Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Lies and American History: An Interview with James W. Loewen

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Lies and American History: An Interview with James W. Loewen

Article excerpt

KAPPAN: Let's start with some basics. Why should students study American history?

LOEWEN: American history is about who we are, how we got here. If it's taught correctly, then it should have relevance to the present. It should be taught with causation, what causes what.

In order to learn what we should do with the issues of today--such as gays in the military or gay marriage--and the problems of next year that we can't even know about this year, we have to think about what has caused what in the past. Even if you're a chemistry teacher or a poetry teacher, you have to keep in the back of your mind: What are we teaching students that helps them do their jobs as Americans?

KAPPAN: You say in your newest book, Teaching What Really Happened (Teachers College Press, 2010: 13), that "history can and should also make us less ethnocentric." Can you explain that?

LOEWEN: Teaching American history as it's usually taught makes us dramatically more ethnocentric. Actually, every nation teaches its history ethnocentrically. If you learned the national history in Sweden, they'd be emphasizing the great things about Sweden. But I'm suggesting that the United States is the most ethnocentric nation in the world, and for good reason. We are the only nation that can tell ourselves correctly that we're the dominant economy, the dominant culture, the dominant military.

We do not need to teach our students, our young people, how to be ethnocentric. They already come out ethnocentric enough. Ethnocentrism, among other things, is a form of ignorance. And it has an ugly Siamese twin called arrogance. That makes it really hard for us to learn from other cultures, to imagine that other cultures do anything better than we do. But other cultures do some things better than we do. Health care provides a sterling example of that.

KAPPAN: Your point is that if we study the broader truth of American history, then we have the potential of becoming less ethnocentric.

LOEWEN: Yes, American history--and, for that matter, world history--can be taught so as to challenge students to think and not just salute the flag. The way American history is taught, it's an onward and upward arrow. We started out great and we just got better and better. Textbooks suggest that we've always tried to do the right thing. And if we ever did the wrong thing, we did it with the best of intentions. Now, that just won't do. It won't do for some aspects of our foreign policy. It won't do for race relations. It's not an analytical or thoughtful way of looking at our past.

KAPPAN: Can we afford to tell the truth about "the totality of our acts," as historian Paul Gagnon puts it, or do we jeopardize the pride that Americans have in their country if we do that? And does that matter?

LOEWEN: Do American adults really believe that our American past has been so bad that we can't tell the truth about it? What do they think is going to happen? Are Americans going to emigrate because of our history? Is it going to undermine the country?

I don't think our history's been that bad. Certainly, it's been no worse than other countries.

We don't apply that thinking to other countries. We are delighted, for example, that Germany faces its Nazi past. We wouldn't have it any other way for them. Well, if it's appropriate for them, surely it's appropriate for us.


KAPPAN: Has there been a deliberate attempt to sanitize American history in textbooks, or has American history been watered down through sins of omission because of the breadth and depth of the task?

LOEWEN: In one sense, I think it is deliberate. Publishers and, for that matter, authors don't want to lose sales. Imagine if a history textbook told the truth about Franklin W. Pierce, my candidate for the second worst president of the United States. (Editor's Note: Loewen declined to identify his candidate for worst U. …

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