Teacher Told Me has just been released in a third edition. It belongs on every history teacher’s desk, in every school library, in teacher education programs preparing the next generation of social studies teachers.  Much has changed since the original edition was published:  many schools no longer buy textbooks but rely on “digital resources” produced by the big testing companies to be “aligned” with their state-mandated tests, further reducing the historical content to fragments of fact conducive to the company’s own multiple-choice tests.  Some schools are even considering eliminating social studies departments and subsuming history and government courses into English-Language Arts departments as “reading skills for non-fiction.” Content-free "skills."  The “lies” – the omissions and glossy narratives – are not, then being told by teachers themselves so much as being packaged, in textbooks or digital formats, for students’ passive consumption.

Loewen directly addresses the current political climate in which “alternate facts” are not the satire of writers at The Onion, but pronouncements from the White House, when claims of “fake news” are used to cover the painful realities of injustices, conflicts of interest, and official malfeasance.    Loewen truly believes that knowledge is power.  If our students are ignorant about their history, they will be more likely to be passive rather than active citizens and more likely to be vulnerable to those who would use “alternate facts” to manipulate them and run roughshod over their rights. 

From his Preface to the third edition, Loewen's vision for teaching the truths of our shared history:

"First, the truth can set us free. That is, when we understand what really happened in the past, then we know what to do to cause our nation to remedy its problems in the present.....Second, there is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.  When we achieve justice in the present, remedying some past event or practice, then we can face it and talk about it more openly, precisely because we have made it right.....Conversely, a topic that is mystified or distorted in our history, like secession, usually signifies a continuing injustice in the present, like racism.  Telling the truth about the past can help us make it right from here on."

Loewen could have added that only teaching which faces, embraces, and examines the truth is credible to our students.  And only truthful teaching empowers them to value themselves as thinkers and learners who will be active in civic life.

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