John Brown,
Big Brother,
Memory Hole,
Why is History Taught Like This?,
What is the Result?

excerpted from the book

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

by James W. Loewen

Touchstone Books, 1995, paper

John Brown, son of an abolitionist, envisioned a plan to invade the South and free the slaves. In 1859, with financial support from abolitionists, Brown made plans to start a slave rebellion in Virginia, to establish a free state in the Appalachian Mountains, and to spread the rebellion through the South. On October 16, 1859, Brown and eighteen of his men captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in the present state of West Virginia.... He and his men were captured by a force of marines. Brown was brought to trial and convicted of treason against Virginia, murder, and criminal conspiracy. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.

In all, seven of the twelve textbooks take this neutral approach to John Brown. Their bland paragraphs don't imply that Brown was crazy, but neither do they tell enough about him to explain why he became a hero to so many blacks and non-slaveholding whites.

[John Brown] favorably impressed people who spoke with him after his capture, including his jailer and even reporters writing for Democratic newspapers, which supported slavery. Governor Wise of Virginia called him "a man of clear head" after Brown got the better of him in an informal interview. "They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman," Governor Wise said. In his message to the Virginia legislature he said Brown showed "quick and clear perception," "rational premises and consecutive reasoning," "composure and self-possession."

After 1890 textbook authors inferred Brown's madness from his plan, which admittedly was farfetched. Never mind that John Brown himself presciently told Frederick Douglass that the venture would make a stunning impact even if it failed. Nor that his twenty-odd followers can hardly all be considered crazed too. Rather, we must recognize that the insanity with which historians have charged John Brown was never psychological. It was ideological. Brown's actions made no sense to textbook writers between 1890 and about 1970. To make no sense is to be crazy.

Clearly, Brown's contemporaries did not consider him insane. Brown's ideological influence in the month before his hanging, and continuing after his death, was immense. He moved the boundary of acceptable thoughts and deeds regarding slavery. Before Harpers Ferry, to be an abolitionist was not quite acceptable, even in the North. Just talking about freeing slaves-advocating immediate emancipation-was behavior at the outer limit of the ideological continuum. By engaging in armed action, including murder, John Brown made mere verbal abolitionism seem much less radical.

After an initial shock wave of revulsion against Brown, in the North as well as in the South, Americans were fascinated to hear what he had to say. In his 1859 trial John Brown captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slaveowner before or since. He knew it: "My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right." '° In his speech to the court on November 2, just before the judge sentenced him to die, Brown argued, "Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, it would have been all right." He referred to the Bible, which he saw in the courtroom, "which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction." Brown went on to claim the high moral ground: "I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong but right." Although he objected that his impending death penalty was unjust, he accepted it and pointed to graver injustices: "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done." "

Brown's willingness to go to the gallows for what he thought was right had a moral force of its own. "It seems as if no man had ever died in America before, for in order to die you must first have lived," Henry David Thoreau observed in a eulogy in Boston. "These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live." Thoreau went on to compare Brown with Jesus of Nazareth, who had faced a similar death at the hands of the state.

During the rest of November, Brown provided the nation graceful instruction in how to face death. In Larchmont, New York, George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary, "One's faith in anything is terribly shaken by anybody who is ready to go to the gallows condemning and denouncing it." Brown's letters to his family and friends softened his image, showed his human side, and prompted an outpouring of sympathy for his children and soon-to-be widow, if not for Brown himself His letters to supporters and remarks to journalists, widely circulated, formed a continuing indictment of slavery. We see his charisma in this letter from "a conservative Christian"-so the author signed it-written to Brown in jail: "While I cannot approve of all your acts, I stand in awe of your position since your capture, and dare not oppose you lest I be found fighting against God; for you speak as one having authority, and seem to be strengthened from on high." When Virginia executed John Brown on December 2, making him the first American since the founding of the nation to be hanged as a traitor, church bells mourned in cities throughout the North. Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman were among the poets who responded to the event. "The gaze of Europe is fixed at this moment on America," wrote Victor Hugo from France. Hanging Brown, Hugo predicted, "will open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder. The punishment of John Brown may consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it will certainly shatter the American Democracy. You preserve your shame but you kill your glory."

Brown remained controversial after his death. Republican congressmen kept their distance from his felonious acts. Nevertheless, Southern slaveowners were appalled at the show of Northern sympathy for Brown and resolved to maintain slavery by any means necessary, including quitting the Union if they lost the next election. Brown's charisma in the North, meanwhile, was not spent but only increased due to what many came to view as his martyrdom. As the war came, as thousands of Americans found themselves making the same commitment to face death that John Brown had made, the force of his example took on new relevance. That's why soldiers marched into battle singing "John Brown's Body." Two years later, church congregations sang Julia Ward Howe's new words to the song: "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free"-and the identification of John Brown and Jesus Christ took another turn. The next year saw the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment parading through Boston to the tune, en route to its heroic destiny with death in South Carolina, while William Lloyd Garrison surveyed the cheering bystanders from a balcony, his hand resting on a bust of John Brown. In February 1865 another Massachusetts colored regiment marched to the tune through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina.

That was the high point of old John Brown. At the turn of the century, as southern and border states disfranchised African Americans, as lynchings proliferated, as blackface minstrel shows came to dominate American popular culture, white America abandoned the last shards of racial idealism.

History textbooks still present Union and Confederate sympathizers as equally idealistic. The North fought to hold the Union together while the Southern states fought, according to The American Way, "for the preservation of their rights and freedom to decide for themselves." Nobody fought to preserve racial slavery; nobody fought to end it. As one result, unlike the Nazi swastika, which lies disgraced, even in the North whites still proudly display the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy on den walls, license plates, T-shirts, and high school logos. Even some (white) Northerners vaguely regret the defeat of the "lost cause." It is as if racism against blacks could be remembered with nostalgia. In this sense, long after Appomattox, the Confederacy finally won.

Five days after Appomattox, President Lincoln was murdered. His martyrdom pushed Union ideology one step further. Even whites who had opposed emancipation now joined to call Lincoln the great emancipator. Under Republican leadership, the nation entered Reconstruction, a period of continuing ideological conflict.

At first Confederates tried to maintain prewar conditions through new laws, modeled after their slave codes and antebellum restrictions on free blacks. Mississippi was the first state to pass these draconian "Black Codes." They did not work, however. The Civil War had changed American ideology. The new antiracism forged in its flames would dominate Northern thinking for a decade. The Chicago Tribune, the most important organ of the Republican party in the Midwest, responded angrily: "We tell the white men of Mississippi that the men of the North will convert the state of Mississippi into a frog pond before they will allow any such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves." Thus black civil rights again became the central issue in the congressional elections of 1866. "Support Congress and You Support the Negro," said the Democrats in a campaign broadside featuring a disgusting caricature of an African American. "Sustain the President and You Protect the White Man." Northern voters did not buy it. They returned "radical" Republicans to Congress in a thunderous repudiation of Pres. Andrew Johnson's accommodation of the ex-Confederates. Even more than in 1864, when Republicans swept Congress in 1866 antiracism became the policy of the nation, agreed to by most of its voters. Despite Johnson's opposition, Congress and the states passed the Fourteenth Amendment, making all persons citizens and guaranteeing them "the equal protection of the laws." The passage, on behalf of blacks, of this shining jewel of our Constitution shows how idealistic were the officeholders of the Republican Party, particularly when we consider that similar legislation on behalf of women cannot be passed today.

During Reconstruction a surprising variety of people went to the new civilian "front lines" and worked among the newly freed African Americans in the South. Many were black Northerners, including several graduates of Oberlin College. This passage from a letter by Edmonia Highgate, a white woman who went south to teach school, describes her life in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana.

The majority of my pupils come from plantations, three, four and even eight miles distant. So anxious are they to learn that they walk these distances so early in the morning as never to be tardy.

There has been much opposition to the School. Twice I have been shot at in my room. My night school scholars have been shot but none killed. A week ago an aged freedman just across the way was shot so badly as to break his arm and leg. The rebels here threatened to burn down the school and house in which I board yet they have not materially harmed us. The nearest military protection is 200 miles distant at New Orleans.

Some Union soldiers stayed in the South when they were demobilized. Some Northern Republican would-be politicians moved south to organize their party in a region where it had not been a factor before the war. Some went hoping to win office by election or appointment. Many abolitionists continued their commitment by working in the Freedman's Bureau and private organizations to help blacks obtain full civil and political rights. In terms of party affiliation, almost all of these persons were Republicans; otherwise, they were a diverse group. Still, all but one of the twelve textbooks routinely use the disgraceful old tag carpetbaggers, without noting its bias, to describe Northern white Republicans who lived in the South during Reconstruction.

Many whites who were born in the South supported Reconstruction. Every Southern state boasted Unionists, some of whom had volunteered for the Union army. They now became Republicans. Some former Confederates, including even Gen. James Longstreet, second in command under Lee at Gettysburg, became Republicans because they had grown convinced that equality for blacks was morally right. Robert Flournoy, a Mississippi planter, had raised a company of Confederate soldiers but then resigned his commission and returned home because "there was a conflict in my conscience." During the war he was once arrested for encouraging blacks to flee to Union lines. During Reconstruction he helped organize the Republican party, published a newspaper, Equal Rights, and argued for desegregating the University of Mississippi and the new state's public school system. Republican policies, including free public education, never before available in the South to children of either race, convinced some poor whites to vote for the party. Many former Whigs became Republicans rather than join their old nemesis, the Democrats. Some white Southerners became Republicans because they were convinced that black suffrage was an accomplished fact; they preferred winning political power with blacks on their side to losing. Others became Republicans to make connections or win contracts from the new Republican state governments. Of the 113 white Republican congressmen from the South during Reconstruction, 53 were Southerners, many of them from wealthy families. In sum, this is another diverse group, amounting to between one-fourth and one-third of the white population and in some counties a majority.

While John Brown was on trial, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips spoke of Brown's place in history. Phillips foresaw that slavery was a cause whose time was passing, and he asked "the American people" of the future, when slavery was long dead in "the civilization of the twentieth century," this question: "When that day comes, what will be thought of these first martyrs, who teach us how to live and how to die?" Phillips meant the question rhetorically. He never dreamed that Americans would take no pleasure in those who had helped lead the nation to abolish slavery, or that textbooks would label Brown's small band misguided if not fanatic and Brown himself possibly mad.

Antiracism is one of America's great gifts to the world. Its relevance extends far beyond race relations. Antiracism led to "a new birth of freedom" after the Civil War, and not only for African Americans. Twice, once in each century, the movement for black rights triggered the movement for women's rights. Twice it reinvigorated our democratic spirit, which had been atrophying. Throughout the world, from South Africa to Northern Ireland, movements of oppressed people continue to use tactics and words borrowed from our abolitionist and civil rights movements. The clandestine early meetings of anticommunists in East Germany were marked by singing "We Shall Overcome." Iranians used nonviolent methods borrowed from Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., to overthrow their hated shah. On Ho Chi Minh's desk in Hanoi on the day he died lay a biography of John Brown. Among the heroes whose ideas inspired the students in Tiananmen Square and whose words spilled from their lips was Abraham Lincoln. Yet we in America, whose antiracist idealists are admired around the globe, seem to have lost these men and women as heroes. Our textbooks need to present them in such a way that we might again value our own idealism.

Kwame Nkrumah
The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class.

Paul Gagnon
To study foreign affairs without putting ourselves into others' shoes is to deal in illusion and to prepare students for a lifelong misunderstanding of our place in the world.

George Kennan, 1948, head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, in a now famous memorandum:

We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real test in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction-unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.

... it does seem that many twentieth-century nondemocratic states, from the Third Reich to the Central African Empire, have had citizens who gave their governments too much rather than too little allegiance. The United States, on the other hand, has been blessed with dissenters. Some of these dissenters have had to flee the country. Since 1776 Canada has provided a refuge for Americans who disagreed with policies of the U.S. government, from Tories who fled harassment during and after the Revolution, to free blacks who sought haven from the Dred Scott ruling, to young men of draftable age who opposed the Vietnam War. No textbook mentions this Canadian role, because no textbook portrays a U.S. government that might ever merit such principled opposition.

Certainly many political scientists and historians in the United States suggest that governmental actions are a greater threat to democracy than citizen disloyalty. Many worry that the dominance of the executive branch has eroded the checks and balances built into the Constitution. Some analysts also believe that the might of the federal government vis-a-vis state governments has made a mockery of federalism. From the Woodrow Wilson administration until now, the federal executive has grown ever stronger and now looms as by far our nation's largest employer. In the last thirty years, the power of the CIA, the National Security Council, and other covert agencies has grown to become, in some eyes, a fearsome fourth branch of government. Threats to democracy abound when officials in the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and other institutions of government determine not only our policies but also what the people and the Congress need to know about them.

By downplaying covert and illegal acts by the government, textbook authors narcotize students from thinking about such issues as the increasing dominance of the executive branch. By taking the government's side, textbooks encourage students to conclude that criticism is incompatible with citizenship. And by presenting government actions in a vacuum, rather than as responses to such institutions as multinational corporations and civil rights organizations, textbooks mystify the creative tension between the people and their leaders. All this encourages students to throw up their hands in the belief that the government determines everything anyway, so why bother, especially if its actions are usually so benign. Thus our American history textbooks minimize the potential power of the people and, despite their best patriotic efforts, take a stance that is overtly antidemocratic.

Anais Nin
We see things not as they are but as we are.

US Army officer involved in retaking Ben Tre[Vietnam] after the Tet offensive
It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.

In 1925 the American Legion declaimed that the ideal textbook:

* must inspire the children with patriotism....
* must be careful to tell the truth optimistically....
* must dwell on failure only for its value as a moral lesson, must speak chiefly of success
* must give each State and Section full space and value for the achievements of each.

Shirley Engle and Anna Ochoa are longtime luminaries of social studies education who in 1986 voiced their recommendations for textbooks. From their vantage point, the ideal textbook should:

* confront students with important questions and problems for which answers are not readily available;
* be highly selective;
* be organized around an important problem in society that is to be studied in depth;
* utilize . . . data from a variety of sources such as history, the social sciences, literature, journalism, and from students' first-hand experiences.

Today's textbooks hew closely to the American Legion line and disregard the recommendations of Engle and Ochoa.

"Textbooks offer an obvious means of realizing hegemony in education," according to William L. Griffen and John Marciano, who analyzed textbook treatment of the Vietnam War.

By hegemony we refer specifically to the influence that dominant classes or groups exercise by virtue of their control of ideological institutions, such as schools, that shape perception on such vital issues as the Vietnam War. . . . Within history texts, for example, the omission of crucial facts and viewpoints limits profoundly the ways in which students come to view history events. Further, through their one-dimensionality textbooks shield students from intellectual encounters with their world that would sharpen their critical abilities.

Here, in polite academic language, Griffen and Marciano tell us that controlling elements of our society keep crucial facts from us to keep us ignorant and stupid.

Most scholars of education share this perspective, often referred to as "critical theory." Jonathan Kozol is of this school when he writes, "School is in business to produce reliable people." Paulo Freire of Brazil puts it this way: "It would be extremely naive to expect the dominant classes to develop a type of education that would enable subordinate classes to perceive social injustices critically." Henry Giroux, Freire's leading disciple in the United States, maintains, "The dominant culture actively functions to suppress the development of a critical historical consciousness among the populace." David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot tell us when this all started: between 1890 and 1920 businessmen came to have by far a greater impact on public education than any other occupational group or stratum. Some writers on education even conclude that upper-class control makes real improvement impossible. In a critique of educational reform initiatives, Henry M. Levin stated, "The educational system will always be applied toward ? serving the role of cultural transmission and preserving the status quo." "The public schools we have today are what the powerful and the considerable have made of them," wrote Walter Karp. "They will not be redeemed by trifling reforms."

Many adults fear children and worry that respect for authority is all that keeps them from running amok. So they teach them to respect authorities whom adults themselves do not respect.

Some adults simply do not trust children to think. For several decades sociologists have documented Americans' distrust of the next generation. Parents may feel undermined when children get tools of information and inquiry not available to adults and use them in ways that seem to threaten adult-held values. Many parents want children to concentrate on the 3 R's, not on multicultural history. Shirley Engle has described "a strident minority [of teachers and parents] who do not really believe in democracy and do not really believe that kids should be taught to think." Perhaps adults' biggest reason for lying is that they fear our history-fear that it isn't so wonderful, and that if children were to learn what has really gone on, they would lose all respect for our society. Thus when Edward Ruzzo tried in 1964 to cover up Warren G. Harding's embarrassing love letters to a married woman, he used the rationale "that anything damaging to the image of an American President should be suppressed to protect the younger generation." As Judge Ruzzo put it, there are too many juvenile delinquents as it is.

Ironically, only people who themselves have been raised on shallow feel-good history could harbor such doubts. Harding may not have been much of a role model, but other Americans-Tom Paine, Thoreau, Lincoln, Helen Hunt Jackson, Martin Luther King, and yes, John Brown, Helen Keller, and Woodrow Wilson too-are still celebrated by lovers of freedom everywhere. Yet publishers, authors, teachers, and parents seem afraid to expose children to the blazing idealism of these leaders at their best. Today many aspects of American life, from the premises of our legal system to elements of our popular culture, inspire other societies. If Russia can abandon boosterish history, as it seems to have done, surely America can too. "We do not need a bodyguard of lies," points out Paul Gagnon. "We can afford to present ourselves in the totality of our acts."

Textbook authors seem not to share Gagnon's confidence, however. There is a certain contradiction in the logic of those who write patriotic textbooks. On the one hand, they describe a country without repression without real conflict. On the other hand, they obviously believe that we need to lie to students to instill in them love of country. But if the country is so wonderful, why must we lie?

Ironically, our lying only diminishes us. Bernice Reagon of the Smithsonian Institution has pointed out that other countries are impressed when we send spokespeople abroad who, like herself, are willing to criticize the United States. Surely this is part of what democracy is about. Surely in a democracy a historian's duty is to tell the truth. Surely in a democracy students need to develop informed reasons to criticize as well as take pride in their country. Maybe somewhere along the line we gave up on democracy?

Lying to children is a slippery slope. Once we have started sliding down it, how and when do we stop? Who decides when to lie? Which lies to tell? To what age group? As soon as we loosen the anchor of fact, of historical evidence, our history textbook is free to blow here and there, pointing first in one direction, then in another. If we obscure or omit facts because they make Columbus look bad, why not omit those that make the United States look bad? or the Mormon Church? or the state of Mississippi? This is the politicization of history. How do we decide what to teach in an American history course once authors have decided not to value the truth? If our history courses aren't based on fact anyway, why not tell one story to whites, another to blacks? Isn't Scott, Foresman already doing something like that when it puts out a "Lone Star" edition of Land of Promise, tailoring the facts of history to suit (white) Texans?

These are rhetorical questions, I suppose. Because they commonly repeat treatments from earlier textbooks for the most part, authors rarely answer them consciously. In any event, postmodernists caution us not to "privilege" one account over others with the label "true." Philosopher Martin Heidegger once defined truth as "that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong," and American history textbooks apparently intend to do just that, at least for conventional European Americans. Before we abandon the old "correspondence to fact" sense of truth in favor of Heidegger's more useful definition, however, we may want to recall that he gave it in the service of Adolf Hitler. Moreover, if the textbooks aren't true, they leave us with no grounds for defending the courses based on them, when students charge that American history is a waste of time. Why should children believe what they learn in American history, if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies? Why should they bother to learn it?

... educated Americans were more hawkish [on Vietnam War] . Two social processes, each tied to schooling, can account for educated Americans' support of the Vietnam War. The first can be summarized by the term allegiance. Educated adults tend to be successful and earn high incomes-partly because schooling leads to better jobs and higher incomes, but mainly because high parental incomes lead to more education for their offspring. Also, parents transmit affluence and education directly to their children. Successful Americans do not usually lay their success at their parents' doorstep, however. They usually explain their accomplishments as owing to their own individual characteristics, so they see American society as meritocratic. They achieved their own success; other people must be getting their just desserts. Believing that American society is open to individual input, the educated well-to-do

tend to agree with society's decisions and feel they had a hand in forming them. They identify more with our society and its policies. We can use the term vested interest here, so long as we realize we are referring to an ideological interest or need, a need to come to terms with the privilege with which one has been blessed, not simple economic self-interest. In this sense, educated successful people have a vested interest in believing that the society that helped them be educated and successful is fair. As a result, those in the upper third of our educational and income structure are more likely to show allegiance to society, while those in the lower third are more likely to be critical of it.

The other process causing educated adults to be more likely to support the Vietnam War can be summarized under the rubric socialization. Sociologists have long agreed that schools are important socializing agents in our society. "Socializing" in this context does not mean hobnobbing around a punch bowl but refers to the process of learning and internalizing the basic social rules-language, norms, etiquette- necessary for an individual to function in society. Socialization is not primarily cognitive. We are not persuaded rationally not to pee in the living room, we are required not to. We then internalize and obey this rule even when no authority figure lurks to enforce it. Teachers may try to convince themselves that education's main function is to promote inquiry, not iconography, but in fact the socialization function of schooling remains dominant at least through high school and hardly disappears in college. Education as socialization tells people what to think and how to act and requires them to conform. Education as socialization influences students simply to accept the rightness of our society. American history textbooks overtly tell us to be proud of America. The more schooling, the more socialization, and the more likely the individual will conclude that America is good.

Both the allegiance and socialization processes cause the educated to believe that what America does is right. Public opinion polls show the nonthinking results. In late spring 1966, just before we began bombing Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam, Americans split 50/50 as to whether we should bomb these targets. After the bombing began, 85 percent favored the bombing while only 15 percent opposed. The sudden shift was the result, not the cause, of the government's decision to bomb. The same allegiance and socialization processes operated again when policy changed in the opposite direction. In 1968 war sentiment was waning; but 51 percent of Americans opposed a bombing halt, partly because the United States was still bombing North Vietnam. A month later, after President Johnson announced a bombing halt, 71 percent favored the halt. Thus 23 percent of our citizens changed their minds within a month, mirroring the shift in government policy. This swaying of thought by policy affects attitudes on issues ranging from our space program to environmental policy and shows the so-called "silent majority" to be an unthinking majority as well. Educated people are overrepresented among these straws in the wind.

We like to think of education as a mix of thoughtful learning processes. Allegiance and socialization, however, are intrinsic to the role of schooling in our society or any hierarchical society. Socialist leaders such as Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-tung vastly extended schooling in Cuba and China in part because they knew that an educated people is a socialized populace and a bulwark of allegiance. Education works the same way here: it encourages students not to think about society but merely to trust that it is good. To the degree that American history in particular is celebratory, it offers no way to understand any problem- such as the Vietnam War, poverty, inequality, international haves and have-nots, environmental degradation, or changing sex roles-that has historical roots. Therefore we might expect that the more traditional schooling in history that Americans have, the less they will understand Vietnam or any other historically based problem. This is why educated people were more hawkish on the Vietnam War.

... educated people were and are more likely to be Republicans, while high school dropouts are more likely to be Democrats. Hawkish right-wing Republicans, including the core supporters of Barry Goldwater in 1964, of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and of groups like the John Birch Society, come disproportionately from the most educated and affluent segments of our society, particularly dentists and physicians.


Students who have taken more mathematics courses are more proficient at math than other students. The same is true in English, foreign language studies, and almost every other subject. Only in history is stupidity the result of more, not less, schooling. Why do students buy into the mindless "analysis" they encounter in American history courses? For some students, it is in their ideological interest. Upper-middle-class students are comforted by a view of society that emphasizes schooling as the solution to intolerance, poverty, even perhaps war. Such a rosy view of education and its effects lets them avoid considering the need to make major changes in other institutions. To the degree that this view permeates our society, students automatically think well of education and expect the educated to have seen through the Vietnam War.

Moreover, thinking well of education reinforces the ideology we might call American individualism. It leaves intact the archetypal image of a society marked by or at least striving toward equality of opportunity. Yet precisely to the extent that students believe that equality of opportunity exists, they are encouraged to blame the uneducated for being poor, just as my audiences blame them for being hawks on the war in Vietnam. Americans who are not poor find American individualism a satisfying ideology, for it explains their success in life by laying it at their own doorstep. This enables them to feel proud of their success, even if it is modest, rather than somehow ashamed of it. Crediting success to their position in social structure threatens those good feelings. It is much more gratifying to believe that their educational attainments and occupational successes result from ambition and hard work-that their privilege has been earned. To a considerable degree, working-class and lower-class Americans also adopt this prevailing ethic about society and schooling. Often working-class adults in dead-end jobs blame themselves, focusing on their own earlier failure to excel in school, and feel they are inferior in some basic way.

Students also have short-term reasons for accepting what teachers and textbooks tell them about the social world in their history and social studies classes, of course. They are going to be tested on it. It is in the students' interest just to learn the material. Arguing takes more energy, doesn't help one's grade, and even violates classroom norms. Moreover, there is a feeling of accomplishment derived from learning something, even something as useless and mindless as the answers to the identification questions that occupy the last two pages of each chapter in most history textbooks. Students can feel frustrated by the ambiguity of real history, the debates among historians, or the challenge of applying ideas from the past to their own lives. They may resist changes in the curriculum, especially if these involve more work or work less dearly structured than simply "doing the terms." After years of rote education, students become habituated to it and inexperienced and ineffectual at any other kind of learning.

In the long run, however, "learning" history this way is not really satisfying. History textbooks and most high school history teachers give students no reason to love or appreciate the subject. We must not ignore the abysmal ratings that history courses receive, and we cannot merely exhort students to like history more. But this does not mean the sorry state of learning in most history classrooms cannot be changed. Students will start learning history when they see the point of doing so, when it seems interesting and important to them, and when they believe history might relate to their lives and futures. Students will start finding history interesting when their teachers and textbooks stop Iying to them.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner

Once you hove learned how to ask questions- relevant and appropriate and substantial questions-you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

Frederick Douglass
He is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Index of Website

Home Page