A few weeks ago my wife and I went to the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. I’ll post more about that later, but I just wanted to share this image first. When I saw it, the first thing I thought of was the Angry Birds games. I think Rovio (the makers of Angry Birds) is based out of Finland, or at least that’s what their site says, but maybe the person who came up with the concept was thinking of this display window in the AMNH. It has the whole idea in one scene: broken eggs, angry birds, and the hogs (pigs) who are responsible.
Lies My Teacher Told Me is a book that doesn’t try to correct everything wrong with our history, as portrayed in textbooks, but one that gives examples and then challenges the reader to take that information and use it in the future to find real truth in what we’re fed by public education institutions. The book encourages people to think about what they’re being told, why they’re being told it, and to consider how and when it was presented. It also offers a few intellectual tools for interpreting the information we’re presented with today, and how to understand why our history is relevant to our current situation. For example, why do so many people in the world hate the US? Is it because we’re just so damn good, like our textbooks would have us believe? Or is it because of actions in the past that are morally ambiguous at best, or completely contrary to the ideas our nation was founded on at worst?
One of the biggest problems Mr. Loewen presents, in regards to textbooks, is that they’re meaningless jumbles of facts, put together by a mass of authors (sometimes not even the ones on the covers). That jumble of meaningless factoids turn into a tome of confusing rubbish that leaves the potential learner entirely dissatisfied. While reading the book I kept thinking back to when I learned American history in high school. Honestly, it didn’t take long, because I don’t even remember learning American history in high school. This supports the information he presented which says that most students won’t even remember what they learned, mostly because of the way the information is presented. Mr. Loewen consistently reinforces the idea that history should be taught as a causal structure, both to make it interesting and to make it relevant. I completely agree. Up until recently I had no interest in history, because all I remember of what I was taught, in a middle school class that I only remember vaguely, was that it was horribly boring. We were presented with lots of names and dates and place names that we had to remember, and not much else. There was no content. There were no real people or real actions behind the factoids. We never focused on the ‘why’ of the situations, or the human aspect. Instead, we were forced to memorize these factoids and regurgitate them onto paper for tests. What does that teach me about history? That it’s boring and irrelevant to what I’m doing today, that the actions of the past and the people responsible for them don’t matter, and that it has no bearing on what I might do in the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. After taking a personal interest in history and learning on my own, I find history to be incredibly interesting. The things I read about are often situations that still occur today, or explain current problems. Not everyone takes a personal interest in history, though. Not everyone gets beyond that meaningless factoid stage and really tries to think about the ‘why’. They memorize, they regurgitate, and then they forget. That’s why high school history textbooks are a problem. They turn people off to history, leaving them without a firm foundation to stand on in when trying to forge a better future.
Another problem with textbooks that Mr. Loewen presents is the affect they have on maintaining the status quo, both on a personal, state, and national level. He goes into some detail about the textbook adoption process and how that process is affected. For example, Southern states have more often than not tried to make sure the textbooks that reach their classrooms are not overly negative in terms of the Civil War or slavery. Textbooks as a whole leave out information on Native Americans, the European diseases that left them decimated, or the forced relocations. Textbooks also continue to teach the primitive vs. advanced society theory, which has been debunked by recent research. High school history textbooks also perpetuate the idea of constant progress, even though the resurgence of racism against blacks during Reconstruction obviously was a step in the wrong direction. Textbooks try to avoid mentioning social class, religion, or anything that might be offensive. Who isn’t offended by something? History isn’t all peach blossoms and pleasant views. The truth is more important. We can’t learn from history if we’re only taught history that makes us feel good about ourselves, or that won’t offend anybody. Mr. Loewen argues that new work in fields like anthropology and sociology should be introduced into history textbooks to better inform students about how our history has affected who they are. Again, I agree. History as a set of facts is meaningless, especially when it’s a list of biased facts that don’t tell the whole story. History as a set of facts is also boring.
I think the biggest lesson that I can take from Mr. Loewen’s book is that any information, whether from a history textbook or a news article or a book, should be treated with caution, if not suspicion. Remembering who wrote it, when it was written and what was important to people at the time, what was important to the author and if it’s trying to push an agenda, all these things can help in keeping the information in context. When in doubt, consult primary sources to find the truth, or at least something closer to the truth. We’re all biased, one way or another, and the meaning of history is a matter of interpretation. For example, we can easily say that the US entered the Vietnam War, but why we entered the war and whether it was justified is a matter of opinion that can be supported only by finding facts and then forming them into a coherent argument.
History is a fascinating subject if you allow it to be. Real history isn’t the same as the meaningless factoids that you’ll find in a history textbook. It’s alive, it’s vivid, it’s emotional and it’s relevant to today. Besides teaching me some things about our history that I didn’t know (because I wasn’t taught properly), Mr. Loewen’s book taught me how to better study history.
A very cool post showing photos of Singapore’s past and present. It’s amazing how much this island has changed in such a short amount of time.
Give Singapore another 30 years or so and it will surpass most first world nations in terms of infrastructure and capital.