The average history textbook ends with some version of “the same vapid cheer”—that America looks ahead to the future with great optimism. Such a message is precisely the opposite of the message that history textbooks should stress as they conclude: how can we use the lessons of the past to understand the present?
The purpose of history is arguably to use the lessons of the past to solve the problems of the future. Instead of making such a point, the average history textbook ends with a vaguely hopeful message that lacks any real substance.
Most history textbooks conclude with one simple idea: progress. They suggest that America has always been the best, and will continue to get even better. But such a philosophy is the opposite of what Americans increasingly believe: namely, that the future isn’t bright, and won’t necessarily be better at all.
In this chapter, Loewen will discuss one of the most common forms of bias in history textbooks—the belief that the present must be superior to the past, or that progress is the natural arc of history.
For more than one hundred years, the intellectual community has been challenging the idea that civilization inherently gets better over time. The events of the first half of the 20th century—two world wars, a worldwide depression, genocide, etc.—played a major role in disillusioning the world, Americans included. Another problem that challenges textbooks’ promises of a bright future is the environmental crisis. America has become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels in the last century, and shows few signs of lessening its dependency. The energy crisis of 1973, in which the price of oil shot up for all Americans, acted as a reminder that energy consumption has a price. And yet, since 1973, Americans have consumed even more gasoline than before. Americans act as if their resources are infinite, when, in reality, oil, food, trees, and water are all finite resources.
Throughout the 20th century, there was a vigorous debate in the intellectual community about the “path of history.” For much of the Cold War, intellectuals took a grim view of the future. After the Cold War, though, some thinkers, such as Francis Fukayama, argued that the world was approaching the “end of history”—a period in which there would be peace, democracy, and capitalism everywhere. However, as Loewen points out, the persisting problems of genocide, economic instability, and environment degradation suggest that the supposed “end of history” is just a myth.
Speaking broadly, there are two ways to think about the environment. The first idea is that humans are the exceptions to environmental rules: they will continue consuming more and more goods and develop ways to use technology and capitalism to feed their own consumption. The second philosophy is that humans are subject to the finitude of the Earth’s resources, meaning that, inevitably, they will exhaust the globe’s supply of water, oil, and other resources, and then go extinct. Loewen once argued that textbooks should present both ways of thinking about the environment and encourage students to think about them. Loewen now believes that consumption is a “lose-lose”—humans may go extinct when they exhaust the world’s resources, but even if they don’t, their use of oil and other fuels is ruining the environment and causing tremendous damage to the Earth’s inhabitants; damage which technology and capitalism are powerless to undo.
In this passage, Loewen offers an uncharacteristically definitive interpretation of environmental issues. He claims that there is no genuine “debate” about how to respond to climate change—the only real solution to the problem is for humans to change their patterns of energy consumption. Most of the time, Loewen subscribes to the belief that his readers should keep an open mind and decide for themselves what to believe. However, Loewen argues that environmental degradation is such a serious issue that there’s no time for people to “make up their minds”—humans need to act now or risk going extinct.
There are many other problems for which America is largely to blame. Nuclear proliferation continues to threaten the safety of people everywhere—just one nuclear missile in the hands of a terrorist group or rogue nation could inflict tremendous harm. It’s very unlikely that humans will be able to solve these problems by following “the same old paths”—instead, we need new radical solutions, or else it’s possible that humans could go extinct. Thus, it’s not just lazy, but actively dangerous, for history textbooks to omit any discussion of environmental degradation or nuclear proliferation, as they do. But textbooks are so committed to a narrative of progress and improvement, it would seem, that they can’t tolerate any clouds on the horizon.
The implicit question of this chapter is: what can history teach us about solving the problems of the future, particularly if these problems necessitate radical new solutions? Loewen implies, first, that history can teach students how previous generations have addressed nuclear and environmental issues (for example, how Richard Nixon supported the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency). Second, Loewen suggests that history textbooks need to end on more of a note of alarm and pessimism, rather than bland optimism, in order to alert students of future problems.
To get some sense for our infatuation with the concept of progress, consider that during the Reconstruction era, A.T. Morgan, a white state senator from Mississippi, married a black woman named Carrie Highgate, and was reelected. It’s likely that a contemporary white Mississippi senator who did the same would lose in a landslide. And yet, people are so conditioned to believe that the present is always better than the past that it seems bizarre that such a marriage was ever possible. We need to un-think our bias toward the present; perhaps the best way to do so is to study real history. When we learn about history, we may also be able to undo some of our ethnocentrism and our tendency to think of our own society as “more advanced” than all others.
It’s indicative of our collective bias against the past that Loewen’s historical anecdote seems very strange—intuitively, most people would assume that the modern world is more tolerant and open-minded than the world of the past. But in fact, modern Americans can learn a lot from other people, including people of other cultures, and—as Loewen says here—people who lived in earlier periods in history.
By presenting the future in the blandest possible terms, history books leave students with the impression that history class isn’t the proper place for a discussion of how to fix the world’s problems. They also make students passive by creating the impression that the future is “a process over which they have no control.” The reason why history textbooks end the way they do, however, is probably much simpler: publishers are afraid that if they end on an uncertain note, their textbooks will become less popular. By refusing to take any risks, and by presenting the present, the past, and the future as being entirely disconnected from each other, textbooks implicitly suggest that history is boring and irrelevant to people’s lives.
History textbooks depict the past as dull and obsolete; they depict the present as a jumble of unrelated facts; and, finally, they depict the future as happy and hopeful. Loewen argues that textbooks need to show that past, present, and future are closely connected to one another: they need to stress the point that individual people have the power to change the future, and that individual people can also learn a lot from the people of the past.