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1 Beaverton US History- General

Lies My Teacher Told Me

by

Lies My Teacher Told Me Cover

ISBN13: 9780684818863
ISBN10: 0684818868
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

Chapter 1

Handicapped by History

The Process of Hero-making

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors.
James Baldwin

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner.., and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
W. E. B. Du Bois

By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves....We fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise.
Charles V. Willies

This Chapter is About Heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.

Many American history textbooks are studded with biographical vignettes of the very famous (Land of Promise devotes a box to each president) and the famous (The Challenge of Freedom provides "Did You Know?" boxes about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States, and Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, among many others). In themselves, vignettes are not a bad idea. They instruct by human example. They show diverse ways that people can make a difference. They allow textbooks to give space to characters such as Blackwell and Hansberry, who relieve what would otherwise be a monolithic parade of white male political leaders. Biographical vignettes also provoke reflection as to our purpose in teaching history: Is Chester A. Arthur more deserving of space than, say, Frank Lloyd Wright? Who influences us more today — Wright, who invented the carport and transformed domestic architectural spaces, or Arthur, who, urn, signed the first Civil Service Act? Whose rise to prominence provides more drama — Blackwell's or George Bush's (the latter born with a silver Senate seat in his mouth)? The choices are debatable, but surely textbooks should include some people based not only on what they achieved but also on the distance they traversed to achieve it.

We could go on to third- and fourth-guess the list of heroes in textbook pantheons. My concern here, however, is not who gets chosen, but rather what happens to the heroes when they are introduced into our history textbooks and our classrooms. Two twentieth-century Americans provide case studies of heroification: Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. Wilson was unarguably an important president, and he receives extensive textbook coverage. Keller, on the other hand, was a "little person" who pushed through no legislation, changed the course of no scientific discipline, declared no war. Only one of the twelve history textbooks I surveyed includes her photograph. But teachers love to talk about Keller and often show audiovisual materials or recommend biographies that present her life as exemplary. All this attention ensures that students retain something about both of these historical figures, but they may be no better off for it. Heroification so distorts the lives of Keller and Wilson (and many others) that we cannot think straight about them.

Teachers have held up Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren. Every fifth-grader knows the scene in which Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen's hand at the pump. At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on Keller's life. Each yields its version of the same clichE. A McGraw-Hill educational film concludes: "The gift of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make us is to help another reach true potential."

To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn from it. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history. The result is that we really don't know much about her.

Over the past ten years, I have asked dozens of college students who Helen Keller was and what she did. They all know that she was a blind and deaf girl. Most of them know that she was befriended by a teacher, Anne Sullivan, and learned to read and write and even to speak. Some students can recall rather minute details of Keller's early life: that she lived in Alabama, that she was unruly and without manners before Sullivan came along, and so forth. A few know that Keller graduated from college. But about what happened next, about the whole of her adult life, they are ignorant. A few students venture that Keller became a "public figure" or a "humanitarian," perhaps on behalf of the blind or deaf. "She wrote, didn't she?" or "she spoke" — conjectures without content. Keller, who was born in 1880, graduated from Radcliffe in 1904 and died in 1968. To ignore the sixty-four years of her adult life or to encapsulate them with the single word humanitarian is to lie by omission.

The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist. She joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1909. She had become a social radical even before she graduated from Radcliffe, and not, she emphasized, because of any teachings available there. After the Russian Revolution, she sang the praises of the new communist nation: "In the East a new star is risen! With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new, and behold in the East a man-child is born! Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the coming dawn!" Keller hung a red flag over the desk in her study. Gradually she moved to the left of the Socialist party and became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson.

Keller's commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people's opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller's research was not just book-learning: "I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it."

At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity — this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the

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crowyhead, October 18, 2007 (view all comments by crowyhead)
This book is extremely enlightening, and the author's tone is both witty and informative.
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(15 of 28 readers found this comment helpful)
Brook, June 13, 2007 (view all comments by Brook)
To use a recently-learned 'textclamation' I picked up from playing World of Warcraft... ZOMG!!!

This book is amazing, disturbing, depressing, and fascinating all at once. Loewen doesn't just tell you what your teacher left out; he also explains why it was left out in the first place. Either because of the teacher's own bias, the economics of textbook publishing, or politics of 'faith,' there are numerous factors unrelated to a child's education that influence what he or she will be taught in American schools.

This is a must-read for anyone that aspires to independent thinking.
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(25 of 40 readers found this comment helpful)
Margaret FalerSweany, December 19, 2006 (view all comments by Margaret FalerSweany)
As a teacher, I was frustrated with how little my students knew of America's history. The Vietnam War was in 1952; Abraham Lincoln was president in the 1700s! Lies My Teacher Told Me provides an excellent analysis of why American History textbooks are bland, inaccurate, and even blatantly wrong. He shows us how vibrant individuals like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Columbus have been turned into 1-dimensional, perfect heroes. His discussions of race, women's rights efforts, and progress--which permeate the book--sculpt an exciting tale of the shaping of American attitudes. Much of what is happening in current political scenes can be seen as replicating the actions of previous eras. Much of the rhetoric we hear today can be found in the poorly written history our children have learned from textbooks that try to offend no special interest group. My copy has now been read/heard by seven people, each who has found it exhilarating to read and passed it along to another. I'm hoping it eventually returns to me.
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(34 of 52 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780684818863
Subtitle:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
Author:
Loewen, James W.
Author:
Loewen, James W.
Publisher:
Touchstone
Location:
New York :
Subject:
General
Subject:
History
Subject:
United states
Subject:
United States - General
Subject:
Study & Teaching
Subject:
Historiography
Subject:
Textbooks
Subject:
General education.
Subject:
Indians of North America in textbooks.
Subject:
Thanksgiving Day in textbooks.
Subject:
General Education
Subject:
General History
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st Touchstone ed.
Edition Description:
B102
Series Volume:
104-231
Publication Date:
January 1995
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Yes
Pages:
384
Dimensions:
9.28x6.18x.66 in. .92 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Education » Classroom Resources
Education » Teaching » Social Studies
History and Social Science » US History » General
History and Social Science » World History » Historiography

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