Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This Is Why American History Education Sucks

I have to agree with much of what leftie James Loewen said in Lies My Teacher Told Me: the teaching of history is boring and fruitless because it's devoid of passion, balance, and humanity. I quote from page 4, "None of the facts is remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn (sic) thing after another." From page 9, "(T)hrough this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest." From p. 60, "(T)extbooks should show that neither morality nor immorality can simply be conferred up on us by history. Merely being part of the United States, without regard to our own acts and ideas, does not make us moral or immoral beings. History is more complicated than that."

A friend offered me the book Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim To Help. I've enjoyed the book, especially the last chapter (on education, of course). In it, Mona Charen echoes Loewen's complaint. From pp 234-235:

This is America through the eyes of liberals. It is the horror of slavery without the uplift of the Abolitionist movement. It is the greed of the "robber barons" without the ingenuity of the Edisons and the Wright Brothers. It is the shame of the Japanese internment without the glory of Iwo Jima. America's children are fully versed on the stain of slavery in American history but not on the great benevolence and sacrifice that that evil brought forth. Youngsters know about Sojourner Truth, but not about William Lloyd Garrison, the Underground Railroad, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Frederick Douglass...Every nation has moral stains in its history, but American children should know that their ancestors struggled to--and largely succeeded in--overcoming theirs.

When some people advocate teaching "warts and all", they often forget the "and all". Back to Loewen, p. 88: "The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history."

Update, 5/28/07: Apparently, the teaching of US history doesn't have to suck.


Dana said...

Thank you...very nice post. And it seems we would get further in instilling these wonderful, liberal values by inspiring our youth rather than trying to prove how awful we are.

But that is just me.

Tony said...

Unfortunately, history is not the only subject where we seek to apologize for humanity. The worst offender is our own subject of choice -mathematics. The teaching of MATHEMATICS is boring and fruitless because it's devoid of passion, balance, and humanity. None of the facts is remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn (sic) ALGORITHM after another. Students are presented with prettied up proofs that look as though they sprang fully formed from the minds of math savants. Why do we throw away the scratch paper and gloss over the wrong turns? What about the drama? The infighting between Newton and Leibniz or the secret rituals of the Pythagoreans? Math is the most human of enterprises, yet we teach it as though it is the work of mindless machines. The teaching of ALL subjects could be improved by Loewen's call for more humanity, especially our own.

Darren said...

Dana, it's not just you.

And Tony, your proposal might be good for a math history class, but not necessarily valuable for a math class. Our auto shop students don't need to learn about steam-driven cars and aeronautical engineers don't need to study Zeppelins in order to progress today. But the good and the bad are *both* history which impact on today, which is why they're both important. The advent of steam-driven cars has no impact on today.

Unless you were being facetious in your comment, in which case, read the paragraph above =)

Tony said...

I think I muddied my point, which is simply that mathematics is too often presented in its most elegant state. This revisionist style is necessary to some extent. If you are trying to teach a student to stand on the shoulders of giants, they don't need to know the giant's life story. But still, those dirty, messy, back of the envelope trials and tribulations are where the real magic happens, and I don't think it would hurt to let our students catch a glimpse of that every so often.

Darren said...

Tony, I think they catch a glimpse of it when I make a mistake at the overhead :-)

Matt Johnston said...


Given your penchant for history even though you teach math, and the fact that too much history is presented in a "clean" manner, I urge you to consider a book called Brilliant Solution. I don't have the book in front of me, but I think the author is Carol Berkin or something like that.

Anyway, the book is another history of the writing of hte Constituion, but instead of looking at teh delegates as wise men who came together to create a great government, the book details the often petty insecurities of the Framers, the bickering back and forth and the fears these great men had.

It is just about right in length and a pretty easy read, but one of the best books on teh Constitutional Convention I have read in a long time.

Darren said...

Considering how much booze they ordered when it was all done, I'm not surprised!

I'll see if I can find that book. Sounds muy interesting.

Law and Order Teacher said...

I am an AP History teacher and I couldn't agree more with your post. When I teach I have found that students respond with enthusiasm to teaching history as a story involving people. With the emphasis on the people aspect they are engaged in the story, but they also get the information. Some of the topics we have just finished with include, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (Compact Theory) the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, the Bank Crisis, the Mexican War, and the Wilmot Priviso of 1846. I list these to point out that students will engage in the material as long as it has a human element. We emphasized the enmity between Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson and the effect it had on the resolution of the crisis. The students then connected that information to the road to the Civil War which we are studying now. That's high level thinking and I am proud of their grasp of this material. It may seem that I'm bragging about these students and I am. I wish merely to point out that you are correct in your assessment of history education, but all is not lost. History is about people and should be taught from that perspective. Students love a good story and history is just that. Thanks for your post. You are right on.

Darren said...

I agree. It's all about the *story*, and the story involves people.

Polski3 said...

Good Post. I agree, History as written by textbook folk is a very biased publication. Just one example: In the two grade 7 history texts I have been assigned to use as the main resource for my classes, there is maybe a total of a paragraph about the contributions of the "vikings".
Today in my classes, we talked about the Norman invasion of England.....and the death of William the Conq. The kids were thrilled and disgusted that his servants ripped off his place upon his death, and that due to a variety of factors, his body sort of exploded during his funeral service. THAT sort of stuff grabs them and they often remember such things. And history is full of such wonderful stories, but the powers that be tell us "Only use what we bought you from the publisher."

MikeAT said...

"Considering how much booze they ordered when it was all done, I'm not surprised!"

Don't knock it...remember what a great man said..."Never trust a man who drinks too much or too little."