Monday, November 5th. 2001 Volume 67, Issue 53


 
 









 

Textbooks sugarcoat U.S. history

Ellen Simonson

I don't remember the name of my high school American history textbook, but I don't have to. The names of the most common ones all blur together: The American Pageant, The American Adventure, The American Way, Land of Promise, The American Tradition, American Adventures, The Challenge of Freedom and the disturbingly named Triumph of the American Nation are just a few.

I was lucky enough to have a good history teacher in high school, but even he couldn't counteract the weight of the propaganda these
books disguise as fact. Everybody remembers lugging these giant tomes around, all 800 or 900 pages of them, full of whitewashed,
pleasant pseudo-history. Very few people remember enjoying them. There's a reason.

Though American history is really fascinating, high schools present it as gruesomely uninteresting, but to quote James Baldwin,
American history is "longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it." This
country's progress to its current state was not an inevitable march down a fated path; it was a series of mistakes and triumphs, of
errors and successes, and of situations that could have gone either way.

James W. Loewen has pointed out the failings of high school American history textbooks in astute and amusing fashion in a book called
Lies My Teacher Told Me (from which all quotations in this column will be taken from). Loewen surveyed 12 leading textbooks on their
treatment of such subjects as Christopher Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, American Indians, racism, the federal government and the
idea of progress. (The previous Baldwin quote is itself quoted by Loewen in his introduction.)

Some of the fallacies Loewen points out in these textbooks are absolute lies. Three of them claim Columbus was looking for the Indies
because the Turks had cut off the spice trade to Europe, but this statement was disproved in actual research by 1915. Nonetheless,
some texts present it as fact.

Loewen's claim that "(t)his may be because blaming Turks fits with the West's archetypal conviction that followers of Islam are likely
to behave irrationally or nastily" is even more disturbing in light of recent events.

This myth, and others regarding Columbus (including the common deception that he discovered America), is just one among many
perpetuated by high school history books, which Loewen says "(present) history as answers, not questions." The unspoken but very real
doctrines being drilled into students' heads can linger, especially for those who don't attend college, where history is generally
approached with a more objective and scientific eye.

"Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America," Loewen writes, but the
subject is subtly or obviously ignored by high school history texts. The first known non-native settlers in the United States were black
(a group of slaves who rebelled against their Spanish masters and stayed when the Spaniards went back to Haiti), but the textbooks do
not mention this. They portray racism as a phenomenon that ended when slavery did, perpetuating the myth that "Europe's domination
of the world came about because Europeans are smarter."

Despite the pervasive effects white supremacy has had on American culture, these textbooks make no effort to tell students what led
to racism, or even to remind them it is still around.

Accepting traditional textbook's versions of American history as "a demonstration of the idea of progress" leads to fallacies in our
thinking about it. The idea that we as a nation are constantly attaining new heights of human achievement should not be presented as
inevitable and inarguable fact.

Knowledge of the actual course of American history is even more valuable now that this country is at war, so we can at least try to
learn from the mistakes of our past. And an understanding of the misrepresentations -- and the outright lies -- our high school history
textbooks may have taught us can lead us in making a much more educated judgment concerning the present.

Simonson, a senior English major who highly recommends Loewen's book, can be reached at ellen_simonson@yahoo.com.
 
 

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