Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited about Doing History

By Brown, Kimberly D. | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited about Doing History


Brown, Kimberly D., The Journal of Negro Education


Teaching What Really Happened: How To Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History, by James W. Loewen. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010, 248 pp., $21.95, paperback.

James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How To Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History showcases the author's command on race, its social and economical implications, and its long-term impacts on the interpretation and presentation of United States history. As the title suggests, Loewen's most-emphasized recommendation to educators and students is to rely not on a single textbook. Instead he insists that drawing on information presented by diverse vantage points will not only lead to a better understanding of the past, but will also invariably offer a more accurate comprehension of the present. His exceptionally specific examples of varied books, primary resources, and research methods establishes the value of his work as an effective companion text for identifying, considering, and applying the relevance of many truthful accounts that have been slanted, minimized, or totally left out of most standardized textbooks. Doing so allows one to constructively critique conventional and sometimes bigoted and flat-out inaccurate histories.

The author's foreword and introduction make a compelling argument for why these efforts are important. School, college, and university populations are becoming increasingly diverse every year. Teaching and learning history erroneously, then, makes for widespread confusion, ignorance, and even low self-esteem or terribly misguided high self-esteem. Institutional racism continues to plague society, therefore "leaving out lynchings, sundown towns, and other acts of collective discrimination" handicaps everyone's ability to analyze or even recognize today's realities (p. 17). It becomes believable that certain menial labor is just "meant" for Hispanic Americans, living in distressed urban areas is just "natural" for Black Americans, and seeing a White male doctor is simply "no big deal." When those sorts of stereotypes remain the norm, the nation should expect continued racial turmoil, political division, and stifled progress.

Loewen's most gripping defense for going beyond the typical textbook deals with a 1980 court case in which he was personally involved (Loewen v. Turnipseed, 1980). He challenged the 9th grade reader Mississippi: Yesterday and Today (Bettersworth, 1964), which unswervingly attributed incompetent Black people with the failure of southern Reconstruction governments. His own history of the state titled Mississippi: Conflict and Change (Loewen & Sallis, 1974) offered a more precise framework for how "Mississippi's social structure shaped the lives of its citizens" (p. 5). Without shock, the Mississippi State Textbook Board rejected Loewen's book. He took the matter to trial and successfully sued the board in federal court, but not without opposing forces. Board member John Turnipseed commented on the lynching images in Yesterday and Today by responding, "Now you know, some 9th-graders are pretty big, especially Black male 9th graders. And we worried, or at least I worried, that teachers - especially White lady teachers - would be unable to control their classes with material like this in the book" (p. 5).

If the aforementioned contemporary litigation fails to evidence the need for representing history in unpolluted truth, then the subsequent chapters do so reasonably. Chapter 1 handles the basics. It provides teachers with organized and interactive techniques to cover necessary topics in the course. Loewen underlines the importance of getting the foundation of the United States right, which begins by correcting much of the fallacies that have been taught concerning Christopher Columbus, Native Americans, early U. S. presidents, land acquisition, and so on. He also provides a list of expectations for students and guides for achieving them. …

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