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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Teaching What Really Happened by James W. Loewen

James W. Loewen is not a historian, but he is definitely a college level educator.  When he discovered that his students had extremely inaccurate ideas about U.S. history, he investigated high school social studies and history classes to discover how and why his students acquired such ideas.  Then he gave some thought to how high school teachers could remedy the situation.  He has written a number of books on the subject that have become influential in the field.  I only recently encountered them on Goodreads.  The one that I just read is Teaching What Really Happened.


As the cover indicates, textbooks are one of the barriers to genuine learning about history.   Textbook publishers don't want to offend school boards.  In some cases, this means that textbook writers must avoid telling the truth about historical events and historical personages. Christopher Columbus, slavery, the Civil War, Native Americans,immigration, the Great Depression, Japanese American internment, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement have been among the most sensitive topics for high school history textbooks.

Loewen  discusses why these topics are so sensitive.  He points to systemic racism and the belief in American exceptionalism as root causes for textbook inaccuracies.  

Unfortunately, policies such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core have emphasized standardized testing based on these flawed textbooks.  This discourages teachers from developing creative solutions to this problem.  Americans really need to oust these failed policies and come up with a new consensus about education. Loewen doesn't have to deal with current K-12 educational standards, so he is free to propose alternatives.   

One technique that Loewen suggested was textbook critique.   Comparing passages in different textbooks on the same topic and discussing their adequacy is one approach.  He also encouraged students to do research to prove that their textbooks weren't telling the truth.   I imagine that if teachers gave students extra credit for showing how textbooks are wrong, this could be a very popular assignment.

Sometimes omissions are a textbook issue. Loewen mentions that high school history textbooks didn't include the fact that in the 18th century Wall Street was where slave owners  went to sell the labor of their slaves, and others hired their labor.  Since I lived in New York when I was in high school, learning this aspect of the history of Wall Street would have been a way for me to understand how slavery was integrated into urban New York society.  Like most high school students, I thought at the time that slavery was something that happened on Southern plantations.  I didn't know about slavery in New York.

Another revelation about Wall Street is that the wall that was built to defend the colony at that location was erected after the supposed purchase of Manhattan Island for $24.   Loewen argued that if they were still being attacked by the former residents, it isn't likely that Manhattan was sold for $24 or any other price.  The commemorative plaque is bizarre.  The Dutch purchaser is dressed for winter and the Native American was hardly dressed.  He was also wearing a Plains headdress which was not traditional for the locals.  Draw your own conclusions.

This was only one example of  historical event markers that are either inaccurate in their portrayal of the event, or commemorate an event that didn't take place at all.  Loewen made this the primary subject of his book Lies Across America which I'll definitely want to read.

Another example was a marker at Almo, Idaho commemorating a massacre supposedly committed by Native Americans that apparently never took place.  Loewen researched it and was unable to find any evidence that it ever happened.  He commented that the description on the marker employs the false stereotype of  Indians "circling the wagons" in wagon trains on their way West.  This never happened in reality.  Loewen supports the view that the origin of "circling the wagons" came from Wild Bill Hickock's Wild West show where the performers portraying the attackers had to circle because the performances took place in circus rings.  The Wild West shows influenced people's perception of history.

I found this information fascinating because I recently read and reviewed From A High Tower, a novel by Mercedes Lackey. A central plot sequence in this book involved a 19th century American Wild West show touring Germany. The tour had to change its portrayal of Native Americans because Germans had been influenced by the novels of  bestselling German writer, Karl May.  Neither the original perception of Native Americans in the Wild West show nor the fictional portrayal of Karl May can be said to be accurate.  This illustrates that if we want to know what really happened, we may need to strip away more than one layer of falsification.

I was surprised to learn that one of the historical lies that continues to be perpetuated today is that medieval people believed that the earth is flat.  They actually didn't.  In Loewen's presentation on Columbus, which was later published as a book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, he included a photo of  a globe displaying a map of the world which dates back to 1492.  Columbus supposedly returned with the evidence that the world was round in 1493.  Since at least one globe already existed, I don't suppose it was much of a revelation.

After reading this book, I'm willing to declare myself a fan of James W. Loewen.  It may be difficult to uncover historical truth in some cases, but I applaud Loewen for prioritizing it and showing the importance of historical truth for all of us.





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