Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen is a book that's got a lot of attention in the last few years.  Honestly, I should have titled this post "Lies James Loewen Told Me" instead.  Needless to say, I was less than impressed with the book.  In fact, I gave up on it at around 1/3 of the way through in disgust.

Loewen's main contention is that the history that we are taught as part of our standard education is little more than propoganda and indoctrination, and is in fact grossly misrepresentative.  He also contends that it's incredibly boring, which contributes to numerous cited studies that show students hate history.  Me personally (and I suspect many in the gamer community in general)--I find history fascinating and always have.  While there's a lot of history out there, and therefore it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be familiar with the particulars of every aspect of history out there, I found Loewen's critiques of history as presented rather facile.  More damningly, he's guilty of exactly the same practice that he condemns; of replacing one propogandist mythology with another, and of spreading lies and deceits just as outrageous as those he condemns.

But let me back up a bit.  I don't disagree with some of his basic principles.  History as taught in junior high and high school in America is boring, and it is full of a number of holes.  Some of those are deliberate and undramatic--Loewen seems unable to grasp the notion that a history of the American nation should focus on the founders of the American nation and not other peoples who were nearby or ancillary to that focus--and curricula should be revised accordingly.  Textbooks do have a number of errors, many of them perpetuated (probably) in an attempt to avoid painting an unflattering image of iconic American heroes.  But if truth is the gold standard all historians should approve of seeking, Loewen's book is no better than the textbooks he so smugly and contemptibly condemns.

Not to attempt an ad hominem attack on Loewen himself, but a little context is nice.  Loewen is not a historian.  He's a sociologist who specializes in minority studies.  This becomes quite evident as his rather obvious agenda in publishing this book mirrors this background.  He co-authored a textbook in the late 70s that focused on American history as a racial interests as its main focus.  When it was not approved by the Mississippi State Education Board as a textbook for use in their public schools, he sued (and won, sadly).  The bizarre interpretation of the American Library Association is that this is a landmark First Amendment case which guarantees our "right to read freely."  Exactly how they got to this conclusion is a bit mysterious to me; nobody was stopping Loewen from publishing the book, or anyone from reading it.  The First Amendment guarantees your right to say something, but it doesn't guarantee that an audience will be provided for you.

Anyway, I read a number of the chapters, and the introduction.  To illustrate my point, I'm mostly going to pull from the chapter on Columbus.  However, I found similar problems in the other chapters; in fact, to some degree, they became more exacerbated as I continued rather than less.  First of all, Loewen takes on the notion that everyone believed the earth was flat before Columbus (which is patently false; nobody with any knowledge or authority believed that).  So far so good.  Loewen then takes extreme exception to the notion that Columbus "discovered" America.  Why do history textbooks not talk about the west African discoveries of America, or the Phnoenician discoveries of America?  He then goes into full-on rant mode for several pages about the Eurocentrism, inherent racism, "insensitivity" and oppression of the American education system, which is "unwilling" to accept the concept of a black discovery--instead of a white discovery--of America.

What Loewen doesn't tell you, rather artlessly, is that there is absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever to believe that either the Mali or Phoenician discoveries of America actually happened.  They are fringe theories based on wild speculation that no mainstream scholar takes seriously.  They are arguably more palatable than the idea of looking for Atlantis, or believing that the lost colony of Roanake was lost when its inhabitants were taken into spaceships by aliens--but not by much.  James Loewen would have us replace a largely true, albeit white-washed, version of history with one that's completely fabricated, and he complains that our institutional textbooks lie to us?  To what purpose?  Obviously--especially when placed in the context of his professional background--to spin us a completely different propoganda mythology based on the value of diversity, recognizing the accomplishments of "people of color" (even if they're completely made up).

To get a bit more into the details of his Columbus revisionism, he also dismisses the notion that Columbus believed to his death that he had discovered some new more easterly Indies (rather than really discovering the New World as we know it) or that he died in poverty, unappreciated for his accomplishments.  Actually, the former is true; Columbus did not recognize exactly what he had discovered, or the scope of what he had found, and died believing that he had discovered some portion of "the Indies."  And, late in his life, Columbus was arrested, dragged in chains back from Hispaniola to Spain, stripped of his privileges, and his descendants had to sue the Crown of Castile and Leon for restitution of what had been contractually promised to Columbus--which were never really restored.  Again; the "institutional" account is missing a lot of details and is significantly white-washed (the reason Columbus was arrested--or at least the justification for it--was his tyranny as governer of the islands and the shocking barbarity to which he subjected the Arawaks and other indians)... but it's actually more or less correct.  Loewen's revisionist history, on the other hand, is a complete lie, designed to deflate any white historical figure and replace them with mythical "diversity" heroes.

I could go on, but I'm going to let that one example stand in for the remainder of the book--or at least as much of it as I read.  The next two chapters, which I did read, had plenty more of that--what Loewen complained about as "false" actually wasn't, although it was missing in significant details, many of which, granted, are less than flattering to the characters that they portray.  Loewen conveniently leaves out any unsavory details about native life, however (where is his discussion on cannibalism?) or anything else related to "minority" groups; who's "exclusion" he calls dangerous, insensitive, deceptive, and Eurocentric.  And, as I mentioned, he somehow missed the whole point of American history--that it should focus on the history of the American nation, and those who built it.  So, while his greater point has some merit, once you get past that greater point (which you could get by reading the book jacket and otherwise not cracking it open at all) everything else about the book goes immediately to problematic.

Curiously, I'm not having an easy time finding any other criticism of the book; a Google search shows mostly glowing reviews by people who apparently don't know enough about history to know any better.  (Granted, I didn't do a very in depth attempt to seek out such criticism either.)  To me, that's the real danger of this book.  By presenting itself as a voice for truth crying in the wilderness, Loewen proceeds to create the impression that he's combating a dangerous re-education or propoganda attempt that's been foisted on us by implicit conspiracy.  In reality, he's doing nothing of the kind, he's trying to create a new mythology that isn't any more valid than the one it replaces (and in many cases, is arguably considerably less valid, especially his going on and on about the discovery of America by Africans) but which supports his attempted propoganda and his agenda and his world view.  It would be nice to believe that by publishing his book, he'll convince students to actually go and find out the truth for themselves rather than simply accept his version as better than that provided by their history textbooks, but honestly--I'm way too cynical to believe that that's likely to be true.  A little questioning of authority, a little independent research, and James Loewen's claims are revealed to be a mythology.  A "minority mythology" in which the villains are all white, and the heroes are now Squanto, the Caribs, the West Africans, Metacomet and others.

As an aside, I was also amused that in the introduction to the second edition, Loewen expresses amusement that he's been called a socialist by some readers.  Then, in the original introduction, we immediately read of his admiration of Helen Keller--not for overcoming her handicap of being deaf and blind, but as a social radical who praised the Soviet revolution (and the Nazis!), supported the overthrow of the capitalist system, and who has a legacy of opposition to the language rights of the deaf in America today, since she opposed the American Sign language vitriolically.  Not only does Loewen not actually provide all of this detail, he seems to express surprise and even some resentment that some in America might find that distasteful.  No wonder one comes to the conclusion that you have socialist sympathies, Loewen!  I thought your hope was to teach your readers to think?

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