Some of the things I think James Loewen gets wrong…

James W. Loewen, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History.
New York: Teacher’s College Press, 2010.

First, I want to point out that I like a lot of the work that James Loewen has done to get teachers of American history thinking about new ways to go about their craft. Both in his books like Lies My Teacher Taught Me or Sundown Towns, Loewen has exposed people to new ways of examining history and American communities. He has asked questions that are difficult to answer about why we teach the way in which we do and why certain textbooks explore history as a cheering mission rather than a discipline to elicit more questions. And, in my opinion, he has, at times, become fixated on problems that have become less damaging than they were roughly twenty years ago.

In Teaching, Loewen intends to explore how history is often taught in a manner that hinders understanding and, in many cases, insures boredom and hagiography. He explores a number of important weaknesses or holes in teaching history in general and American history specifically. He believes wholeheartedly, and I don’t disagree, that American history teachers can do better. Loewen does acknowledge that there are history teachers who already have moved beyond their, as he defines them, limiting textbooks, but to read this particular work, you might believe that these types of teachers are few and far between.

I enjoy his writing style – Loewen certainly pulls readers in with his chapter titles (History as a Weapon), anecdotes, and occasional statistics. He is, consistently, enthusiastic, a trait he encourages all teachers to possess. He offers some very clear and concise rationales on why history should be seen as important both to the student and larger society. And, occasionally, I argue he missteps.

In his introduction, Loewen makes an important point about teachers of American history needing to take an unflinching look at themselves in order to better serve society. It does, Loewen contends, no good to present the history of the United States as solely exceptional, and as a story with no faults. Lynching is used as a clear example of a topic long overlooked in history classrooms and textbooks, though Loewen suggests that the lack of this horrific event occurring has made it easier for Americans to face this aspect of their past. Loewen asserts that “Americans don’t do that anymore” (16).

Now, to be fair, he explains in a footnote his line of thinking on this topic, suggesting that because the perpetrators were punished, the horrific events in places like Jasper or Paris, TX or Laramie, WY were not lynchings. But what about the violence inherent in these attacks? To be a lynching must the event result only in no punishment for the guilty parties? Do we have the number of lynchings we had between say 1890 and 1926? No. But to suggest that we don’t practice this reprehensible behavior anymore is at best naive.

As an aside, I have taught about lynchings in my US history courses at least since 1994 when I first began in the profession but my two most effective experiences were in using borrowed historical society images from the 1919 attacks in Omaha, NE and in accessing Without Sanctuary, a site I used with high school students from Los Angeles.

Loewen has some great ideas to help out new (and experienced teachers) especially about how to choose whether to include a topic in the class or not. But he also makes some statements that make it appear as though he is a bit out of touch with what it is that teachers are doing. For example, he uses data from 1991 to point out that many high school history teachers did not study history at the collegiate level (10). While this fact is disturbing it is also over twenty years old – in the footnote, Loewen states he is unaware of any newer study revealing a change in this trend. I can’t speak to the nation, but the programs in Massachusetts require those seeing secondary education licenses to select an academic major that is related to the content that will be taught. Should there be a new study by now? Probably. I wonder why Loewen himself has not begun this process? Such studies are not always accurate of course, but to draw conclusions on something like how licenses for teaching are distributed based in such old data is problematic.

In a way, there is an equally problematic point about the advanced placement US history exams as Loewen points out another “tyranny of coverage” issue with the document based questions (DBQs). Loewen is concerned about breadth of coverage and points to the idea that instructors “will want to include the era that ETS’s test will cover in its DBQ” (20). ETS has not revealed the era of the DBQ for a number of years.

Perhaps I am nitpicking, but these issues don’t sit well with me as we think about the teaching of history and what we are doing right and wrong in the profession. Of most use to me in future classes will be sections of Loewen’s work, particularly his explanations of ten things he believes history education should accomplish (28), four reasons textbook dependency creates bad history classes (30,31) and the case studies he provides from chapter five onward. In a way, Loewen’s work affirms some of what have done in my classrooms at the high school and collegiate level. His discussion of the $24 myth (chapter 7) is a prominent example of what I try to do in terms of myth busting, including visual culture interpretation (142-144) and the teaching of the first Thanksgiving (149, 150).

Is there useful material in Teaching? Yes, absolutely. Is there material or a conclusion or two to be taken with a grain of salt? Yes. Like any text I use with students, I am inclined to try it out but with writing assignments resulting in critiques wherever possible.

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Filed under Teaching, Teaching and Learning History

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