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
[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
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
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
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
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
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.
The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written
as the history of its dominant class.
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.
We see things not as they are but as we are.
US Army officer involved in retaking Ben Tre[Vietnam] after the
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
* 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'
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
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)
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
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.
He is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its
My Teacher Told Me