The drama of history

In 300 action-packed pages, Dr. James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong (The New Press, 1996), changes the course of United States History as American high-school graduates know it. Loewen — a longtime race-relations professor — spent two years going over 12 popular American-history textbooks at the Smithsonian Institution. His findings? All were mind-numbingly dull, blatantly erroneous and highly Anglo-centric.

Despite an overloaded schedule of public appearances scattered across the nation, Loewen found the time to speak with Mountain Xpress about his book and his upcoming visit to Asheville.

MX: What initially sparked your interest in race relations?

JL: It was through reading a book and being aware of [racial tensions] in Decatur, Ill., which was where I grew up. … At Carleton College in Minnesota, I read Caste and Class in a Southern Town by J. Dollard. That intrigued me, so when I became a junior in college in 1963, [instead of] studying abroad, I decided to study at Mississippi State University, which was still segregated.

MX: How did you become interested in the teaching of American history?

JL: My first teaching job after Harvard was at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, which was predominantly black. I participated in a freshman social-sciences seminar, where I discovered that the students had learned hurtful myths about American history. Students at the University of Vermont [where I taught next] continued to depress me. I realized it was not just a [regional] problem, but a national problem.

MX: Why does pedagogy garner so little respect and attention from academics?

JL: A University of Vermont dean made a distinction between pedagogy and scholarship [while I was on the faculty]. I think it’s stupid. Academia has persuaded itself that knowledge is cumulative, so scholarship is considered a permanent addition to knowledge. Pedagogy doesn’t add to the historical knowledge. Because [scholars] don’t respect pedagogy, they don’t review the textbooks — which invites [the textbooks] to be poor.

MX: You use the term “Anglo-centric” to describe the 12 textbooks you reviewed. What does this mean, and how can it be avoided?

JL: “Anglo-centric” means looking at history from [the viewpoint of] Boston or New England [in general], and viewing everything else as unimportant. I’m not in favor of teaching a different history to different ethnic groups. We all need a multicultural history. We need to give reasonable attention to each group. It’s just bad history to leave [certain ethnic groups] out.

MX: Have you found a credible history textbook through your research?

JL: The best textbook I found was a fourth- and fifth-grade book called The Story of Us, published by Oxford University Press. But I actually think the Internet is the most useful [teaching] tool, for two reasons: First, it puts into the hands of a teacher in the tiniest town in North Carolina a huge library of primary resources. Second, [the material is] not written in the God-like, authoritative tone of [most] textbooks. You can also find contradictory sites, which makes students and teachers scrutinize the information much more. We’ll be talking about this more at the teacher’s workshop in Asheville.

MX: Have you thought about writing a textbook yourself?

JL: Yes, but I don’t want students to memorize my textbook, either.

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