Saturday, May 28, 2011

A book to make White People angry

Okay, the title is unfair.  But, there is some truth to it, because this week I look at Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  And boy, is it a doozy.

The premise of Lies revolves around the idea of addressing the false history that is currently taught in our schools, tackling everything from the horrifying treatment of Native Americans by Colombus (and the Europeans in general), the seedy, shady doings of the US government and foreign relations, and even how U.S. History gets things such as slavery and Civil Rights so wrong.  The book also knocks a few U.S. presidents and other heroes off their pedestals, and expands upon a few narratives we have given some of our heroes (did you know that Helen Keller was a radical socialist? And that Woodrow Wilson was a raging white supremecist?  You do now).

If you've never heard of it, sociologist and historian James W. Loewen has thoroughly reviewed 12 textbooks currently used by school across American and examined them for historical accuracy. The results don't look to good. Aside from blatantly omitting crucial facts and breezing over the parts that make the U.S. look bad, Loewen points out that the most glaring error of these textbooks is that, simply, they are racist.  They only tell one kind of history: white history.

I found myself absolutely shocked to learn (rather, re-learn) my history about Native American Indians, the Reconstruction, even slavery and the Civil Rights Era.  The US has been far from perfect to minority groups, particularly racial minorities, and our treatment of them throughout history seems to be continually glossed over.  Loewen points out that,

Teachers and curricula that present African history and African Americans in a positive light are often condemned for being Afro-centric.

 Yet, he remarks, nothing is said about the portrayal of white Americans.  History is told from a Euro-centric point of view, with which no one seems to have a problem.  It makes me think of current legislation in Tucson, where there is a battle between the state superintendent Tom Horne, and the Tucson Unified School District, over what is called "Raza studies," or simply, race studies from Latino and Native American points of view.  Horne has said that these curricula should be banned, "because [they are] aimed primarily at members of one race, and we have testimony that this has promoted resentment toward one race."  Further,

But the bill would go beyond Tucson's Mexican-American offerings and would end other ethnic-centric courses, Horne said. Students would still be exposed to other cultures and traditions.
"You do it in the regular social-studies class," he said. "And you do it within the (state) standards."

The only problem with Mr. Horne's reasoning is that "regular" social-studies DO promote one race over the other - the white race.  And they DO promote resentment in other races - races that are not white.  The fact that history is not taught from the Native American point of view, who were indeed the first Americans, is evidence enough of that.  But this is where Loewen's struggle comes in.  While his book is noble, it also threatens the status quo.  It knocks white people down a notch.  That's something I'm personally okay with, but not everyone is at that point yet, and face it, there's nothing that makes white people angrier than being forced to recognize their privilege.  The total wrong-doings of slavery and the Civil War era regarding blacks is also far more stringent than any textbook would dare to present, out of fear of disrupting the establishment, not being adopted by mainly white school boards, and so on. 

And that's where Loewen gets to the crux of his argument (well, one of his cruxes...).  Books are sterilized, afraid of portraying anyone in a bad light, and certainly not in any position to promote controversy.  And this is a shame.  As Loewen writes:

Presenting a controversy seems somehow radical.  It invites students to come to their own conclusions.  Textbook authors don't let that happen.  They see their job as presenting "facts" for children to "learn," not encouraging them to think for themselves.  Such an approach keeps students ignorant of the reasoning, arguments, and weighing of evidence that go into social science.

This leads into another point of the book - how we teach history is all wrong.  Textbooks are tertiary sources.  Students (and teachers) need to rely on primary sources and lean into controversy.  With the internet readily available in nearly every school nowadays, this is easy.  By presenting history as real and controversial, instead of sterile and neatly sutured, students will be more engaged and more willing to learn.  Most importantly, they'll learn to think critically and make decisions for themselves, and not spout off misguided factoids without any real thought.

Now, I'm not going to make Lies out to be a perfect book.  It isn't.  Unfortunately, Loewen's bias and obvious disdain for anything on the right side of the political spectrum weakens his overall argument (and violates one of his own criticisms - his analysis, particularly of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, offers only one point of view, instead of offering enough controversy to generate thought and discussion, and allowing individuals to come to their own conclusions).  Further, his prose violates another one of his own criticisms - at times, it's far too long-winded, and Loewen drags points out for far to long, ultimately losing the reader's engagement at times.

That being said, the book is absolutely worth taking a look at, regardless of your personal political affiliation.  Right-leaning individuals may scoff at some of his ideas, or dismiss his findings and analysis, but Loewen has done a bang up job providing citations and references to back up his conclusions and his historical revisions.  This is a book that will make some people uncomfortable - but that's okay!  People need to be challenged, and hopefully, this book will do just that.

Loewen also offers some great ideas for how to revamp the teaching of history - but I'll talk about that more next Wednesday.

P.S. If you want to read more about the "Raza studies" bill, a brief introduction is here.

If you are interested, here are some other links:

Save Ethnic Studies AZ

Law and Border

Law and Border - La Raza Studies Documentary


  1. Hm, I have not read the book, but I have heard of it, and talked with my mother (who is a teacher herself, though not a social sciences one so perhaps not the perfect example) and I would say I agree with a lot of the points you bring up that he pointed out.

    I, myself, was in a AP US History/AP English III class and was extremely lucky enough to have AMAZING teachers. Our whole civil rights unit in history was accompanied by "Invisible Man" in English, and the teachers were constantly using references on both sides of the border to emphasize points. I guess what I'm trying to get to is that its not only the textbook that matters, its the teachers that use it. I've been fortunate in that I have never had a teacher just use a textbook as the end all be all for the class, instead using their own education and background, along with primary and secondary sources, to teach the lessons. The textbooks have been, at best, a good synopsis or summary of the subjects we went over. A fast way to remind yourself of some of the major events, but by no means your first source of information. This, personally, is where I think most subjects should gravitate towards in terms of textbook usage (I haven't quite figured out math textbooks yet...) because in the end, you simply aren't going to be able to fit enough information in a textbook, and why should you try? The teacher is there for a reason, especially in high school settings where a teacher is specialized for that particular field of study. Textbooks are supplementary and should stay that way.

    Just thought I'd throw my two cents in. I really enjoyed the post, and will probably end up reading this book at some point. Keep em' coming!

  2. Thank you so much for the comment! You know, you have an excellent point, and to his credit, Loewen does commend the teachers who do exactly what you have just said. I LOVE that you read "Invisible Man" in high school! So awesome!

    Loewen makes an additional point that unfortunately, most teachers just don't have time to devote to researching primary sources and developing professionally - they are already underpaid and overworked. But, this is a topic I am interested in looking at more closely on Wednesday.

    Thanks again for reading! Warms my heart!

  3. A very moving entry, Alex. I haven't read that book in particular, but I'm well aware of the frightening truth in racism. The fact that people always view things as focused on this race or that culture as "outside the norm", when all they do is wallow in the white culture without considering what that means to anyone else.

    Worse, though, is the ignorance of the majority when classifying things. "African-American"? One of our close black American friends has no history in Africa. His family are from Haiti and Jamaica. If he wanted to see more black Americans represented in historical teaching, it wouldn't be from an "Afro-centric" perspective at all.


  4. Thanks, Ashlee! It's a very good book.

    And you bring up a very good point. Our society just does a terrible job in general teasing out the nuances of race. Race is a subject we still are wholly ignorant on, mostly because it's painful for our society to face.