Lies and Damn Lies

Today, I chanced upon an alternative American history text book with the rather provocative title “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
Based on 10 years of research partly spent comparing 12 different common US high school history textbooks with the more or less accepted historical “truth” as it is decided in academic circles, the author, James Loewen paints a dark picture of what kind of history is being taught in American high schools.

He finds that in many cases, such as the story of Columbus’ discovery of America, the political leanings of Helen Keller and the policies of Woodrow Wilson, integral facts are being overlooked or transformed to fit with an image of the USA as overcoming all challenges and supporting the American way of life and liberty.

Clearly, Columbus’ rampant genocide on Haiti, Keller’s socialist sentiments and Wilson’s racist, colonialist and anti-communist policies do not fit well with these images of true American ideals.

Loewen argues that not only does this white-washing of history present American youth with blatant un-truths, but it also makes them lose all interest in learning history. The scrubbed text-books are good for multiple choice tests, but not for inspired learning as all the American heroes appear to white and unblemished, and all the drama that history is full of, becomes boring melodrama as everybody knows that there can only be one outcome: “Despite these setbacks, the United States were triumphant in its endeavors.” [sic]

Loewen not only tries to rectify some of the worst historical lies (which still seem like such a strong word, but appear to be justified), but seek to the roots of the matter of why such obvious wrongs can continue to be taught.

He finds that in the case of the textbooks themselves, it is because the publishers all seek to produce the end-all win-all history textbook. Therefore, they all attempt to appease the interests of all 50 states to ensure good sales in all states. Woe is the textbook being marketed in Vermont that doesn’t give good mention to Chester A. Arthur and equally shame on the Texan textbook that doesn’t give in-depth detail on the Alamo.

Accordingly, history text books are crammed with factoids, “main ideas” and figures to be remembered for testing, and the 12 books in Loewen’s analysis have a average length of 888 pages and weight of 4,5 pounds!

Combine that with the mildly boring blandness of these facts, it is little wonder that American students consider history the least interesting subject of all. And since 5/6ths of those high school student who do go on to get a college education won’t bother with history classes ever again (not to mention all those high-school students and drop-outs that never make it that far), the level of ignorance of foreign politics and the world outside North America among Americans should hardly be surprising.

But as Loewen also does well to point out, the history a society teaches its young is quite telling for that structure of that society. Unlike the Soviet Union, it is not a case of the State version is the only proper version, rather, it is a case of the version that the people will feel comfortable with. And as it seems, most American (white middle-class) parents, seem to prefer that the US of A is presented as a cleanly and untroublesome as possible. Just possibly to save themselves from answering to many difficult questions.

Loewen’s book is written directly to high school history teachers, not only to take them to school, but also in hope to affect the way American school children learn about history.

It is an important book, even for non-Americans, for often, the version of American history that we receive are filtered through American entertainment and information media. In that vein, I want to not just recommend this book, but also Eric Wolf’s classic anthropological history book Europe and the People Without History – a paradigmatical and very detailed break with eurocentric historiography.

Both of these authors have obvious (or ill-concealed) left-leanings, which may not be for everyone to enjoy or appreciate, but even so, their academic ability should still make their arguments worthwhile for a debate, even if you don’t agree with their political convictions.

Finally, I’ve found this alternative history textbook on America that I’m about to start reading. Looks interesting anyway.

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