Children think of all kinds of ways to disobey their teachers. If the teacher assigns students to define a long list of terms, the students might look up the answers on the internet and then send them to their friends. Such actions could be termed “day-to-day resistance,” a sociological term alluding to the way that slaves found small ways to disobey their masters.
Loewen compares students’ pranks to slaves’ acts of resistance in the antebellum South. While the comparison might seem odd, or even inappropriate, Loewen suggests that students, just like slaves, are being conditioned to believe a certain, biased point of view.
Many people would say that students’ “day-to-day resistance” is just a form of laziness. But how can we fault students for their laziness when the history assignments themselves are so inane? Loewen theorizes that, because teachers and textbooks present students with a list of disconnected facts and dates, students “take refuge” in simple ignorance of American history. Thus, many students are embarrassingly ignorant of history because of their history classes, not in spite of them.
While it’s all-too easy for parents and teachers to blame students for failing to learn history, students shouldn’t be punished for their failure to learn when the history lessons in question are so racially and culturally biased. For instance, it would be utterly wrong to fault an African American student for showing no interest in a racially biased history of the 1890s.
The best way to teach history to young people, Loewen believes, is to convey some sense of emotion. For example, people remember where they were on September 11, 2001, because they have strong emotional associations with that day. History textbooks are overwhelmingly dry and convey no strong emotions other than a vague sense of optimism. Thus, it’s unsurprising that students retain history textbooks’ information for an alarmingly short time. Moreover, African American and Latino children retain less historical information than their white counterparts, perhaps reflecting the ethnocentric way that textbooks teach history.
History textbooks are boring because, in many ways, they’re designed to be boring—as Loewen has argued, they’re conceived as random collections of facts and dates, so that teachers can test their students more easily, and maintain control over their classes. To the extent that textbooks have any strong emotion, that emotion is a vague sense of nationalist pride, which—as we’ve seen—mostly excludes minorities.
A good way to understand the classist bias of society is to ask students to estimate the percentages of Americans, organized by education, who opposed the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Most students assume that education correlates with a more pacifist attitude; in other words, the more education people received, the more likely they were to oppose the war in Vietnam. Exactly the opposite is true: while a majority of college-educated, high school-educated, and grade school-educated Americans opposed American involvement in Vietnam, education correlated negatively with opposition to the war (for example, 80 percent of grade school-educated people opposed the war, as compared with a mere 60 percent of college-educated people).
Most students would say that education correlates positively with compassion, knowledge of current affairs, and other qualities that might make people more likely to oppose a war. However, the evidence Loewen cites here points to the opposite conclusion: education correlates inversely with certain kinds of compassion, meaning that the most educated (and, perhaps, affluent) people in society are the most likely to support a long, brutal war.
The results of the Vietnam poll would imply that, contrary to what most people believe, educated people are more supportive of an aggressive foreign policy and have less goodwill for their fellow Americans than less educated people. One could argue that working-class people (without much education) were more likely to oppose Vietnam because they were the most likely to be enlisted. But this explanation doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Controlling for education, younger people are more likely to support wars than older people—if people are just looking out for themselves, then why would young people be more likely to support a war than their grandparents?
It’s indicative of the strong classist bias in America that, even after people learn about the negative correlation of education and support for the Vietnam War, they try to argue that poor, uneducated people opposed Vietnam simply because they didn’t want to die in battle (an explanation that doesn’t explain why young, working-class people were more likely to support the Vietnam War than their parents).
Loewen suggests one reason that educated people are more likely to support government policy than uneducated people: they’ve been socialized to trust the institutions of their society—a process partly facilitated by history textbooks. After more than a decade of being taught to trust the United States government, some “educated” people will do so for the rest of their lives, shifting their beliefs to mirror their government’s policies. It’s surprising that education correlates negatively with opposition to the Vietnam War, because most Americans think that being educated means being tolerant and well-informed about the world. In reality, intolerant and dogmatic people are sometimes affluent and well-educated.
In a way, Lies My Teacher Told Me is all about denying the relationship between education and compassion. By reading history textbooks and spending time in history classes, students may become conditioned to believe textbooks’ classist, racist narratives. Loewen thus argues that there’s no real correlation between education and compassion—all sorts of dogmatic, intolerant people in American history have had first-rate educations.
Americans’ ignorance of their society has continued into the 21st century. In a recent poll, 62 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that “poor people have it easy” because they can go on welfare. For the majority of a mainstream American political party to believe such an offensive, factually incorrect statement demonstrates Americans’ lack of curiosity and sympathy for their fellow citizens. And in some ways, it’s easier for powerful people to choose to believe that poor people are lazy and talentless, because such a belief mitigates some of powerful people’s uneasiness with their own position in society.
There is abundant evidence that Americans have come to believe the classist, racist narratives they first learned in history textbooks. For instance, the Republicans who believe that poor people are lazy may have learned to think about poor people in this way after reading that America was the “Land of Opportunity,” and, therefore, that poor people must have done something to deserve their poverty.
Too often, we blame students for being bad at history. But the truth is that students are “bad” at history because the history they’re taught is classist, sexist, racist, and dull. When we finally begin teaching students the truth about the past, Loewen claims, they’ll begin to find history interesting.
Loewen closes with the same point he’s been making all along: when confronting the problem of dull history classes and uninformed students, we should blame history textbooks, not the students themselves.