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.

SHARE
About Webmaster
Mountain Xpress Webmaster Follow me @MXWebTeam

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.