James Loewen, in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, talks about how slavery formed in the United States when Europeans started to inhabit the land. They brought over Africans to help them with their production on the cotton farms as well as daily chores. Slaves had no rights and the act of slavery dominated political life in the early 19th century because it was expanding in the south but starting to diminish in the north. Slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. After the North won, slavery was still present in the South until the Civil Rights Movement removed segregation laws in America. Slavery may be over now, but racism persists. When historians give their own representations of an event (one-sided or not) do students “pay the cost” of learning to be racist during their history lessons?
Loewen introduces this statement “Events and processes in American history, from the time of slavery to the present, are what explains racism” (145). What events? With this quote the reader is to acknowledge that anything and everything in history has involved racism. I think he is referring to the majority of social tragedies that took place throughout this time. For example, if we look at the 50s era we would see the ending of the Jim Crow laws in the South. The Jim Crow laws were the legal segregation laws in the south; such as blacks couldn’t use the same bathroom as whites or even attend the same schools. It is obvious to see that there was white violence towards blacks at this time. These laws made whites feel superior to other races and allowed them to behave this way. Blacks were ridiculed for their skin color, forced to abide by the white laws and if they disobeyed there was violence against them. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 the blacks who were part of a sit-in to oppose the segregation laws were hosed-down by police and other authorities (Garner). The textbook doesn’t give specific examples such as this. Is the reader supposed to guess where racism is involved?
“The textbooks that do mention racism ‘minimize white complicity in it’” (Loewen, 145). The authors are minimizing white involvement in these crimes of racism. I think authors of textbooks do this because they are then protecting themselves from any bad press or public backlash of the content. The authors will print the fact that blacks were persecuted, but from whom the readers are not supposed to learn. We know that there was white violence such as lynching, but nothing ever happened to the whites who performed it; no reprimands. Lynching is the illegal practice of hanging a man for his own wrong-doings usually by a mob. Lynching a person is murder and no one was put in jail for all the lynching that happened in the United States. In history class students are meant to learn that whites are always just and fair because of all the injustice done. The authors are trying to create people who we can look up to and who are morally just, who then become fictitious historian figures. Loewen says, “Textbooks stifle meaning by suppressing causation” (15). I think he means that textbooks are changing the meaning of history by not including the causes of all events. I think students would learn more if they knew who/what caused the events. Without causation the students can’t examine relativity. The authors are also not including the entire truth when they write about the past. By doing this, the authors are creating fiction and blind patriotism out of the “supposed history” the students are learning. When students are not learning events that happened in the past, then they will not be able to understand how the world is functioning today.
Marika Sherwood, who authored Race, Empire, and Education: Teaching Racism, suggests, “Historians (a new ‘profession’) joined the debate, but apparently on one side only” (7). She is talking about the debate of historians in the eighteenth century who wrote about how blacks were “savage”, “brutish”, and “cruel”. The author who saw black inhabitants described them that way, while another author left them out of their description completely. The authors don’t want readers to think beyond what is stated in the texts. Leaving out information in textbooks leads to less critical thinking because there are fewer facts. The textbooks have minor controversy so there is less critical thinking among students. Without critical thinking students are not learning how to overcome the nations past faults. She states, “High school students ‘have a gloomy view of the state of race relations in America today’” (170). I agree with this because I don’t remember much of my history lessons in high school. I also received average grades because I couldn’t memorize facts and I didn’t find anything interesting; I was taught and never engaged in meaningful discussions. Students should be able to view true details of our past and question “why?” to everything that happened. Our “heroes” were human and made mistakes. Our students should be learning that not everyone is perfect. Learning this should help us to realize that racism is wrong, if they don’t already. If the students are not learning the truth in history, causation, that there was indeed racism happening, then they are oblivious to the subject of racism in the world around them. If the students are oblivious then they only have the world around them to teach them about racism. They are only learning the racist violence surrounding them and never about how the events came to be and who caused them. Students should be able to learn the horrible truths about racism while the teachers will be there to instill the morals and values after the lessons; such as teaching that harming another race is unethical and unmoral. A good teaching method would be to create assignments that the students would have to reflect on what was read or taught and then have discussions about the topic. The teacher could help the student decipher what could be fact and what could be fiction, based on information found in other documents.
Jane Tompkins, who wrote “Indians”: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History, agrees that historians write about what they perceive to see. What most historians write may not be everything that was there; they may leave things out that they did not see fit to include in their work. She said, “These judgments and descriptions are a function of the historian’s position in relation to the subject” (666). The historian is the person who decides if they are to choose a racist view. If the historian believes that the Europeans are superior because they are “civilized” then that is how the historian will interpret them into their text or if they go to a foreign land and overlook the original inhabitants then they will not include them in their text either. The writer chooses what to include. There are no outside sources that pressure him to change what he perceives. The writers of primary sources are documenting events and therefore become historians because they were there to witness the events. We, the reader, can only perceive the events as the historian tells it. The reader forms their own ideas based on what is read. The reader will also form their own biases. If the writer doesn’t include everything in the account they are writing about, the reader never receives the whole image of history and can become one-sided in what they understand to be history. Their one-sided biased belief/view about history is then incorporated into their life and how they view the world around them. This view affects their decisions and, in the extremities, if the reader believes what is written they could start racist hate crimes because they may believe that someone should be punished for the events in the past.
In the article What Makes a Good Historian, Richard Wilkinson argues that some authors should represent their bias in their writing to make it more appealing to its audience. He states, “One could actually argue that a good historian should be biased, simply because one writes better from the heart” (2). This would definitely help the readers to understand where the author is coming from in their own opinions in which they are writing about. Granted, it may be more interesting for the readers because it would be more along the lines of a story than actual facts; facts being the true accounts from history, not including one’s opinion. I think that their own biases can taint the subject. Textbooks are more biased in the writing because they are essentially third party accounts of history; they incorporate primary sources and secondary sources, as they should. Textbooks include such a variety of other sources too and sometimes even other textbooks as sources as well which can be tainted information to begin with. If students are learning only about the authors’ biases within subjects in their textbooks, then this can ultimately be their take on the subject itself. So learning from textbooks that leave out the injustice of whites can ultimately lead the students to hatred towards this race. It can also harm students from being able to think for themselves because they are not thinking critically.
So why are textbooks censoring this prejudice? Loewen states, “As long as history textbooks make white racism invisible in the nineteenth century, neither they nor the students who use them will be able to analyze racism intelligently in the present” (170). If the historians in our school textbooks leave out “who” is causing the racism, if we have no one to blame, the historian is protecting them. Therefore the historian is being prejudiced in their view of history itself. If the historian is prejudiced in their writings then the reader will learn their views throughout their text. I think textbooks eliminate any controversy so the reader will not learn about the authors’ true view. If they choose not to discriminate against whites it could be because they believe whites have done nothing wrong. I think the textbooks’ authors give a very neutral view on all events so there cannot be controversy in classrooms because there is such a variety of races being taught there. But by doing so we are eliminating any advancement in society to improve on racial prejudice. Students need to learn about different racial controversies in the past, not just black and white, to be able to understand each race’s ethnic background. Without advancement in eliminating prejudice each race tends to be separate in the United States.
How are we to believe that no one was racist in America when most white families prospered with the help of black slaves? For example, the cotton farms in the South where any promise of profit came with the needed labor of slaves. Loewen states “the very essence of what we have inherited from slavery is the idea that it is appropriate, even ‘natural,’ for whites to be on top, blacks on bottom” (144). This creates a caste system within the United States. With the enforcement of slavery this statement is true. Whites had the power and knowledge to act superior over other races. Whites enslaved blacks then they took over the Indians’ land while forcing them to move west because they wanted their land for expanding their cotton farms. Since there was no resistance whites continued on. Once resistance started the whites began to kill, lynching included. If the previous statement was in textbooks the overall view the author would be giving is that they are racist against whites. The author who chose to include this within his/her text would be interpreting the truth that whites were unjust and whites in the United States would be outraged that their children were learning this in school. But are we separating the students even more?
In the article No Child Left Behind and the Denigration of Race, the author Eric Freeman explains about race and how the color line between blacks and whites has not disappeared since the end of the segregation laws, but just evolved. There were still problems between races and the United States found a new way to cope with it. Freeman states, “African Americans and other people of color continue to reckon with serious de facto inequalities in areas such as…education” (191). He suggests that the people of America are “colorblind” toward each other, looking over the racial problems of society as well as the color of people. He brings into consideration the No Child Left Behind law. He explains how every child of a different background learns a different way and that with this law in effect we, as a society, are creating more barriers in education as a whole. This law was made to unite the races within schools.
How are the more advantaged and the less advantaged groups supposed to grow while the teachers cannot help both within one classroom? A teacher would need to focus on one or the other for advancing. A teacher would need a system to separate the ones who are more advantaged who are able to learn at a quicker pace and teach them at their pace so they do not become bored with school. The less advantaged students would need to be with a teacher that is more apt with students who learn at a slower pace; especially with bilingual students. During each class’s history lessons, one class would learn more in detail about each chapter for their exams while the other will learn very broadly about each chapter throughout their textbooks. At the end of the year the more advantaged class would have learned more irrelevant things during their time in class. Maybe this class would have more time for critical thinking within their chapters. Meanwhile the less advantaged class would have learned the same subjects, but a more broad view, and maybe they only had time to learn facts. Is the first class more racist because they learned more in their studies and had a chance for critical thinking? Or is the second class more racist because they only learned their subjects broadly, not in depth?
Students do not argue against the facts in textbooks because it is a learning tool. Does this mean that everything within a textbook needs to be taught? We believe the textbooks’ information has to be true because the school chose to teach from it. Tompkins states, “This doesn’t mean that you have to accept just anybody’s facts. You can show that what someone else asserts to be a fact is false. But it does mean that you can’t argue that someone else’s facts are not facts because they are only the product of a perspective, since this will be true of the facts you perceive as well” (669). So what is true then? I think she believes that students should question the readings where the writer perceives their own writing as truth when in fact it is not. She also wants the readers to know that they can’t question everything because it might be from the readers perspective in which they are writing and we cannot argue with what they saw in which that is what they are writing about. Students should be learning to question history when there is a contradictory statement within the text and when the teacher states a fact that is contradictory to what he/she has previously stated. Most textbooks are not written from primary sources, but only from secondary sources. They are, in their creation, only relaying false information from one book to the next.
Why do we fear the truths of our past? We shouldn’t be afraid to learn about racism. The subject is all around. We learn racism from everyday events, from modern life itself, and primarily from our parents’ point of view. Our parents instill their own morals and values. They help us to understand the world around us and may teach us the wrong views too. It is up to the children to decipher which are their biased opinions of the world and which are good for the world. Prejudice can carry on though their family because they learned this when they were children. If our society is being taught this way, then racism endures. For students to better understand the history of racism it should be taught within the schools and the classes should have an open-minded discussion about all past events the textbooks neglect to cover about racism. Students can learn to decipher the differences from their teachers. Our parents don’t always know the truth and the people we meet will most likely be racist of some form. School is the only place where equality can be given a chance and we are silencing that chance.
1. Freeman, Eric. “No Child Left Behind and the Denigration of Race”. Equity & Excellence in Education. 38:3, 2005: 190-191.
2. Garner, Jerry. “Birmingham Attractions: Kelly Ingram Park.” 2007. 3 May.
3. Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
4. Marable, Manning. The Great Wells of Democracy: the Meaning of Race in American Life. New York: Basic Cintas Books, 2002.
5. Sherwood, Marika. “Race, empire and education: teaching racism”. Race & Class 42:3, 2001: 1-28.
6. Tompkins, Jane. “’Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History”. Critical Inquiry 1986: 654-670.
7. Wilkinson, Richard. “What Makes a Good Historian?” History Review Sept. 2007: 52-53.