Lies, DaAn Interview with James Loewen

 

David Hicks

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest that the “truth is rarely pure and never simple.” James Loewen’s last two books, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, and the recently-released Lies Across America: What our Historic Sites and Monuments Get Wrong, reveal that the same can be said for the teaching and learning of history. A perspective that sees history as complex, controversial, and open to interpretation stands in direct contrast to a patterned genre of history and social studies teaching that has been experienced and observed by generations of students and researchers.1

Many have observed the teaching of history to be nothing more than the “non-critical chronicling” of the past. What is worse, E. W. Evans contends, is that the storyline that is served up for consumption in the history classroom “frequently serves as a subtle means of oppression by emphasizing the stories of dominant elites, glorifying national heroes, minimizing the contributions of people of color, and de-emphasizing or omitting controversial questions.”2 The final outcome of such teaching is that history appears to be nothing more than a unitary, fixed, neatly packaged, simplistic, context- free, and natural story that allows for nothing more than a “rudely stamp’d” understanding of a nation’s past.

Loewen’s works highlight the dangers of such forms of history in the classroom and on the American landscape. Shortly after the release of his latest book, Lies Across America, I interviewed Loewen about his work, his conception of history, and his view of the challenges facing teachers in preparing historically and socially aware citizens for the 21st century. His comments and insights challenge classroom teachers and teacher educators, historians, and policymakers to collaborate in exploring what history could become in our classrooms. If we are not willing to examine such a challenge, the danger remains that history will continue to function as a reductionist tool that perpetuates a dominant story of the past. If we take on the challenge. then it will have to start, as Loewen’s work shows, with teaching students to do history. The choice is not between history as the “truth” or history that is relative, but “between a history that is aware of what it is doing and a history that is not.”3

I began the interview by asking Loewen to discuss how his last two books developed.

 

What led you to write Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, both of which focus on the nature of learning and teaching history?

I was always interested in history, but my real interest ... in how history is used stemmed from my first full time teaching job at Tugaloo College in 1968. I was teaching in the freshman social science seminar. This was a course that introduced students to the various social sciences in the context of African American history. The second semester began with Reconstruction, so I asked the class: “What is Reconstruction and what happened then?” Sixteen out of seventeen replied: “That was the period right after the Civil War when blacks took over the government of the southern states, but they were too soon out of slavery and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.” My little heart broke because that is not what happened. So I thought about what it must do to your psyche to believe that the one time your group was center stage in American history they screwed up. I went back to the high schools and examined the texts that my students had learned from in these then all-black segregated high schools. They had learned what they had been taught: particularly in Mississippi state history, they had white supremacist textbooks in both 5th grade and 9th grade. That taught me that history can be a weapon and can be used against you and had been used against my students.

In 1975, when I left Mississippi and went to the University of Vermont, I again learned from my first year students. They taught me that they had not learned much history—that they didn’t know elementary facts, or historical “twigs,” as I call them: When was the Civil War? Who fought in the war in Vietnam? But, furthermore, they taught me that they did not understand how one thing caused another. And I therefore went back and looked at their textbooks. That led to Lies My Teacher Told Me, because I read intensely twelve high school American history textbooks. I joke that I am the only American ever to have done so and survived. I found that the textbooks are terrible about causation. There is no relevance to the present in most of these textbooks, and no notion that some of these problems we may be discussing still continue in certain forms. Instead, the students are just learning one damn thing after another. It was probably that realization that caused me to write Lies My Teacher Told Me.

My new book, Lies Across America, came from two sources. First, while I was writing Lies My Teacher Told Me, I learned that only one out of six Americans ever takes a course in history after he or she leaves high school. Now, that was quite a devastating realization for me to have because I thought that I had proved in Lies My Teacher Told Me how badly most history is taught in high school. So I am thinking, Well, where do these folks learn anything of merit or accuracy about history? I have an appointment at the Smithsonian, and so I am aware that people come to history museums, that they read historic markers and monuments. My dad made the family car stop at every one of them when on vacations. So this shows one class of places where Americans learn about the past.

The other specific instigation was a historical marker that I discussed at the end of Lies My Teacher Told Me, and it kind of mushroomed into the new book. This is a marker in Southwest Mississippi that claims, “that the people gathered beside the road to watch with icy stares” as Grant’s blue coats marched toward Jackson. But I knew that the people then (and for that matter now) were overwhelmingly black people; that they gathered by the side of the road to whoop and holler, to give Grant’s army food and water, to show them where the Confederates were, and to point out to them the best routes to Jackson. So, this historical marker simply left out the bulk of the people, defined them away, and was completely inaccurate. And seeing this marker made me keep track in the back of my mind, and in the back of my filing cabinet, of other historical markers and monuments that were wrong in their own way.

 

Why do you think your work has been so popular?

I think Americans do have a passion about the past. We can look at some of our most popular movies: Glory, Dances with Wolves, and even JFK. The most popular series in the history of public television was Ken Burns’s series on the Civil War. Historical novels are very popular. So, I think Americans are interested in the past. They are just put off by their ghastly boring high school history textbooks and courses that rely almost solely on those textbooks.

I think that my books offer, and maybe even fulfill, the promise of kind of a surreptitious or secret knowledge: “I am going to let you in on what really happened.” So I think that readers do find in Lies My Teacher Told Me both small facts and large interpretations that are absolutely new to them, that convince them that they wish they had known this all along, and therefore they share it with others.

 

What are your favorite facts and interpretations in your books that reveal key historical inaccuracies that are regularly consumed by the public?

I think, in Lies my Teacher Told Me, the chapter called “Red Eyes”—about Native American-European American interaction, and even Native American-African American interaction, makes a couple of novel advances. For instance, the usual line in not only American history textbooks, but even perhaps in American historiography, is that Native Americans were tragically culturally different from European Americans and could not or didn’t want to assimilate. But I don’t think that will do. I point out in “Red Eyes” that the master narrative should really be that American society did not allow Native Americans to acculturate. And those who did were often, as in the case of the Cherokees and Choctaws, the first people displaced, their possessions taken away from them, and expelled from their native country to an arid and completely different type of environment in Oklahoma.

And I have actually had historians say to me that they never thought of the fact, as I point out, that we did not buy Louisiana from France, we bought the European rights to Louisiana from France. After France sold it to us, their ambassador said to our ambassador, “Now you will have to see what we have sold you.” And we went on to fight some fifty wars with Indian nations for that territory, made many millions of dollars of payments to Native peoples for this territory. Yet all of our textbooks and even our secondary works in history keep talking about how “Jefferson doubled the size of the United States by buying Louisiana from France.” There was no notion that he bought certain rights from France and that the doubling of the United States would take several decades thereafter and some pain and some money. So that leaves Native people out of the story, and yet they were central to the story—more central than the French. It dehumanizes them and therefore has unfortunate impacts on the present.

I think Lies Across America probably makes more new contributions because it is based on my own primary research. First of all, I think it makes some theoretical or pedagogical contributions. For example, one of the little theoretical essays is called “A Tale of Two Eras.” It shows how every historical site really tells two stories. It tells the story about 1861 or 1863 if it is a Civil War site; and it also tells a story of whenever it was put up or whenever its interpretation was established. And most people don’t think of that second point. They only think of the first point in time, the manifest content of the monument, marker, house, or fort.

What I am putting out there is the sociology of knowledge approach. It tries to situate the speaker, in this case the committee or individual who put up the monument or who wrote that interpretation, in the social structure. It tries to assess what they are trying to accomplish, who their audience is, when they wrote, and so on. I think that is a very powerful tool for even fourth grade students—and, for sure, the rest of us—to have. There is an appendix of ten questions to put to a historical site that I think will have wide pedagogical use, not just to put to historical sites but to put to historical movies, historical photographs, and books.

I also think that there are several short essays in Lies Across America that are very good summaries of the state of thinking and knowledge on a subject. I particularly would emphasize the entry in the book about slavery plantations. I give readers a way to understand slavery that is compact and is based on the best research of the last several decades. Yet it is also concrete, because it is sited at slavery plantations and shows what they get wrong and what they should be about.

Finally, I think there are some contributions to knowledge—new knowledge—in the book. For instance, I resurrect some women in Indiana and Arkansas that we don’t really know much about and that we should know about. Another example might be eugenics in Virginia and the whole eugenics campaign. Most people don’t know anything about that, and so, to have written about it brings it to people’s consciousness.

 

How important is the learning of history in preparing children for the role of citizens?

I think being a good citizen means working at bringing the United States of America of the future into being. The exercise of doing history, of finding out what caused what in the past, is closely akin to the exercise of being a citizen, in terms of finding out what we should do to alleviate, improve, or fix social issues today. So I really disagree with people who think American history is an unimportant course in high school, or what we put up on the landscape is not really important. I think these ideas limit and constrain our thinking. Now I think we need to engage in a civic dialogue about the past which will also help our civic dialogue about what we do next.

 

A great deal of research, however, shows that students rarely have the opportunity to practice the doing of history.4 Rather, teachers choose to use textbooks5 and employ the pedagogy of the telling of the tale of the past. History for students then becomes nothing more than memorizing facts and dates, which are assessed on a multiple-choice test. Why do you think this is the case?

I think there are two main problems. Many high school teachers in history are teaching out-of-field. That is, they do not have a BA in history or in a history-rich discipline like sociology, political science, economics, or American studies. Moreover, these folks mostly do not share a passion for history, or even an interest in history. They are not subscribing to history magazines and reading history books in the summer. They do not send students off into various research projects. They don’t even know what research projects might be good in the classroom. They hide behind the textbook and the endless questions at the end of each chapter.

The second problem I think affects all teachers, including even college professors, and that is, we tend to model that which we had. So there is a great deal of inertia built into the system. So many teachers rely on traditional methods that they were exposed to—methods that somehow, in the back of too many people’s minds, connote what teaching is supposed to be: Standing up in front of a class, imparting information, and getting students to read and retain information from the textbook.

 

What are the dangers of teaching history and social studies in this way?

There are several dangers. First, it’s boring and it turns students off, so there is simply no intellectual excitement. The second problem is with the content of the textbooks, which have no causation, no relevance to the present, and therefore do not induce students to think intelligently about the history of the United States, the present situation, or where we should go next as a nation. Third, such an approach encourages the opposite of the researching and critical thinking that we should be getting students to do in history courses and as citizens.

 

You stress the importance of students learning to do history, but don’t you think it naive to suggest that every person can develop the skills, abilities, and knowledge to become their own historian?

I certainly think every person not only can be his or her own historian, but is. Whether they are any good at it is another matter, but they are their own historian. There are just so many examples of fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh graders who have done fine historical research projects that I don’t need to go any further. There is no secret kingdom that a Ph.D. in history unlocks or a Ph.D. in sociology unlocks, and yes, every child can be his or her own historian and should be.

 

I think a lot of teachers would want to agree with you but feel that there is no time to encourage the doing of history in a climate that stresses the importance of knowing content. How would you respond to those who contend that the teaching of history should be based on a specific core of historical knowledge that all students must learn?

I would agree with much of what those folks say. This might surprise you, but I think folks do need to know some things. There is a bedrock of fact in history and a bedrock of fact about the past, and some of those rocks are so major and so big that we need to know what they were, what they are. My main complaint would be with the method used to teach and impart this bedrock of fact, and to some extent, with the choice of facts being offered. I don’t think it is possible to teach people eight thousand and eight important facts about American history by teaching them eight thousand and eight facts about American history. I think they will rebel. They will learn maybe eighty of them at a time, and then clear them out of their synapses to learn the next eighty, until you get done with the course and then they will clear the last eighty out—and, by gosh, they haven’t retained a single one.

I think in order to retain facts about American history, they have to be taught in a context and within a structure, and that includes emotion because many of these facts are connected with issues that are very important. The structure also has to include relevance to the present. You don’t understand history by telling students, “Okay, now you have to go memorize the following facts about the Constitution.” The Constitution is, of course, a living document. It has relevance to the present, and students need to understand its livingness and its importance, and the issues around it that even continue as major points on which people differ and where they need to form opinions.

When a finite number of such issues is presented in the classroom, that structures the entire course. Then students will retain many of the twigs, many of the eight thousand and eight facts that they learn in the process of dealing with the major deeper issues that teachers are bringing in.

 

What type of advice can you give teachers to break from their textbooks and encourage students to begin to do history?

I think the first thing the teachers need to get rid of is the pressure to cover all the things in the textbook. That is what I call the tyranny of coverage. Many teachers feel they have to cover all this stuff because it is in there, or because there may be a state-wide competency exam in history, or the AP history test, that seems to demand that students know all kinds of twigs. I know textbooks give some teachers a feeling of comfort, knowing that tomorrow they will cover pages 428 to 431. But my approach and the approach of many teachers that I have watched and admired is quite different. They will select maybe thirty to eighty topics.

Among these topics, one has to be the formation of the Constitution and some of the issues about it. One might be the removal of the Indians from the southeastern United States. I don’t think that absolutely has to be there; it would be on my list. When they then get to the removal of the Indians, they will get a half dozen or more students involved with each learning the position of one of the major actors—perhaps Andrew Jackson, or John Ross of the Cherokee Nation, or the governor of Georgia, etc. They will then come back to the class having researched their person, their part of the issue on the Web, in the library, and in sources that the teacher has helped them uncover. And when they then present the issue from various sides, they will remember that for the rest of their lives. I think that kind of approach works whereas the “Now we will learn six characteristics of the Andrew Jackson administration” will not work.

 

You mentioned using the Web for student research. How important is technology for encouraging and teaching the doing of history?

I think that the Web, or the Internet, is a major innovation. I think ultimately it will be as important to teaching and learning as moveable type or the printing press. It is particularly great in history because it puts at the fingertips of any student who has a phone line and a modem a vast library of thousands of historical photographs, original documents, and secondary works, too. So there is less of an excuse to fall back on and use only the textbook. The second point, though, is equally important, and it is that the Web is not reliable. That’s one of its charms. It is difficult for students to go to half a dozen websites on a given subject and not realize that they differ and that at least one or two of them are pretty bogus. That’s great, because the Web does intrinsically encourage critical reading. Textbooks intrinsically discourage critical reading because they are told in only one voice—the God-like monotone of their authors. Moreover, most teachers use them in such a way as to encourage them simply to be believed and regurgitated.

Teachers don’t approach the Web that way. Teachers should encourage students to question what’s on the Web and to develop reasons for believing a web source. One other thing about the Web: students can increasingly be encouraged to put their products on the Web and even to write their term papers in hypertext, which is actually more logically the language of scholarship. When you underline and bold a hypertext item, instead of going to a footnote number and then going to the back of the paper, you “are” immediately there. We can immediately see whom the student is quoting. Is he or she taking that passage out of context?

 

Do you feel your work is making a difference in the teaching and learning of history?

I do think that Lies My Teacher Told Me has made a difference. I honestly think that many of the 330,000 sales of the book have been to teachers, and that it is making a difference in how teachers teach history, even to kids as young as second graders and also as old as college students. More and more teachers are supplementing the textbook and are teaching against the textbook, which is what I want them to do.

I’m not trying to get teachers to throw out the textbook. I think the textbook should be there along with my book, along with A People’s History of the United States, along with the Web, along with other sources—so that students realize that, yes, here is an account in the textbook, but here are some other pieces of information that force us to realize that history is not just learning and memorizing the account, it is rather this process of winnowing out information and coming to one’s conclusions based on that thoughtful process.

 

What is your next project?

I don’t know. I am thinking about following up Lies Across America with a positive book—perhaps called “Surprises on the Landscape: Places that Get History Right.” Such a book would tell little known stories of out of the way or seemingly minor historical monuments, markers, and sites that have a resonance and a relationship to the overall national past and that therefore are important stories. I look forward to hearing from any of your readers who have suggestions for me as to such sites. G

 

Notes

1. M.B. Baxter, R. H. Ferrell, and J.E. Wiltz, The Teaching of American History in High Schools (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991); J. Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984); F. M. Newman, “Promoting Higher Order Thinking in Social Studies: Overview of a Study of Sixteen High School Departments,” Theory and Research in Social Education 19 (1991): 324-340; D. Ravitch and C.E. Finn, What Do Our 17 Year-olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (New York: Harper and Row, 1987); J.P. Shaver, O.L. Davis, Jr., and S. W. Helburn, “The Status of Social Studies Education: Impressions from three NSF Studies,” Social Education 43, no. 2 (1979): 150-159; K.B. Wiley and J. Race, The Status of Pre-College Science, Mathematics, and Social Science Education: 1955-75, Vol 3: Social Science Education (Boulder, CO: Social Science Consortium, 1977).

2. R. W. Evans, “Misunderstanding Social Studies: A Rejoinder to Whelan,” Theory and Research in Social Education 20 (1992); 313-317.

3. K. Jenkins, Rethinking History. (London: Routledge, 1991), 69.

4. Baxter, Ferrell, and Wiltz; Goodlad; Newman, 324-340; Ravitch and Finn; Shaver, Davis, Jr., and Helburn, 150-159; Wiley and Race.

5. M.C. Schug, R.D. Western, and L.G. Enochs, “Why Do Social Studies Teachers Use Textbooks? The Answer May Lay in Economic Theory,” Social Education 61, no. 2 (1997); 97-101.

 

David Hicks is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.