"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, November 26, 2012

On America and Textbooks

So I have a friend from school who is now an assistant professor at one of the UNC schools. Her field is Social Studies, and she recommended a book she knew I'd enjoy, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. I found it at my local library and have been posting bits from it on Facebook the last several days.

Stuff like this:

For all the talk about SC being for states' rights, did you realize they opposed states' rights when it came to free states not wanting to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause? It was "an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery" which "led to a disregard of their obligations" that South Carolinians complained about. They wanted people in free states to capture and return slaves. How is that for imposing your will on states?  (pg. 139)

and this: 

Anyone surprised that when our nation had a chance to help the "second independent nation in the hemisphere" the President's status as slave owner (or not) seemed to determine whether or not we helped Haiti in its quest for freedom or funnel money to France as they continued dominating the small country? Washington and Jefferson - both slave owners - helped France suppress its slaves in Haiti. John Adams, a non slave owner, lent the Haitians support.   (pg. 150)

and this:

"Indian history is the antidote to the pious ethnocentrism of American exceptionalism, the notion that European Americans are God's chosen people.  Indian history reveals that the United States and its predecessor British colonies have wrought great harm in the world. We must not forget this - not to wallow in our wrongdoing, but to understand and to learn, that we might not wreak harm again. We must temper our national pride with critical self-knowledge...'The study of our contact with Indians, the envisioning of our dark American selves, can instill such a strengthening doubt.'  History through red eyes offers our children a deeper understanding than comes from encountering the past as a story of inevitable triumph of the good guys."  (pg. 134)

I've even read parts to Andrew, and he asked yesterday, "Does this guy say anything nice about America or does he hate it?"

Oy!  Apparently I was reading most of the negative things. Well to be sure, the book would likely be labeled "negative towards America" if one grew up on high school history textbooks which overwhelmingly seem to support America as the peace-loving hero of the world with very few flaws.  Andrew tends to view it that way. Or did. Maybe. I remember when I first met Samer and started learning about my country and telling Andrew this non-American point of view. He warned, "Don't let him turn you against America now!" 

Ah, my sweet, innocent Andrew. :)

Well, today I read this statement and it seemed perfect. 

"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."  (pg. 243)

It explains the apathy with voting among some groups, the lack of interest many take in politics, even that view that if you criticize the US, you are somehow less patriotic.  Funny how that works because many people criticize Presidential administrations when their party is not in power.  Yet, if you dare tell the truth about the US's involvement in assassinations or vote tampering or torture or unjust wars or even its origins where all men are created equal as long as you were white, it's somehow not very patriotic.

I have increasingly had my American bubble burst the last several years. I realize we aren't all that special. We are made up of men and women just as depraved - and just as good - as the rest of humanity. 


Unknown said...

It sounds like an interesting book! I like your approach at the end - realizing that we're just as good and just as bad. That balance is important. Because of the way history classes in the early years tends to sort of gloss over all the negative aspects, I've had friends who became severely disillusioned and started hating America when they learned how sugar-coated that version was. A happy medium is important - yes, the US has done some bad things and been harmful in some situations. It's led by humans, mistakes are going to happen. It's important to recognize them, but also realize that we can be better and correct our mistakes, and that trying to do better is just as much a part of the country as making them in the first place.

Sarah Familia said...

Just one more reason I'm homeschooling my kids :) They are dual citizens, and I take their civic education very seriously. It is funny how your perspective begins to change when you are forced to look at things from two points of view simultaneously. I think that's the big barrier, just like learning your first second language. That's why it's such a vital part of anyone's education to spend time abroad, or at least become intimate with someone from another country. Once you can see your own country from the outside in, it's easier to be a little more objective, and a little more willing to understand that there is good and bad everywhere, and seeing the nuance is the first step toward any kind of effective change.

As Rudyard Kipling put it,

"All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!"

Susanne said...

Sanil, yes! I don't want to come across as being a hater of all things American because I'm not. I realize other countries and other people have done bad things as well so it's not like we have a monopoly on atrocities and deceit.

On the flip side, we don't have all the good people either. :)

Sarah, your children are lucky to have a mom who will teach them a more balanced view.

I agree that traveling or knowing someone from another country is helpful. Perhaps this was when I really started seeing the US differently. Maybe some people aren't so blind as I was - lucky them - but it took meeting someone quite different than I (and any of "my" people) to help me better see things.

Also, reading books by people who have traveled and lived in other countries has helped open my eyes. I remember crying when reading a book by a lady living in Vietnam - and it wasn't even a sad book really. Just a recording of her life there. But something about it got to me.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I read this book last year and in my December book post wrote this:

"Because of my background in history, I could relate to Lies My Teacher Told Me. I don't agree with everything he said; in fact a few times the author sounds as if he is about to cross the fine line of taking an historical event out of context and analyzing it via our modern-day values. But all in all I love that he advocates truth in education, then giving students the joy of using their own brains when examining issues."

It is not a credit to our country that many of our citizens are ignorant of historical truths. But on the flip side, it has become vogue the past few decades to cast America as the world's boogie man, which is absurd. If one studies world history deeper than surface level, the pattern of ethnic or political behavior is that the "big and powerful" rule over the small and weak. Or perhaps crush or annihilate the weak.

The US isn't perfect, but we have not invented anything new in this department, except that in many cases we defend others against the tyranny of the "big and powerful," because we can.

Susanne said...

I'd forgotten you read it. Thank you for reminding me of this and what you thought of the book.

Yes, I do see that trend and maybe this is why my conservative friends push back when I post things contrary to their thinking of US history and heroes. Yet, even the Bible doesn't make every character out to be wonderful.David is portrayed as a man after God's own heart who is DEEPLY flawed.

Andrew said this book made me angry - and he didn't mean that in a good way.

Perhaps I should go back to reading silly books so my mind won't be challenged to see the US the way others do. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes.