Probably very briefly. The thing looks heinous. It’s designed rather like a very large catalogue. But, nonetheless, I shall persevere, and skim it for at least half an hour. I want to do something like justice to a book that a friend mentioned on his blog, about what’s wrong with high school history courses. It’s called Lies My teacher Told Me by James W Loewen. I’m willing to concede that the textbooks are very poorly written, but Leowen seems to be arguing that their biggest mistake is not being critical enough. Reading through his table of contents, it’s more or less the same tired old litany of everything not right about our country, and a few tired new things as well. The founding Fathers owned slaves. Helen Keller was a socialist. The US Government “participates in state sponsored terrorism.” There were large scale epidemics among the Native Americans. Americans do enforce an unspoken class system. And on, and on. It makes me tired just looking at the table of contents – I can hardly bear to think of the tedium of the book itself. Only textbooks themselves could possibly be more warn out in their propaganda than a writer who, in the introduction, says things like “Tests supplied by the textbook publishers then tickle students’ throats with multiple choice items to get them to regurgitate the factoids they ‘learned.'” Speaking of regurgitation, the writer’s cliched metaphors are making me queazy.
Loewen seems to be saying that people believe that they learn everything they’ll need to know about history in high school courses. Seriously?
“In retrospect I ask myself, why didn’t I think to ask for example who were the original inhabitants of the Americas, what was their life like, and how did it change when Columbus arrived,” wrote a student of mine. “However, back then everything was presented as if it were the full picture,” she continued, “so I never thought to doubt that it was.”
Textbooks aside – who could possibly go through life without hearing about the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans? Who hasn’t heard a smattering of the history of the wars between the Aztecs and the Spainards, with it’s thrilling adventures of burning ships, gold hungry soldiers, priests who cut the still beating hearts out of their human captives, pyramids running with blood, a city built on a lake, knights appearing as strange of centaurs, and on and on? Isn’t that too poetic a thing to be missed? I mean, sure it’s not in the textbook. I suppose nobody knew where to put it or what to say about it. And with both sides behaving like civilized barbarians, I suppose it’s difficult to put either a “Eurocentric” or a “noble savage” kind of spin it, making it of too complex a reading level for neat answers. But, seriously, you an get a version of this stuff anywhere – in comic books about ducks, for instance, and in video games, and popular references, and posters at the local Mexican restaurant.
I have three major objections to the introduction and content of Lies My Teacher Told Me. The first is stylistic; all the buzzwords of “regurgitating factiods” and “critical thinking.” The second is that he seems a bit petty. Making a point of saying Columbus died penniless somewhere in Portugal falls into the category of pettiness. Mentioning that the founding fathers owned slaves is perhaps less petty, but is rather like mentioning that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. It’s true, but it has little enough to do with why he’s in the history book at all. Thirdly, if, as Loewen suggests, a significant portion of the population really do learn everything they know about history from high school courses on the subject – isn’t that a bigger problem than textbooks? It’s a little like coming into an argument about the nutritional value of school lunches, and finding out half way through that school lunch is the only thing many of the kids eat all week. If everybody else is starving a child, I suppose the government should do the best it can, but the real problem is orders of magnitude bigger than that.