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Lies my teacher told me

Posted by on Aug. 20, 2012 at 8:50 AM
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I have just started reading this book and I was wondering if anyone else has read it?  There were so many things I never realized that was in the history textbooks that were outright lies.  It is really great book.  I have not finished it yet but I just wanted to share it with everyone.   I remember for the longest time hating history.  I was turned on to history while in high school by a great teacher that loved history.  We never once read our textbook unless we needed info.  We took notes on his lectures.  The lectures interesting and full wonderful stories.  We also had a lot of engaging discussions between the teacher and the students.  We loved discussing controversies.  Right now I am reading The Story of Us by Joy Hakim to my sons.  I am wondering how it compares to what he is teaching.  It is a 10 volume set.  Each section is short and my sons and I usually have some interesting discussions about what happened.  We also read a lot of books on different people in history.  Last year we studied the history and physics of aviation.  We had so much fun.  We didn't really dive all of one section of history but we learned a lot about the Wright brothers.  My sons also had a lot of fun learning about Gail Halvorsen the Chocolate bomber.  We had an interesting conversation about World War 2.   I love to hear your thoughts.  Have a great week.

Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

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 under perform 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. Fundamentally, they shun anything that would put history, people, and movements into context. They fail to make critical connections (like that between the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act). They therefore 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.


by on Aug. 20, 2012 at 8:50 AM
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jessradtke
by on Aug. 20, 2012 at 10:38 AM

I read Lies My Teacher Told Me quite a while back. It was good, but by the time I read it I had already read  other books that addressed many of the things in that book. Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" was a particular favorite of mine, but I had also read a lot of biographies and first hand accounts. There was one HUGE volume that I read that was all letters and diary accounts of first hand witnesses to various events throughout history. Fascinating stuff! I like to read a lot of different versions of historical events like that. I think that's the only way to really get any sort of persepctive on history...to try to see historical events the same way I see events happening today, not just as something that happened TO people "back then", but as events that real, living people at the time struggled with and had varied reactions to. I think that's what I remember taking away from that book and others like it - the fact that history is not set in stone just because it's over. There are many ways to look at the same events. That's what I try to pass on to my kids. I don't want to just hand them all the "right facts". I want to help them understand that historical events were just the current events of that time period and can be seen very differently depending on how you look at them.  

  

     PEACE,

   JESSICA

LindaClement
by Group Owner on Aug. 20, 2012 at 10:57 AM

I haven't read this, but I used to watch a great documentary program called Myth America, that tore apart a lot of the 'canon' US history.

Did you know the Canadians burned down the White House?

jen2150
by Member on Aug. 20, 2012 at 11:24 AM

I would say some of the things I have know from the book and others were not surprising to me but definitely more detailed information.  During the last couple of years while studying about Tesla and Edison, I have learning some very surprising things about Edison.  One thing I have idea I have driven home to children is that while I will never lie to them I am not always going to be right.  I am wrong quite often.  They know not to believe everything they read or see.  We really need to look at different sources and be very critical over what we read.  Last week when my son told me about white holes.  I asked him what was his source and then I went do some looking around using different sources.  That is what I want them to do.  

I did not realize that about Canadians.  It does not surprise me though.  Lately it seems like few things I hear about history surprises me all that much.

faeriemom1972
by Member on Aug. 20, 2012 at 1:11 PM
1 mom liked this

Well, I love history and I am still surprised by it. I learned a long time ago not to trust what I was taught in middle school history though! 

LindaClement
by Group Owner on Aug. 20, 2012 at 1:20 PM

During the War of 1812... it was kind of a retaliation against the American plan to invade Canada :D

Quoting jen2150:

I would say some of the things I have know from the book and others were not surprising to me but definitely more detailed information.  During the last couple of years while studying about Tesla and Edison, I have learning some very surprising things about Edison.  One thing I have idea I have driven home to children is that while I will never lie to them I am not always going to be right.  I am wrong quite often.  They know not to believe everything they read or see.  We really need to look at different sources and be very critical over what we read.  Last week when my son told me about white holes.  I asked him what was his source and then I went do some looking around using different sources.  That is what I want them to do.  

I did not realize that about Canadians.  It does not surprise me though.  Lately it seems like few things I hear about history surprises me all that much.


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