Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"I ain’t the world’s best writer, ain’t the world’s best speller
But when I believe in somethin,'’ I’m the loudest yeller"

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

by James W. Loewen

Not too long ago a shocking realization hit me. Though I was an attentive history student in high school, and later earned a college degree in American history, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about the Vietnam War. How could that happen, I wondered?

How could someone who spent so much time studying history in school, and even more time studying it outside of school, be ignorant of such an important event? And more importantly, if it had slipped by me, what about others like me?

James Loewen provides the answer in Lies My Teacher Told Me. It turns out that 90 percent of high school history classes never even mention Vietnam – and those that do paint an incomplete and misleading picture. Loewen believes American students are being systematically lied to and misled in their history classes.

His book chronicles the litany of outrages perpetrated in those history classes and in our educational system as a whole. Though its unabashed left-wing perspective makes it unlikely to appeal to our country’s conservative educational institutions, Loewen’s book should be a wake-up call for anyone interested in history or education.

History, ultimately, is a selection of facts, and Loewen argues convincingly that current textbooks have chosen to include all the wrong facts. It is no wonder that most students find history boring when it is taught as merely a succession of presidents, with a pleasant little war every now and then to spice things up.

But shouldn’t students learn all aspects of our history? Instead of being spared the unpleasantness of racial violence, shouldn’t they learn that over a three-year period in the 1860s, an average of one African-American per day was murdered in Hinds County, Mississippi?

Shouldn’t American students learn that president Woodrow Wilson was a vicious racist and that the Federal government, which was integrated when he took over, had been purged of African Americans by the time he left office?

Shouldn’t they learn about the government’s kidnapping and deportation of thousands of Mexican-Americans – including many who had been born in the United States – in the 1930s? Shouldn’t they learn about the concentration camps in which Japanese Americans were confined during World War II?

Shouldn’t they learn about Paul Robeson, perhaps the most talented performing artist in American history, whose acting and singing career was prematurely ended by McCarthyism? Shouldn’t they learn that America’s foreign policy during the 20th century consisted of violently overthrowing the government of any country that refused to bow to U.S. corporate interests? Shouldn’t they learn that the CIA, acting on behalf of the United Fruit Company, hunted down and murdered one of the century’s most important revolutionaries, Che Guevara, in 1967?

But there are no villains, Loewen points out, in American history textbooks. No American has ever done anything wrong. Bad things just “happen.” In high school history there are slaves but no slaveholders, wars but no warmongers, crimes but no criminals. After all, it might confuse students to learn that Thomas Jefferson raped slave women, or that Abraham Lincoln often used the word “nigger.”

Textbooks do a good job of covering up for American heroes, but in doing so they rob education of its greatest potential lesson: that in life, there are no easy answers. George Orwell’s 1984 was supposed to be satire, but the prediction he made in it – that history would be falsely rewritten by the government in order to remove its most distasteful aspects – has become literally true.

American history as taught in public schools is propaganda of the highest order, just like that once used in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The result of all this, sadly, is that one can learn far more about how our society works from a single Ani DiFranco song than from an entire U.S. History textbook.

Why is history taught like this? The main reason is that textbook publishers, to ensure that their books will make money, self-censor their works to remove all material that might remotely offend someone. Because textbook adoption committees in most states are dominated by a powerful and well-organized coalition of right-wing activists, books dealing honestly with issues of race and social class have no hope for adoption. In most high schools history is not a form of education, but of indoctrination.

Textbooks’ sunny, blindly patriotic view of history discourages activism by promoting the falsehood that if one does nothing, everything will turn out fine in the end. A textbook then becomes merely a tool for preservation of the status quo – it keeps the Haves in control, and assures the Have-nots that there is no need to worry.

In Texas, state law explicitly states that “textbooks shall not contain material which serves to undermine authority.” Perhaps this is why Texas students are never taught that theirs is the only state that has fought three wars – the Texas War for Independence, the Mexican War of 1845, and the Civil War – to preserve slavery.

The most common theme in American history textbooks is the idea that the United States is a land of opportunity, and that anyone, no matter how poor, can succeed through hard work – an idea that is pure hogwash. Authors conveniently omit the statistics showing that the United States has the world’s greatest disparity between rich and poor, and that opportunities for social mobility are far fewer here than in most other countries.

Textbooks fail to chronicle how corporate influence over government has steadily increased since 1900. They ignore the fact that in order to aspire to our nation’s highest office – the presidency – one must be born white, male, and rich.

But history textbooks are utterly unconcerned with such social issues. U.S. history as taught in textbooks is nothing more than blind patriotism, a flag-waving story of American achievement. For those of us who cannot wave such a flag, it is a history that rings false.


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