October 13, 2000

The Case Against History Textbooks

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If you were not paying attention during high school history, then read this immediately.

Even if you remember the discoveries, the wars and all the presidents America celebrates from its storied history, you may still suffer from ‘sociolexia,’ said Dr. James Loewen, the author of the bestselling book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong.

Loewen, visiting Cornell for the Campus Week of Dialogue, addressed the myths that have stuck with Americans over time, and he used the term ‘sociolexia’ to describe people who were educated with a warped perception of history.

In 1980, Loewen and his co-authors of Mississippi: Conflict and Change, an award-winning Mississippi state history textbook, challenged the State of Mississippi in court after the government restricted the text from access to the state’s public schools. Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al., in April of that year emerged as a victory for the First Amendment, enabling the writers to present a vastly different view of the state’s history.

Teaching a freshman social science seminar at Tougaloo College in Mississippi — a college serving mostly African American students — Loewen encountered a class that explained the Reconstruction era as a time when “black people took over the government, then they screwed up, and so the white people took back control.”

From this experience, he concluded that “history can be used as a weapon, and it was used as a weapon against my students.”

So for two years, Loewen took aim on 12 widely-read high school textbooks of American history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Poring over the required reading for many U.S. teenagers, Loewen found several myths, such as Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

Loewen believes that the manner in which history is commonly taught during high school stretches its influence across society.

For instance, of the few times that social class was mentioned at all in the history volumes, authors referred to a large American middle class. In fact, Loewen remarked, the United States has a smaller middle class than any of the other industrialized countries in the world.

He noted in his book, Lies that “textbooks almost never use the present to illuminate the past.”

They might ask students to examine gender roles during the suffrage movement, race relations during the civil rights movement, or social class today, he suggested.

“They might, but they don’t. No wonder students find history ‘irrelevant’ to their present lives,” Loewen said.

This failure in history education may account for the overall unpopularity of history in higher education. According to Loewen, fewer than 20 percent of American students ever enroll in an American history course beyond high school.

In his own college classes, Loewen has asked his students to transcend the traditional techniques for learning history by analyzing sociological information of the times to gain a greater understanding and relate better to the subject material.

For instance, Loewen challenged students to analyze the budget of a single janitor with two children in order to consider how social class applies to workers simultaneously while the students learned at the University of Vermont.

“I would tell them what UVM paid its janitors, and it was hopelessly less [than what their budgets called for],” he said.

Loewen encouraged local Ithaca teachers and Cornell faculty members to attempt the same sorts of analyses in their own classrooms. Their students may be shocked at their findings, he suggested.

“You could get your clothes at the Salvation Army, which I suspect a janitor at Cornell may have to do,” he noted.

Thomas A. Hoebbel, an Employee Assembly representative, helped organize the lecture series to bring Loewen to campus.

Echoing many of Loewen’s concerns, Hoebbel drew attention to some difficulties specific to this University, such as the cost of parking for employees.

“A parking pass for a Band A employee is more expensive than it is for a faculty member,” Hoebbel said.

Hoebbel suggested that while it is hard to see differences among the various Cornell employees, social class applies to the University on a broad scale.

In the coming years, the sort of education Loewen is advocating may meet a greater need as student populations change.

“I think you are going to see fewer people coming here from the middle class,” Loewen said.

Loewen taught race relations for twenty years at the University of Vermont. He attended Carleton College and holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch