James Loewen criticizes history textbooks for subtly implying that ordinary, individual people have almost no control over history. As textbooks describe it, history is just “one thing after another”—a series of random events, which often lack clearly defined causes. When textbooks do explore the causes of historical events, these causes are usually either the actions of an implausibly heroic historical figure or the magnanimity of a benevolent government. By presenting history in this way, textbooks create the illusion that history is a strange, foreign process, which readers can observe but never participate in.
When textbooks analyze the causes of important historical events, their analysis is likely to alienate students and give them the impression that ordinary, everyday people have no role in history. Textbooks frequently take the point of view that history is “made” by heroic figures, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Woodrow Wilson. Instead of depicting these figures as realistic, flawed individuals, textbooks tend to “heroify” them, eliminating their flaws and playing up their strengths. For example, most history textbooks neglect to mention that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, or that Wilson was an outspoken racist. As a result, high school history students get the impression that history is in the hands of virtuous, larger-than-life figures who are unlike them in every way. By contrast, American history textbooks rarely discuss populist movements—in other words, concrete, real-life examples of ordinary people changing the world—at great length. Textbooks largely omit information about the union and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To the extent that they study the civil rights movement of the 1960s, textbooks are more inclined to credit the federal government with improving life for African Americans than the millions of everyday people who fought for freedom—despite the fact that, in many ways, the federal government tried to destroy the civil rights movement. The result is that high school history textbooks condition students to believe that they have little power to change society—when, in fact, most changes in American society resulted from ordinary, everyday people working together, rather than from the federal government or a few exceptional people.
Another strategy that history textbooks use to make high school students feel passive is to create a distance between the past, the present, and the future: in other words, they deemphasize the ways that the past brings about the present, and the ways that current events and trends will influence the future. In general, textbooks portray the historical events of the past as having little relevance to the present day. For example, textbooks depict slavery as a barbaric but now antiquated practice, rather than talking about the ideas—racism and white supremacy—that made slavery possible, and which survive in the 21st century. Similarly, history textbooks tend to end on a bland, optimistic note, arguing that America has always been the greatest country in the world, and will, hopefully, continue to be. Absent from the final pages of history textbooks, Loewen notes, is any discussion of the serious problems that face future generations—including climate change and nuclear proliferation—let alone a discussion of how to end these problems. The implication is that history has nothing of substance to teach today’s students about how to solve the world’s problems—in other words, the opposite of the lesson that students should be learning in history class.
Ultimately, the reason that students find history classes “boring” isn’t because students are lazy, but rather because history classes are in some ways designed to be boring. As Loewen argues, history textbooks are designed to make readers feel powerless and insignificant, and to make them believe that nothing they do can have any broad effect on the world.
The Power of the Individual ThemeTracker
The Power of the Individual Quotes in Lies My Teacher Told Me
Textbooks encourage students to believe that history is facts to be learned. "We have not avoided controversial issues," announces one set of textbook authors; "instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments" on them—thus removing the controversy! Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them.
In the case of Woodrow Wilson, textbooks actually participate in creating the social archetype. Wilson is portrayed as “good,” “idealist,” “for self-determination, not colonial intervention,” “foiled by an isolationist Senate,” and “ahead of his time.”
U.S. territorial expansion between 1787 and 1855 was owed in large part to slavers' influence. The largest pressure group behind the War of 1812 was slaveholders who coveted Indian and Spanish land and wanted to drive Indian societies farther away from the slaveholding states to prevent slave escapes.
Taking ideas seriously does not fit with the rhetorical style of textbooks, which presents events so as to make them seem foreordained along a line of constant progress. Including ideas would make history contingent: things could go either way, and have on occasion. The "right" people, armed with the "right" ideas, have not always won. When they didn’t, the authors would be in the embarrassing position of having to disapprove of an outcome in the past. Including ideas would introduce uncertainty. This is not textbook style. Textbooks unfold history without real drama or suspense, only melodrama.
In the most recent American Pageant, for example, social class goes unmentioned in the twentieth century. Many teachers compound the problem by avoiding talking about social class in the twenty-first. A study of history and social studies teachers “revealed that they had a much broader knowledge of the economy, both academically and experientially, than they admitted in class.” Teachers “expressed fear that students might find out about the injustices and inadequacies of their economic and political institutions.” By never blaming the system, American history courses thus present Republican history.
High school American history textbooks do not, of course, adopt or even hint at the American colossus view. Unfortunately, they also omit the realpolitik approach. Instead, they take a strikingly different tack. They see our policies as part of a morality play in which the United States typically acts on behalf of human rights, democracy, and “the American way.”
In telling of Watergate, textbooks blame Richard Nixon, as they should. But they go no deeper. Faced with this undeniable instance of governmental wrongdoing, they manage to retain their uniformly rosy view of the government.
By taking the government’s side, textbooks encourage students to conclude that criticism is incompatible with citizenship. And by presenting government actions in a vacuum, rather than as responses to such institutions as multinational corporations and civil rights organizations, textbooks mystify the creative tension between the people and their leaders. All this encourages students to throw up their hands in the belief that the government determines everything anyway, so why bother, especially if its actions are usually so benign.
Even most textbooks that don't end with their titles close with the same vapid cheer. “The American spirit surged with vitality as the nation headed toward the close of the twentieth century,” the authors of The American Pageant assured us in 1991, ignoring opinion polls that suggested the opposite.
Authors should have shown trends in the past that suggest we face catastrophe and other trends that suggest solutions. Doing so would encourage students to use evidence from history to reach their own conclusions. Instead, authors assured us that everything will come out right in the end, so we need not worry much about where we are going. Their endorsement of progress was as shallow as General Electric's, a company that claims, “Progress is our most important product,” but whose ecological irresponsibility has repeatedly earned it a place on Fortune's list of the ten worst corporate environmental offenders. No longer do I suggest this evenhanded approach. Even though Simon is right and capitalism is supple, in at least two ways our current crisis is new and cannot be solved by capitalism alone.