Teaching History

I have a list of things that must get done today. I leave to do some work at Colorado State University in a couple of days, so I hope to complete the acceptance and rejection letters for students who are looking to take an Advanced Placement or Pre-Advanced Placement course next year. Also, as director of the AP program, I am hoping to invite a host of academics to our campus next year for a forum. I think I will start the morning by sending an e-mail to all of the students who have registered for my AP U.S. History course; I have already done this for AP European History. In that letter, I will encourage students to read James Loewen’s Lies my Teacher Told Me. This is not required reading, but I believe it will help prepare students for my style of teaching. My classes operate more like a seminar course than a traditional lecture course; we sit around a table and discuss and challenge various views an interpretations of our text, primary sources, and each other. This only works when students come ready to engage in a discussion of the assigned reading. Seeing that I do not cover every little fact found in a book, students are at a great disadvantage if they do not read. I prefer to focus our meetings on historical problems and conjectures presented by historians. I drafted an earlier piece here discussing the problem of history and what little people know about it.

Teaching history is not just about remembering a list of facts, dates, etc. It is all about analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As a teacher, it is my job to move students from the pretty stories and polished literature about historical events, to a deeper more complex analysis of understanding elite and popular culture. Below are some great excerpts from Loewen’s book that addresses the problem of historical teaching, especially in American history.

  • “Textbook authors may not even need pressure from publishers, the right wing, the upper class, or cultural archetypes to avoid social stratification. As part of the process of herofication, textbook authors treat America itself as a hero, indeed as the hero of their books, so they remove the warts. Even to report the facts of income and wealth distribution might seem critical of American the hero, for is difficult to come up with a theory of social justice that can explain why 1 percent of the population controls almost 40 percent of the wealth. Could the other 99 percent of us be that lazy or otherwise undeserving? To go on to include some of the mechanism — unequal schooling and the like — by which the upper class stays upper would clearly involve criticism of our beloved nation.” –pg. 206
  • “Conversely, textbooks seldom use the past to illuminate the present. They portray the past as a simple-minded morality play. ‘Be a good citizen’ is the message that textbooks extract from the past. ‘You have a proud heritage. Be all that you can be. After all, look at what the United States has accomplished.’ While there is nothing wrong with optimism, it can become something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice a dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group that has not achieved socioeconomic success. The optimistic approach prevents any understanding of failure other than blaming the victim. No wonder children of color are alienated. Even for male children from affluent white families, bland optimism gets pretty boring after eight hundred pages.” –pg. 3
  • “[T]extbooks supply irrelevant and even erroneous details, while omitting pivotal questions and facts in their treatments of issues ranging from Columbus’s second voyage to the possibility of impending ecocide. . . .[H]istory textbooks offer students no practice in applying their understanding of the past to present concerns, hence no basis for thinking rationally about anything in the future. Reality gets lost as authors stray further and further from the primary sources and even the secondary literature. Textbooks rarely present the various sides of historical controversies and almost never reveal to students the evidence on which each side bases its position.” –pg. 265
  • “Teaching against a textbook can also be scary. Textbooks offer security. Teachers can hide behind them when principals, parents, or students challenge them to defend their work. Teaching against the text might be construed as critical of the school system. . . [that] selected it. Teachers could get in trouble for doing that.” –pg. 284
  • “Some adults simply do not trust children to think. For several decades sociologists have documented Americans’ distrust of the next generation. Parents may feel undermined when children get tools of information and inquiry not available to adults and use them in ways that seem to threaten adult-held values. Many parents want children to concentrate on the 3 R’s, not on multicultural history. . . Perhaps adults’ biggest reason for lying is that they fear history — fear that it isn’t so wonderful, and that if children were to learn what has really gone on, they would lose all respect for our society. . . . Ironically, only people who themselves have been raised on shallow feel-good history could harbor such doubts.” –pg. 289
  • “There is a certain contradiction in the logic of those who write patriotic textbooks. On the one hand, they describe a country without repression, without real conflict. On the other hand, they obviously believe that we need to lie to students to instill in them love of country. But if the country is so wonderful, why must we lie? . . . Ironically, our lying only diminishes us. . . . Surely in a democracy a historian’s duty is to tell the truth. Surely in a democracy students need to develop informed reasons to criticize as well as take pride in their country. Maybe somewhere along the line we gave up on democracy?” –pg. 290

9 thoughts on “Teaching History

  1. I think every hsitory teacher should write their own book. I am a student at Ball State University and everytime my teacher opens his mouth, he bashing our text. I read Loewen’s book and think he is write on most things. My high school history class was really bad. The teacher did not want to be there. Here at Ball State my teacher loves to hear himself talk. I cannot even ask question because he does not like the flow of his lecture interrupted. I am e-mailing him you blog as soon as my suumer term is over. I still need an A in this course.

  2. “Even for male children from affluent white families, bland optimism gets pretty boring after eight hundred pages.”


  3. I think it is important to read history from the view of all people. All things historical cannot be absolute. I think this guy is too critical of textbooks. THere is only so much it can do. If people want more they will have to discover it on their own. You cannot spend the entire time of a “US History” course on a few events that one person sees as being more important than the next.

  4. I read this book while on vacation. It was a bit revisionist for me. I think he is right about the taeching approach of history. Buy he also addresses topics about historical content that was really different from what I have been taught or what I have read. I realize that is the point of the book. I my problem here is that Loewen is not really a historian. He is a sociologists. I know he has the ability to do research and address such topics, but I would rather hear it from others.

    Still, you are right, the basic approach of the book and the way he challenged me to think was great.

  5. I think that is part of the reason he wrote it; we have a cultish belief about our history that has forced us to look beyond the imperfections that exist. It has been great watching historians re-think the teaching, research, and writing of American history over the past 20 years. The losers in all of this is the older generation of people that have already made up their minds and refuse to re-think recent scholarship. I have the most conflict with that group. They think they know history — but many do not.

  6. You sound like a wonderful teacher. At Zenith, so many students come to college just hating history, and I think it may be becuase so many curricula (test and text driven as they are) seem to permit so little room for creative thought. And of course, the essence of great historical htinking is its creativity — the capacity to see things other people didn’t, to escape the bonds of ideology — whatver it is — and imagine a world the way the people who lived in it experienced it.

    Great blog — I hope we runinto each other at one of hte big meetings.


  7. Thanks TR!

    I think that students almost prefer at times the traditional over the innovative. To go beyond the traditional requires more work on their part and mine as well. I will be at the next AHA meeting — I think.

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