American history, revisited

Over the past few weeks, reading two books had a profound impact on the way I see the country I live in and the structure of its society. The books are Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen and These Truths by Jill Lepore.

Loewen, a college professor, conducted an extensive survey of high school textbooks in order to figure out why students in his introductory courses had such a problematic understanding of the nation’s history. Loewen describes the results of his examination of more than 10 textbooks that are commonly used throughout the United States. Since the initial publication of Lies in the late 1990’s, the author has conducted followup studies and prepared new editions. The book is timeless, however, in its indictment of issues stemming from the publishing industry to school boards and whose tentacles extend into the classroom and therefore into the knowledge bases of generations of students.

The book examines a variety of topics that are typically studied in American history classes, from Columbus “discovering” North America to the Civil War and the War on Terror, and including towering historical figures such as George Washington. Most chapters tackle one specific subject. For example, the Pilgrims and the story of the “first Thanksgiving” as taught in the classroom is cross-examined using primary sources which take into consideration the staggering number of Native Americans who were slaughtered at the hands of European invaders, who stole food and land from native people and infected them with diseases.

Loewen discusses the concept of hero worship and how young people frequently find history to be boring. Why wouldn’t they, when lessons on Helen Keller end with her learning to speak? What if Keller’s advocacy for those with disabilities was considered, as well as her embrace of socialism? Young people are taught that the Founding Fathers essentially invented democracy and that they were formidable men without blemish. We teach our children nothing about how the Framers wrestled with issues of equality, religion, and slavery as they wrote the Constitution. The challenges that these ordinary men faced are ignored or glossed over.

While Loewen is clearly pushing an agenda by proving that textbook publishers cobble together historical fiction narratives, (many of the people credited as “authors” of textbooks don’t write a single word) he does an excellent job of presenting a more nuanced portrayal of the American story. He also presents a compelling reason for why students find history boring. There’s no conflict. American history is presented by flawed textbooks and their tedious, convenient lesson plans as a series of facts to be memorized — state capitals, important dates, battlegrounds, names and topics — all items that can be assessed by standardized tests. There’s no narrative arc, no confronting of challenges. Wars suddenly “break out” instead of lessons describing the tension bubbling under the surface. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and slaves were free; no additional racial issues are addressed until the Jim Crow era is briefly mentioned. Protests against the Vietnam War are acknowledged but the My Lai massacre is missing.

How can students learn to synthesize information, form opinions, or think critically if they aren’t provided with facts? Historically accurate American history includes some upsetting subject matter (as evidenced by the 1619 Project). Until our citizens are faced with these facts and evaluate their own place in history, our country will find it much more challenging to face this moment of social upheaval.

Which brings me to the second book: Jill Lepore’s incredible undertaking, These Truths. A Harvard professor, Lepore tells the complete history of the United States from early explorers and settlers through the inauguration of Donald Trump. Read immediately after Lies My Teacher Told Me, it’s a great candidate to replace shoddy textbooks all across America, except it doesn’t have full color pages, a gazillion photos or even “critical thinking” questions at the end of each chapter.

These Truths clocks in at over 750 pages before the hefty notes & index sections (as Loewen points out, lack of sources and footnotes for textbooks is a clear indicator that something is wrong). The “truths” referenced in the book’s title are initially outlined in the Declaration of Independence as principles the government is formed to secure for the people.

Political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people are the truths to which Thomas Jefferson referred. In one draft, he called them “sacred and undeniable,” until Benjamin Franklin changed the text to “self-evident.”

Lepore breaks her work into four main parts and weaves those foundational elements of political equality, natural rights, and sovereignty through the volume; a touchpoint reached more effectively in some time periods than others. She examines technological innovations and their impact on civil discourse, including via journalism (the printing press, radio, television, and Internet) and campaigns through the decades. For example, it used to be considered insulting for candidates to directly address voters, except through letters printed in newspapers. Can you imagine?

Lepore’s book is in some ways a love letter to America through a lens of tough love. How can you truly love something (a person, a country) without acknowledging its faults and flaws? Through a narrative of soaring prose and incredibly deep citations, Lepore examines the American experiment, warts and all. Taken in combination with Loewen’s work, she provides an excellent example of what a book about American history can accomplish: challenging and educating the reader with a commitment to accuracy and a keen eye to the details of our country’s founding documents.

A well-informed population can look to the future with the full knowledge of challenges their forefathers overcame. It’s no wonder that many are struggling to come to grips with slavery’s impact because it was not and continues to not be taught properly in schools. That leads to an improper understanding of the Confederacy and its racist roots, which means when statues of so-called confederate heroes (ie traitors against the United States) are removed, there are those who do not understand the egregious nature of the crimes of the confederates.

Civic education forms a foundation upon which the next generation of leaders is constructed. To learn more about the limits of classroom education in America, pick up Lies My Teacher Told Me (it’s older, so likely available at the library). For a not-so-quick refresher course on American history, grab These Truths. It’s an elegant read, and one which may leave you feeling a bit hopeful in these dark days, knowing that the United States has been through tough times in the past and lived to tell the tale.

Published by elleebeee

smiles. sarcasm. Springsteen.

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