Real People, Real History, Real World

I finished Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. I read the first edition, published in 1995.  I was particularly taken with his description of the more recent past and how poorly books address it: that “recent past” in 1995 was my own childhood: Vietnam, the energy crisis, and environmental degradation.  No wonder my generation tends to be a bit more cynical than say my Boomer friends who grew up with Howdy Doody and “I like Ike!” No textbook, no matter how rosy its outlook, can put a positive spin on Nixon or, for that matter, Love Canal.

There’s an update and I took a glance at the comments in Amazon.  Mostly, Loewen gets accused of his own left wing, anti-American, anti-white-male bias, a charge he anticipates and even tries to address in the book.  For instance, after revealing the people behind the caricatures of Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, he suggests that seeing them as real people means that we provide authentic role models to students who might help them as  they face their own decisions and the potential consequences: “For when textbook authors leave out the warts, the problems, the unfortunate character traits, and the mistaken ideas, they reduce heroes from dramatic men and women to melodramatic stick figures.  Their inner struggles disappear and they become goody-goody, not merely good” (p. 27).  What Loewen argues for throughout the book is simply a more realistic viewpoint.  We don’t need to go from America the perfect to America the horrible; instead, we need to learn a realistic view of our nation that, like many others, struggled in sometimes incredibly hypocritical ways to define and practice its values, a struggle that continues today and in which every citizen can play a role.

I do wish he would reconsider the title: the book is really about textbooks, not teachers, who while they do have some control over how they teach, often have no control over what they teach. But Lies My Textbook Told Me just isn’t a snappy a title, is it?  This is another one of those complex issues that gets simplified by being laid at the door of the teachers.

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