History textbooks largely neglect the history of class relations in the United States. A couple textbooks talk about union strikes, but few give a real sense for the long history of economic exploitation and resistance in this country, or of the problems that American workers face today. Indeed, most textbooks don’t even include the phrases “class structure,” “social class,” “lower class,” or “inequality” in their indexes. In doing so, textbooks create the illusion that class struggles and labor disputes are old, meaningless historical phenomena.
In this short chapter, Loewen addresses the absence of class analysis from American history textbooks. Loewen’s discussion of class doesn’t follow organically from the events described in the previous chapter; however, Loewen isn’t trying to write an American history textbook—his goal is to critique current textbooks.
To the extent that textbooks do talk about class in America, they give the impression that America has always been a land of upward social mobility, in stark contrast to the rigid class systems of Europe. Textbooks emphasize pieces of legislation such as the GI Bill, which promoted upward mobility through education, while downplaying bills that strengthened the wealthy at the poor’s expense. Perhaps teachers and textbooks avoid discussing social class because they don’t want to embarrass or antagonize their students. But it’s of vital important that students of all economic backgrounds understand their society’s class structure. When students are ignorant of class history, it’s easier for them to grow up believing that poor people deserve to be poor—since, surely, in a “land of opportunity,” only lazy people fail to be successful.
Loewen’s discussion of class bias in American history textbooks mirrors his arguments in previous chapters. In the interest of mitigating controversy, textbooks offer a blandly optimistic account of the past, the gist of which is that anyone can become rich and successful in America. The implicit message here is that the poor people who haven’t succeeded in America must have done something wrong to deserve their poverty. In this sense, the myth of the “Land of Opportunity” could be considered a tool to encourage the working-class accept their poverty instead of trying to change the structure of society.
One clear example of how textbooks downplay the rigidity of class in America is the way they talk about immigration. Textbooks devote many pages to discussing immigration, but they emphasize figures who rose from poverty to wealth, rather than the million of impoverished people who remained impoverished after arriving in the U.S. By omitting the full truth, high school textbooks reinforce the idea that America is the most equitable country in the world—an idea for which there isn’t much evidence. By almost all material measures, America is a fairly average country for equality and social mobility when compared to other industrial nations. Historians debate over when inequality began to rise in the U.S., but instead of presenting such a controversy, textbooks gloss over inequality altogether.
Textbooks offer some general statistics about immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they rarely give much sense for the incredible squalor and misery of many immigrants’ lives in the U.S. To the extent that textbooks do discuss specific immigrants, these immigrants are almost always famous historical figures who rose from “rags to riches.” Thus, textbooks further reinforce the illusion that America is a Land of Opportunity, where anyone, even a poor immigrant, can rise to become rich and successful.
There are many reasons why textbooks gloss over inequality. One reason is that, until very recently, authors ran the risk of being labeled Marxists if they emphasized class issues. Another reason is that publishing boards—i.e., the institutions that control what students read—are often dominated by wealthy people who, because of their own experiences with class, genuinely believe that America is an equitable country where anyone with talent can be successful. A final reason is that textbook writers want to paint a generally optimistic picture of history, in which the “hero” is America itself—thus, they omit the hard, cold facts about class and inequality.
Notice that Loewen doesn’t lay the blame on any one group of people: he suggests that class bias may be the result of anticommunism, deliberate obfuscation, or a general desire to please, or some combination of all three factors. In other words, instead of offering up one explanation for the complex phenomenon of class bias, Loewen offers up several potential explanations and encourages readers to make up their own minds.
If they were changed, history textbooks could serve an important social function: they could teach students “how they and their parents, their communities, and their society came to be as they are.” But by omitting a thorough discussion of class, textbooks deprive students of the ability to understand themselves and their communities. More sinisterly, in doing so, textbooks prevent working class students from understanding how “the system is rigged” against them, and therefore from altering the system.
Regardless of the precise causes of class bias, textbooks commit a grave error when they omit a thorough of the history of class in America: they condition wealthy students to believe that they “deserve” their own privilege, and implicitly encourage working-class students to accept their position in society. Notice that Loewen himself hasn’t offered a history of class in America, making this chapter very different (and much shorter) than its predecessors. Loewen is not writing a textbook; primarily, he’s trying to expose the bias in existing textbooks.