November 23, 2005

Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen

This book has been sitting on my shelf, unfinished, for over a year. I'm not going to finish it--in fact, I'm going to get rid of it--but I figure I might as well review it first.

Loewen's book is a critique of secondary school American history text books, and as such he does have some valid criticisms; such texts are notorious for omitting any kind of real controversy. It's a complaint that can't be made too often, but given the process by which history texts are selected it's probably also unavoidable.

But I have two major criticisms of the book.

First, Loewen doesn't seem to understand what high-school history class is all about. The goal is not--cannot--be to teach our high-school students everything that's important about American history. There's far too much to know. In my view, history class should first attempt to give students a working knowledge of the broad sweep of American history. I don't care whether the kids retain the precise dates of Millard Fillmore's presidency--or Abraham Lincoln's for that matter. But they should know approximately when the Civil War happened, and something about why; they should know why the American Revolution happened, and how. We're talking about basic knowledge, and a foundation for future study. In addition, it should demonstrate the workings of our constitutional system over time; as such, it's an adjunct to the usual government class. In short, the goal is to give the kids the historical knowledge they need to be good citizens. It isn't about self-esteem.

Second, Loewen has a skewed notion of what our kids need to know. Yes, we mustn't sanitize our history out of recognition; on the other hand, there's no need to dwell on our every historical wickedness. Yes, our heroes have feet of clay; but then, all heroes do. We can make that point without dragging every hero's name through the mud. We mustn't eliminate the negative--but surely the goal of history class is better met by accentuating the positive? Loewen seems to want to substitute an angry self-loathing. If his program were followed, I believe we'd be teaching our kids to hate our country, rather than to love it while recognizing and hating its faults.

I don't have time or stomach to write a detailed critique of the two-thirds of the book I finished, and in any event it was too long ago. It's possible that I'm not being fair. Anyway, I didn't like it and I'm not going to keep it.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 23, 2005 02:27 PM