Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lies My Teacher Told Me

I just finished the book, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Lent to me by my friend's daughter who had to read it for her American History class, I admit that I felt a bit silly reading it. I shamefully admitted to her that I don't know a lot about recent history (Vietnam to present) and she recommended it. Boy, am I glad she did!

The first 10 chapters are a revisionist historian's take on some of our most prized national heroes. Columbus, the Pilgrims, Woodrow Wilson, and Helen Keller, are all blatantly heroized in the top 12 history textbooks, according to the author. He devotes these chapters to tell, not the "true" story of these characters, but the controversy that each historical event entails. He asserts that history is not just facts and faces, but involves complex stories that compelled these heroes to act as they did. He fills the reader in on some of those details, as well as presenting some of the conflicting accounts of how they really behaved. One of his biggest complaints about our nation's textbooks is that they present only one side of every story and then call it "fact." They never divulge the conflicting historical accounts of why or how exactly situations came about, and thus strip all the controversy, and consequently the excitement, out of history, causing students to disregard the subject all-together.

He speaks to the Euro centric bent in all the textbooks that effectively disenfranchises students of color and how most books present every action the USA makes as honorable and good, and how we, as a nation, are always doing things for the good of the world, instead of showing the human depravity (he doesn't call it that!) of every government, our great one included. One caveat, the author is probably agnostic at best, as evidenced by his addition of "[sic]" to every reference to God as "He." In understanding this, any discerning reader will see some of the author's own preconceptions as he deals with slavery, race, and social class.

I must admit, I learned a lot from this book, and would recommend it to anyone who feels shortchanged in their American history education. I don't endorse all the author's viewpoint, of course, but the book made me think and definitely made me consider the wrongs that were done to the American Indian and to the African Americans during slavery and the civil rights movement. It educated me more on the Vietnam war than I ever learned in school and prompted some great discussions between Dan and I as I shared what I was reading. If you enjoy history, you will benefit from this book.
***As a side note, if you are familiar with SonLight homeschool curriculum, this book is included in their Core for highschool American History.


Anonymous said...

The book sounds interesting. I read a few pages on the link provided about Helen Keller and was surprised to see she supported socialism. In the Helen Keller biography I read with the boys, it doesn't mention that.

It was interesting to find out more about Columbus in a biography we read in our homeschool, things I don't remember learning in school.

It's neat to learn about history as one gets older. It was not one of my favorite subjects in school, but having a son and husband who love history has opened my eyes to what I have missed all these years.

Gretchen said...

Interesting. I have that book, and though I haven't read it, I am familiar with the premise. He makes a good point, and like you said, I think it's good to open your eyes to a little more than just what is consolidated for a textbook.

I pretty much fought for the whole "Columbus was bad" thing in college. I remember a paper I wrote for Mr. Licht's Native American History in which in the intro a smart little boy named Billy refused to stay home from school on Columbus day, to prove a point that he wouldn't celebrate a day in honor of such a villain. :) And speaking of that Native American class, it was really cool that we had a girl who actually lived on the reservation in New Mexico in our class with us that semester. I felt like she shed a lot of light on different aspects of those issues. In that respect, I feel like I had a balanced historical education. Plus every real historian worth their salt goes for the primary sources when doing research, so it is easy to come across Columbus's diaries and letters which show his true colors!

I'm all about declaring that holiday in October as Native American Day! That's what I did the year I homeschooled my sisters. ;)

So not to get too bogged down in the depravity of humankind, and thus, the darkness of the history we've inherited (which is DARK, to be sure!), I advise reading solid biographies of heroes of the Faith. I think we all need heroes, and while secular historical characters don't usually make the best ones, it is good to give your children women like Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Charmichael, Corrie Ten Boom and men like Martin Lloyd Jones, Hudson Taylor and William Wilberforce. Reading biographies such as these have become my favorite source of historical reading because they are not only full of interesting facts and stories, but also they are inspirational!