Jim Loewen says history classes helped create a "Post-Truth” America

Historians in the News
tags: education, Jim Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

Related Link What James Loewen Needs to Learn About History Education By John Fea

… [With] the release this summer of a new paperback version of Lies My Teacher Told Me, [James] Loewen contends that his bestselling book has “new significance … owing to detrimental developments in America’s recent public discourse.” By providing students an inadequate history education, Loewen argues, America’s schools breed adults who tend to conflate empirical fact and opinion, and who lack the media literacy necessary to navigate conflicting information. I recently spoke to Loewen about how the quality of Americans’ history education could affect the country’s civic health. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Alia Wong: What’s changed with regard to your thinking on history education since the first edition came out in 1995? What about since the second edition in 2007?

James W. Loewen: Not much has changed in my thinking, and that’s because I think I was right in the first place. What has changed has to do with our current intellectual era. History and social studies, as taught in school, make us less good at thinking critically about our past. For one, textbooks don’t teach us to challenge, to read critically—they are just supposed to provide exercises in stuff to learn. Secondly, the textbooks (and the people who teach from those textbooks) don’t teach causality. They aren’t designed to have students memorize anything about causality—what causes racism, for example, what causes a decrease in racism. That means that those of us who are more than 18 years old and are out of high school and voting may have never had anybody teach us anything about what causes what in society.

Wong: How do you think inadequate history education plays into what some describe as the country’s current “post-truth” moment?  

Loewen: History is by far our worst-taught subject in high school; I think we’re stupider in thinking about the past than we are, say, in thinking about Shakespeare, or algebra, or other subjects. We historians tend to make everything so nuanced that the idea of truth almost disappears. People in graduate history programs have said things to me like: Why should we privilege one narrative above others with the term “true”? That kind of implies that all narratives are equal—or, at least, that all narratives have some merit, that no narrative has all the merit. But maybe there is such thing as a bedrock of fact. Take the way we talk about the Civil War, for example. A lot of people will say that the war grew out of a pay dispute; many others say it had to do with states’ rights. Well, it’s quite the contrary—the southern states seceded so they could uphold slavery. Sometimes we don’t need nuance….

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