Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is.    The Honorable Governor of Texas, George W. Bush

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

American History in the Unmaking

Did you know that Helen Keller was a radical socialist who helped found the ACLU? Did you know that on Columbus's second voyage were "1,200 to 1,500 men, cannons, crossbows, guns, cavalry and attack dogs?"

Why most of us don't know these things is the subject of Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James M. Loewen, who targets the whitewashing of American History in the textbooks we use to miseducate our high schoolers. Now, I must admit that I began to form a reacton of bruised white ego early on in the book. I wondered if it was necessary to include "white" in passages such as:

So long as our textbooks simply celebrate Columbus, rather then teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.
As the subtitle of the book was "Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong" I was hoping for a broader range of subject than "white:bad/color:good." I found myself pausing on the next;

Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America.
He does say "Perhaps." I would nominate perhaps the advance of transportation. I did press on, however, and I'm glad that I did so. I was certain, after all, that he wasn't talking about me, I'm far too liberal and therefore too highly perceptive to ever be hornswaggled by such obvious propaganda as high school history texts.

I hadn't however thought about how completely these textbooks disregard recent history. I'd wondered why The Daily Cardinal in Madison, upon publishing one of my letters to the editor, had in apparent confusion changed the descriptor under my name from "outside agitator, class of '69" to "UW Alumnus, class of '69". I think I found my answer in this author's statement that in the 1990's four out of five of his first year students did not know the meaning of the terms hawk and dove! Not likely, even considering the radical history of UW, these youngins' have heard of Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell or the SDS.

But then I know all about the Vietnam era, don't I? Well, Dr. Loewen had a little trick in store for me. He puts forth this chart.

College EducationHigh School EducationGrade School EducationTotal Adults
% for withdrawal of U.S. troops73%
% against withdrawal of U.S. troops27%

I'm supposed to estimate the percentages shown by a Gallop Poll done in the Vietnam era year of 1971. Do this before you move are my estimates:

College EducationHigh School EducationGrade School EducationTotal Adults
% for withdrawal of U.S. troops90%60%40%73%
% against withdrawal of U.S. troops10%40%60%27%

Now here are the actual results:

College EducationHigh School EducationGrade School EducationTotal Adults
% for withdrawal of U.S. troops60%75%80%73%
% against withdrawal of U.S. troops40%25%20%27%

By a margin of 9 to 1 educated people make the same mistake, that college educated people were more dovish. Why? The author explains:

To the degree that American History is celebratory, it offers no way to understand any problem--such as the Vietnam War, poverty, inequality, international haves and have-nots, environmental degradation, or changing sex roles--that has historical roots. Therefore we might expect that the more traditional schooling in history that Americans have, the less they will understand Vietnam or any other historically based problem. This is why educated people were more hawkish on the Vietnam War.
(and why we fail the exercise!)

We vaguely remember "student" radicals, recently from the Swift Boat ads but consistently from politically motivated sources. We don't stop to think that of course educated people were more likely to be successful and desirous to stay that way via allegiance to the cause. We jumped at the exercise without noticing that it wasn't about people who would eventually have a college education.

Using the tube as our only source we view the recent past through the present. We buy into the current rhetoric about the elite left and populist right and, unaided by historical perspective, are blissfully unaware of the ludicrousness of such concepts. We never, ever stop to think and "such nonthinking occurs most commonly when society is the subject."

So how and when might we wise up? Obviously there are alternatives to history education from text books, yet teachers of k-12 can find themselves in hot water in a hurry for encouraging the study of any material less than complimentary of American society. For our kids we want the happy news, if necessarily at the expense of ability to reason. History by rote is excruciatingly boring. Students, teachers and the coaches who invariably end up stuck in default social science positions couldn't care less about it. Yet many of these same students later become enthralled by the lessons in history taught by less "socializing" college departments and, wonder of wonder, non-adopted books!

It's a shame they need to begin so far behind the eight ball. It's a shame the vast majority of others are never exposed to nor may they benefit from the record of 99% of human existence. How would one begin to correct this? In the authors opinion:

Students will start finding history interesting when their teachers and
textbooks stop lying to them.


At 7:59 AM, Blogger JD said...

sounds like a pretty interesting book.

I read for the first time in 6 months last night...

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Bullock said...

Did you know that American historical figure Wild Bill Hickok, in the later stages of his life, had syphilis? (He only lived to be 39, wasn't killed by venereal disease but by a bullet to the back of the head in a poker game, Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876.)And that, Calamity Jane, part of Buffalo Bill's wild West show, probably was a hermaphradite?
No, I did not learn those retails from a high school history text but from a cable show on HBO. And so goes some our education process today.
The politics and agendas of high school curriculums are geared to teach pro-American values and patriotism; how to be a model citizen, recite the pledge of allegience, just the basics, ma'am-no critical or radical/alternative thinking allowed.
Only upon entering college do we fresh-faced patriotic souls get to delve into the 'darker', 'real' truths of our American heritage. That is if you wanted to. You could skirt the radical stuff and dwell in a safe major, say like elementary ed.
There seems to be no time for in-depth discussions, debates, even off-hours 'rapping' (there's my hippie past peeking thru!) about current events and events.
Suffice to say we are not in a reflective, literary age. The media sez we are in an information/tech age, whatever that means.
All this revisionist stuff comes a bit late, albeit sounding like so much sound bites and video clippage. Maybe the tech age has made it easier to find and compile 'real' information but I don't think educators know how or won't use, this information to supplement their core teachings.
Maybe it has to do with the student load; 150+ students not uncommon.Maybe it is that old conservative board vs. liberal teachers thing again.Maybe it is the dumbing-down/teaching to the median/average student thing again.
School district budget crisises all over the country compromise all of this.
I think real teachers want to teach, regardless of their circumstances and resources but have a lot of obstacles to overcome.


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