This chapter is about “heroification”—the process by which fascinating, controversial people are gradually transformed into boring, one-dimensional figures in history textbooks. Textbooks are full of details about the lives of famous people, but rarely do they give a sense for those people’s flaws and inconsistencies—i.e., the very things that make them interesting.
One important reason why students don’t “connect” with their history textbooks is that the human beings depicted in the textbooks are uninteresting—usually, they’re either one-dimensional heroes or villains.
Loewen begins by looking at two familiar figures from history textbooks: Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson. Almost every American student knows that Keller was deaf and blind, yet learned to read, write, and speak. But textbooks almost never discuss Helen Keller’s adult life. In fact, Keller had a fascinating and consequential career as radical socialist. She praised the Soviet Union, supported unions, donated money to the NAACP, and even hung a red flag (a symbol of the Soviet Union, and of socialism) over her desk. Throughout her life, Keller was criticized for her “radical politics.” Whether we agree with Keller’s beliefs or not, Keller was a remarkable woman, whose legacy stretches far beyond her deaf-blindness—and yet almost no history textbooks say so.
In a few sentences, Loewen paints a vivid portrait of Helen Keller: she comes across as a vivacious, energetic woman who was deeply committed to social justice. Loewen’s point is that nowhere in the average high school history textbook would one find a comparable account of Keller’s life—as far as high school students are taught, Helen Keller’s relevance to history ended in the instant that she learned how to read and write (when, in fact, it seems that Keller’s contribution to history only began with her learning to read and write).
Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president during World War I, was an equally controversial figure. During his time in office, the U.S. sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Latin America and the West Indies to install pro-American heads of state. In 1915, for instance, when the democratic government of Haiti refused to join the U.S. in declaring war on Germany, Wilson sent forces to dissolve the Haitian parliament and seize farmers’ property. In the ensuing war, American troops murdered more than 3,000 Haitians who fighting for their rights to self-determination and private property.
Woodrow Wilson is best remembered for being the President of the United States during the Progressive era (often said to be when America became a much more liberal and inclusive society) and for leading the country through World War One, when he vowed to “make the world safe for democracy.” Yet in spite of his supposed commitment to human rights and democracy, it would seem that Wilson wasn’t sincerely committed to either value when they conflicted with US interests.
Amazingly, history textbooks either ignore Wilson’s interventionist foreign policy, or characterize Wilson as a “reluctant warrior” who never wanted to send troops to the Americas. Such a characterization is “sheer invention.” Many textbooks describe Wilson as a courageous advocate for self-determination who fought for democracy in Europe. The truth, however, is that Wilson regularly violated other countries’ rights to self-determination in order to strengthen his own country. When Wilson was in France, supposedly negotiating for democracy and peace, he met with Ho Chi Minh, the future leader of North Vietnam. Wilson ignored Ho Chi Minh’s pleas for Vietnamese self-determination, and agreed to allow France to retain control of Vietnam.
This passage is a good example of how history textbooks subtly omit and distort the truth without, technically speaking, lying. Instead of denying that Wilson did, in fact, approve sending troops abroad, textbooks merely argue that Wilson did so against his will, due to the influence of Congress. One particularly striking episode form Wilson’s life was his encounter with Ho Chi Minh, when Wilson once again proved that he wasn’t as committed to democracy and self-determination as some textbooks would suggest.
Wilson’s dismissal of Ho Chi Minh brings up another point about his life that textbooks ignore: Wilson was one of America’s most racist presidents. His recent predecessors appointed black Americans to relatively important offices; Wilson, however, did not, and even made a point of appointing “Southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks.” Wilson was the first president to segregate the navy, and routinely told offensive stories about “darkies” during his cabinet meetings. He was also a fan of The Birth of a Nation, one of the most racist major movies of all time, and his enthusiasm for the film, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, was probably a factor in encouraging the organization’s growth in the 1920s.
Wilson seems to have perpetuated racism in this country to the full extent of his power: both by enforcing specific laws and executive orders, and by “leading by example,” approving of The Birth of a Nation and sending an implied message of support to the Ku Klux Klan. However, this passage doesn’t address some of Wilson’s more liberal, tolerant acts as president—for example, appointing the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court, the influential social justice warrior Louis Brandeis.
Textbooks rarely offer more than a sentence or two on Wilson’s racism—an omission that is, itself, racist. African Americans couldn’t possibly consider Wilson a hero, and yet textbooks routinely treat him as one. Textbooks also ignore some of Wilson’s other bad decisions. For instance, during World War I, Wilson was known to have supported the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which limited Americans’ rights to free speech and banned almost all public criticism of World War I. However, textbooks usually imply that Wilson just “went along” with Congress on the Espionage and Sedition Acts, even though there’s no historical evidence for such an interpretation.
Again, textbooks don’t lie about Wilson so much as they either omit information about his racism or offer distorted interpretations of his actions (for example, the interpretation that Wilson reluctantly went along with Congress in supporting bans on free speech).
For decades, Michael Frisch, a professor at the University of Buffalo, has asked his students to name the ten most important figures in America history before the Civil War; invariably, his students name Betsy Ross. Betsy Ross’s continued fame is perplexing, since it’s now known that Ross, contrary to popular belief, didn’t sew the first American flag. Frisch posits that Betsy Ross remains famous because she fits Americans’ need for a strong “archetype”—a “mother of our country” figure. Perhaps the continued popularity of Woodrow Wilson illustrates our need for another archetype: a strong, idealistic, clear-eyed leader. The problem is that, instead of complicating and challenging naïve archetypes, history textbooks reinforce them.
While Loewen doesn’t necessarily agree with Frisch’s theory about Betsy Ross in particular, he argues that Frisch brings up an important principle: people want to believe in a certain version of the past, so they voluntarily distort real-life historical figures into semi-mythical heroes. The passage is an early illustration of a point to which Loewen will return at the end of the book: in a sense, ordinary people are as much to blame for historical errors as the textbook companies that perpetuate them.
Why don’t textbooks tell the truth about American “heroes?” Recently, a major textbook editor privately said that “sex, religion, and social class” are “taboo” in history textbooks. This is an astonishing statement, because sex, religion, and social class are vital aspects of history. By leaving out Keller’s lifelong war against the American class system, for example, textbooks decontextualize Keller’s life work and make her seem boring. Textbooks may likewise omit Wilson’s racism because they want to be respectful or patriotic.
In part, textbooks gloss over the truth about history and historical figures because it’s not always suitable for children. We’ll study a good example of this principle in the next chapter, about the life and work of Christopher Columbus—who, for some reason, usually appears in textbooks as a brave, idealistic leader.
Ironically, by portraying Keller, Wilson, and other historical figures as unambiguously heroic, textbooks make student less impressed with these figures, not more so. Today’s high school students, when asked who their historical heroes are, rarely choose figures such as Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Christopher Columbus. Indeed, some students tell cruel “Helen Keller jokes”—not necessarily because they hate disabled people, but because they want to make fun of the “goody goody” hero about whom their teachers have lectured. If students could learn the truth about Keller—the risks she took in her life, and the controversy that she aroused—they’d be more likely to treat her as a real role model, rather than a punch line.
Loewen’s key insight in this section is that by heroifying historical figures, textbooks make those figures more palatable, but also less interesting. Also, notice that Loewen doesn’t fault students for telling mean jokes about Helen Keller; as in the first chapter, Loewen blames the textbooks, not the students, for causing an epidemic of apathy. Loewen suggests that students are curious to learn about the past, but not when their textbooks offer up a dull, predictable, glorified version of the past.