American history classes are actually worsening kids’ understanding of America
In the year 1995, University of Vermont sociologist and historian James W. Loewen published a book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me which was designed to both criticize the history classes in America and serve as a history text itself. A result of Loewen’s critical analysis of a dozen history textbooks, the book found that the materials used to educate students about topics such as the first Thanksgiving, the Civil War, and the Americas pre-Columbus often were delivered in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise inaccurate ways.
The Atlantic’s Alia Wong cites the widespread misconception that the Reconstruction Era, the regressive period immediately following the Civil War and the emancipation of Black slaves in the South, can be attributed to poor and uncivilized governing of recently freed slaves. However, Loewen’s research finds that this rendering of history actually serves to galvanize racists and racist attitudes in the South around the denial of the right to vote for Black people in the region.
Loewen released a second version of this book in 2007 which was updated to cover topics in six new history textbooks, such as the Iraq War and 9/11. Loewen’s belief that history education in America is broken has only been cemented through ongoing research, he tells the Atlantic: “Not much has changed in my thinking… History and social studies, as taught in school, make us less good at thinking critically about our past. For one, textbooks don’t teach us to challenge, to read critically—they are just supposed to provide exercises in stuff to learn. Secondly, the textbooks (and the people who teach from those textbooks) don’t teach causality. They aren’t designed to have students memorize anything about causality—what causes racism, for example, what causes a decrease in racism.”
A 2015 examination of high school history classes written by Alia Wong show that they often paint over the ugly history of America towards non-white groups. This was exposed in a viral post by a Pearland, Texas student Coby Burren and his mother Roni Dean-Burren after Dean-Burren noticed one of Coby’s textbooks from McGraw Hill egregiously referred to enslaved people as “workers.” Dean-Burren told the New York Times the textbook “talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off… It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like“
Compounding the issues with history education is the fact that many history teachers are not experts in history, as Loewen tells the Atlantic: “Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history.” Loewen has conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it… They use the textbook not as a tool but as a crutch.”
In 2015, Michael Conway argued in favor of a dramatic change in the way that history classes are taught, writing in an essay for the Atlantic: “Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same… rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”