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Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making
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Author:  Chris OConnor [ Fri Feb 01, 2019 4:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong - by James W. Loewen

Please use this thread for discussing...

Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Author:  Dexter [ Sun Feb 03, 2019 9:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

From the intro, talking about the flaws of high school history textbooks

Quote:
"We have not avoided controversial issues," announces one set of textbook authors; "instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments" on them -- thus removing the controversy! Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students students to question them


Wow, that's messed up!

He talks about how students find history to be an extremely boring and endless series of facts. Certainly rings true for what I can remember from my experience. Took me a long time until I realized history can be interesting.

Author:  capricorn152244 [ Sun Feb 03, 2019 3:52 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

I've included a number of discussion questions, please respond to the ones that you really like (i.e. don't feel like you have to answer all of them. :)

Introduction
The introduction to the book gives us a look into the motivations the author had hen wrote this book. He makes a number of claims, a number of which I think warrants some examination or discussion:

1. History is unique amongst high school subjects as its generally disliked and uninformative (and as a result students must unlearn in college what they learned in high school.)

2. The way history is taught is inferior: disconnected from the present, overly optimistic, moral signalling on patriotism, taught as memorisation.

3. History textbooks are terrible.

Discussion Questions for the Introduction:

1. Do you agree with any of Loewen's claims in the introduction? Did you have experiences in high school (or college) that run counter to his claims?

2. Loewen's book was originally published in 1995, and updated every few years until now. Do you feel his criticisms of history instruction have been eroded or should have changed, i.e. do you feel he may be ignoring advances in his 2018 revision because he's attached to his conclusions originally published in 1995?

3. What was your relationship with history (as a course subject) when you started reading this book? Did you like history in school? Do you study it on your own for fun?


Chapter 1

Chapter 1 is dominated by the discussion of two contemporary historical figures: Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, and goes on to illustrate some of the problems with how history is presented in secondary education in the US.

Discussion Questions

1. Loewen cites Helen Keller as an example of a historical figure who is reduced to unidimensionality and then treated as an ideal, motivated in large part by her socialist leanings as an adult. Do you know of any other historical figures (especially women) who have been conveniently reduced in this fashion? Why do you think they have been given the reductionist treatment both specifically as a person, but generally as a figure?

2. Loewen discusses the reasons history is narrowed in history textbooks and courses, and he judges the motivations to be all around bad. As a society and culture, what do we stand to lose from treating history this way? Now, a little juicier: as a society and culture, what do we stand to gain from treating history this way?

3. Woodrow Wilson is clearly portrayed as a spheres-of-influence type diplomat in this chapter. Do you agree? Do you find it hard to reconcile all the good things you heard about him before reading Chapter 1 with all the bad things you read about him in that chapter (I mean here having to treat a historical figure as a human being rather than an ideal or a simple "good" or "bad").

4. Loewen ascribes a lot of the racial climate both culturally and politically to Woodrow Wilson's position on non-Whites, citing a number of bills passed and policies enacted. Do you feel that claim is warranted? Does the president signal moral cues that allow people to act out their racism both then and now? The president of the US can be thought of as the head of both state and government. In countries where the head of state isn't the head of government (e.g. the UK where the queen is the head of state, and the PM, Teresa May, is the head of government). Do you feel distilling the two roles into a single office makes the transition from cultural sentiment to law more efficient? And if more or less efficient, is this desirable?

5. The Espionage and Sedition Acts were both passed into law during the First Red Scare in the US (1917-1921), and Loewen cites Wilson's use of his new Postmaster General to suppress mail for its ideological content. The suppression itself sound outrageous, but we also live in a time where email in the US can be easily accessed by the government for "surveillance". Does privacy trump security here? Do you feel like the suppression of mail on the internet is a major problem (if it were to happen)?

6. I have often heard of something called "the Disney version" meaning it has been whitewashed or sanitised for general consumption. However, a lot of classic Disney stories have come recurrent, (and not altogether ideal) situations: parents being dead/killed/absent, someone/thing evil trying to kill the main character, etc.). Do you feel saying "the Disney version" is warranted?

Author:  capricorn152244 [ Sun Feb 03, 2019 3:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Dexter wrote:
From the intro, talking about the flaws of high school history textbooks

Quote:
"We have not avoided controversial issues," announces one set of textbook authors; "instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments" on them -- thus removing the controversy! Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students students to question them


Wow, that's messed up!

He talks about how students find history to be an extremely boring and endless series of facts. Certainly rings true for what I can remember from my experience. Took me a long time until I realized history can be interesting.


Do you find the lack of discourse in history classes to be a problem of just the textbooks, or a more generalised problem (e.g. limite classroom time, uninformed teachers, etc)?

I find myself resistant to the idea of "reasoned judgements" on most things, but I admit there are times when I would rather read the synopsis than the whole bloody thing (e.g. when the description of bills on the ballot comes up, I rarely read the whole text as it's fairly unwieldy). I suppose then, the more important it is, the less likely I am to entertain "reasoned judgements" pronounced by someone else. :hmm:

Author:  Dexter [ Mon Feb 04, 2019 1:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

capricorn152244 wrote:

Do you find the lack of discourse in history classes to be a problem of just the textbooks, or a more generalised problem (e.g. limite classroom time, uninformed teachers, etc)?

I find myself resistant to the idea of "reasoned judgements" on most things, but I admit there are times when I would rather read the synopsis than the whole bloody thing (e.g. when the description of bills on the ballot comes up, I rarely read the whole text as it's fairly unwieldy). I suppose then, the more important it is, the less likely I am to entertain "reasoned judgements" pronounced by someone else. :hmm:


Just starting the book, I assume he goes into more details about textbooks. One problem is the textbook adoption process, as he says publishers have to cater to a wide market so they throw in everything, avoid controversy, and then teachers are pressured (if they even have a choice) of going with a "standard" book. But there is also the problem of large class sizes, making discussion more difficult, and an incentive for more objectivity in grading. And probably lack of knowledge among teachers too.

Author:  LanDroid [ Mon Feb 04, 2019 7:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Wow, way to bust it out, Capricorn! :up:

Regarding the introduction, I recall engaging in the following behavior in high school, thinking history had zero practical relevance.
Quote:
At year’s end, no student can remember 840 main ideas, not to mention 890 terms and countless other factoids. So students and teachers fall back on one main idea: to memorize the terms for the test on that chapter, then forget them to clear the synapses for the next chapter.

However, as an adult I did become interested in history and - amusingly enough for this book - even picked up an American history high school text book at a garage sale and read the whole thing. It wasn't exactly fun, and took more discipline than I currently have, but I re-learned a lot. Now I have biographies of Aaron Burr & Alexander Hamilton in the reading stack...

As to Helen Keller, I wasn't aware of her political stances, but Loewen does not mention another area that prevented history text authors from honoring her whole story: religion. "She was an ardent follower of the Universalism of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic born in 1688." I don't know much about what he taught, but it's far enough out there that Keller's beliefs could not be detailed in mainstream history textbooks. So by excluding important aspects of her life such as political activism and religion, we're left with the superficial outline of Keller's life that Loewen complains about.

Author:  capricorn152244 [ Mon Feb 04, 2019 7:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

LanDroid wrote:
At year’s end, no student can remember 840 main ideas, not to mention 890 terms and countless other factoids. So students and teachers fall back on one main idea: to memorize the terms for the test on that chapter, then forget them to clear the synapses for the next chapter. No wonder so many high school graduates cannot remember in which century the Civil War was fought!

As a teacher (at a university, and in the sciences) I find this to be a depressing truth about education. In my courses, I try to emphasise concepts rather than content, but most of my students seem to have come from high school with such a deeply ingrained idea of "just give me the answers" it's like you're fighting them to learn more than anything else.

I don't know who told them having answers is better than understanding things, but they're doing us all a horrid disservice.

Author:  Harry Marks [ Tue Feb 05, 2019 3:37 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

capricorn152244 wrote:
2. The way history is taught is inferior: disconnected from the present, overly optimistic, moral signalling on patriotism, taught as memorisation.

I think public education was originally designed as a program to create "good citizens." Part of that role is submissiveness. As a result there was never any examination in high school history (in my experience) of the motivations behind opposition such as labor unions. There was equally no examination of the motivation behind lynchings or misogyny.

There was some sense of progress, what it consisted of and how it came about. Not just when women got the right to vote, but how. I had one teacher who taught the "overreach" theory about the Radical Republicans - that they got out in front of the American people and so a backlash was "inevitable." None of my American history classes ever got as far as 1948 and the Dixiecrats. In one of them, the result was as if Hiroshima was the climax of American progress.

What we did not learn was how to do reasoned and civil debate. The classes never imagined that being a good citizen might involve debate on the internet.

capricorn152244 wrote:
3. History textbooks are terrible.
Discussion Questions for the Introduction:
1. Do you agree with any of Loewen's claims in the introduction? Did you have experiences in high school (or college) that run counter to his claims?

No, not really. I was trying to think (in part because it is possible I will be a history teacher next year) how to do better. I think a grand narrative about democracy and rights would open lots of interesting discussions. Why people in the minority need to be protected from the majority, and what that might imply for protecting the rich from redistribution of income as well as for protecting races and religions from bigotry.

I think there is too little understanding of economic forces, but they were raised for us in connection with the Civil War and why the North won.

Loewen's big point (IMO) about repressing feelings of those whose groups have been victimized was spot on. This business of avoiding discussion of awkward facts is an ancestor of our post-truth approach to politics today.

Author:  Harry Marks [ Tue Feb 05, 2019 3:42 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Dexter wrote:
But there is also the problem of large class sizes, making discussion more difficult,
This has in principle been solved by small group methods. In practice that can be messy and time-consuming. But as teachers recognize that engagement by the students is the key missing ingredient, more of us are learning to structure these experiences so that the students make emotional connections to the issues.

Author:  Dexter [ Tue Feb 05, 2019 6:18 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Harry Marks wrote:
Dexter wrote:
But there is also the problem of large class sizes, making discussion more difficult,
This has in principle been solved by small group methods.


Do you mean "small group methods" to be used with a larger group?

Author:  Harry Marks [ Tue Feb 05, 2019 1:50 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Yes, you break the larger group into small groups so that they can interact. The basic insight behind it is that the learning is much greater per period of time from the student using their "mental muscles" than from passive exposure to facts and narratives.

If you don't believe me, try the following: think back to some time when you did a research report on a topic. Now think back to a really interesting non-fiction film, lecture or other presentation, say a TED talk or a biopic or Ken Burns' "Civil War". Which do you have an easier time retrieving content from? If you are like me, and apparently most people, you can remember things you wrote or researched more than things that were well-presented. One's own intellectual activity links much more solidly than just "interesting" does.

The big concern is that the "smart" kids will dominate and keep the "slow" kids from doing intellectual activity. That is a major issue, but research shows that both do better, because the slow kids get their questions cleared up by asking the smart kids, and the smart kids get the benefit of explaining stuff.

So what really matters is not that the larger class have the "right" issues discussed, but that as much intellectual activity as possible by students takes place. Obviously that doesn't work if the syllabus is ignored, and it does take skill to design learning tasks that benefit from small group discussion, but in general it is worth it.

Author:  DWill [ Tue Feb 05, 2019 5:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

I've read as well that smaller class size, a very expensive option for schools, does not by itself make kids better learners. The teacher needs to use more individualized, intensive methods in order to take advantage of the smaller class size. Granted, teachers deserve to have manageable work loads, less crowd control, fewer papers to grade.

Author:  Dexter [ Tue Feb 05, 2019 5:51 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

Agreed, I didn't mean to make that out as some kind of panacea.

Getting back to the book, I find more disturbing the propaganda being taught about America. Even if teachers were aware of the real history -- and I suspect a lot of them aren't, relying mainly on the same textbooks -- they may not have the incentive or the inclination to teach it.

Author:  DWill [ Wed Feb 06, 2019 9:29 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

capricorn152244 wrote:

Introduction
The introduction to the book gives us a look into the motivations the author had hen wrote this book. He makes a number of claims, a number of which I think warrants some examination or discussion:

1. History is unique amongst high school subjects as its generally disliked and uninformative (and as a result students must unlearn in college what they learned in high school.)

First, thanks for organizing these questions. I can't weigh in on what high school students like/dislike about their history classes, or whether history is bogeyman no. 1. I didn't check to see whether Loewen has research to back up his claim, or if instead it is based on anecdote.
Quote:
2. The way history is taught is inferior: disconnected from the present, overly optimistic, moral signalling on patriotism, taught as memorisation.

3. History textbooks are terrible.

I don't see disconnection from the present as being a terrible flaw. The other three, yes, those would turn students away or make them just dutiful regurgitators. Adolescents have good detection systems for adults BSing them. On the other hand, I think that many would not appreciate a "wartful" approach if they sensed a teacher agenda behind it. I tend to think that little emphasis should be placed on "grand sweeps," whether from conservative or liberal sides. Expose students to historical materials; de-stress interpretation at this stage.

There is something depressing about these student history tomes. It's partly their size ,futile attempts to be comprehensive, and generality. But I suppose I understand that logistically, there needs to be a single volume rather than many small ones. Although with everyone having classroom access to the internet (I guess), the 10-pounder could get the boot, who knows.
Quote:
3. What was your relationship with history (as a course subject) when you started reading this book? Did you like history in school? Do you study it on your own for fun?

I enjoy history much more in the form of biography, when I can see how an individual reacted to his times, than as superficial narrative of events with names thrown in. But I also have enjoyed the Big History approaches of Jared Diamond and Noah Yuval Harari. Sad to say, I retain no memory of high school history classes. I don't think I liked them much. I did come out of h.s. with a basic U.S. history timeline in my head, so I know someone taught me something.
Quote:
2. Loewen discusses the reasons history is narrowed in history textbooks and courses, and he judges the motivations to be all around bad. As a society and culture, what do we stand to lose from treating history this way? Now, a little juicier: as a society and culture, what do we stand to gain from treating history this way?

You asked earlier whether in 2019 history texts are still "this bad," and I wonder, too. But assuming that Loewen is correct that by and large they mislead by omission and sometimes by misstatement, the worst effect is wasted opportunity for students to develop critical thinking. I think history offers perhaps the best opportunity for growing that skill, better than science does, in fact. The gain, if any, would have to relate to national heritage. The textbooks aim to give students a sense of our heritage, and there seems to be little sense if the heritage is not presented as positive. So I don't necessarily believe the motives for the rose-colored glasses are bad. However, "warts and all" can be a practical approach that gives students a rounded, real-world view, if done with an even hand.
Quote:
3. Woodrow Wilson is clearly portrayed as a spheres-of-influence type diplomat in this chapter. Do you agree? Do you find it hard to reconcile all the good things you heard about him before reading Chapter 1 with all the bad things you read about him in that chapter (I mean here having to treat a historical figure as a human being rather than an ideal or a simple "good" or "bad").

I'm not well informed on Wilson. My social archetype of him is based mostly on his idealistic attempt to bring the nations of the world together. Such an aspiration seems to conflict with lack of idealism on race and foreign relations. I'd like to see textbooks draw no general conclusions about any figure, not attempting to reconcile contradictions, because usually they can't be reconciled.
Quote:
4. Loewen ascribes a lot of the racial climate both culturally and politically to Woodrow Wilson's position on non-Whites, citing a number of bills passed and policies enacted. Do you feel that claim is warranted? Does the president signal moral cues that allow people to act out their racism both then and now? The president of the US can be thought of as the head of both state and government. In countries where the head of state isn't the head of government (e.g. the UK where the queen is the head of state, and the PM, Teresa May, is the head of government). Do you feel distilling the two roles into a single office makes the transition from cultural sentiment to law more efficient? And if more or less efficient, is this desirable?

Addressing just the first question, Loewen is justified in his conclusion based on the evidence he gives, though this still doesn't nail down that he is right. His saying this is one thing in this book, but if he is saying that textbooks should state such a conclusion, I disagree.
Quote:
5. The Espionage and Sedition Acts were both passed into law during the First Red Scare in the US (1917-1921), and Loewen cites Wilson's use of his new Postmaster General to suppress mail for its ideological content. The suppression itself sound outrageous, but we also live in a time where email in the US can be easily accessed by the government for "surveillance". Does privacy trump security here? Do you feel like the suppression of mail on the internet is a major problem (if it were to happen)?]

John Adams took a similar course as I recall. I can see that it would be rewarding for students to explore the forces and pressures that existed to make Wilson think a suspension of basic constitutional rights was needed. Emphasis being as much on these forces as on Wilson himself as leaning toward tyranny.
Quote:
6. I have often heard of something called "the Disney version" meaning it has been whitewashed or sanitised for general consumption. However, a lot of classic Disney stories have come recurrent, (and not altogether ideal) situations: parents being dead/killed/absent, someone/thing evil trying to kill the main character, etc.). Do you feel saying "the Disney version" is warranted?

When I think of Disney version, I picture the end to Disney's "Cinderella" and compare it to the Grimm's version in which the stepsisters have to dance in red-hot iron shoes. I think Disney version is well understood as the good-always-triumphs, positive version. Calling the textbooks Disneyfied makes some sense.

Author:  capricorn152244 [ Wed Feb 06, 2019 12:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 1 - Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making

LanDroid wrote:
As to Helen Keller, I wasn't aware of her political stances, but Loewen does not mention another area that prevented history text authors from honoring her whole story: religion. "She was an ardent follower of the Universalism of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic born in 1688." I don't know much about what he taught, but it's far enough out there that Keller's beliefs could not be detailed in mainstream history textbooks. So by excluding important aspects of her life such as political activism and religion, we're left with the superficial outline of Keller's life that Loewen complains about.


I feel like I should be ashamed of how little I actually know about her life, especially as much as she was talked about in my house when growing up. Although to be fair, I got the mythos version of her (thanks, Granpda). A lot of the other subjects or people Loewen discusses as we move forward, I knew much more about than the textbook he's critiquing let on, but I imagine my supposed level of knowledge of American history is about to take a bruising :slap:

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