1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bad Book, Good Effects

Even a bad book can be useful. Sometimes I read a book and think, "I wish I had written that" or "This author was spot-on." Other books elicit a negative reaction such as "What a waste of paper and ink" or "There goes several nights of reading I'll never get back."

Then there is a third category: books that provoke thought but the book itself is neither admirable nor even readable. Such it is with James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. The unreadability stems from Loewen's approach which is to mock how one-sided and superficial history textbooks are then wade in with his own one-sided, mean-spirited, and [sigh], superficial approach to the same topic. So, while he does a good show illustrating the failings of hagiography-as-history, he falls prey to demonizing historical figures with a sense of moral superiority complex that self-assuredly suggests, "We know better, are better and will be better in the future... As long as you, Dear Reader, understand that by 'we' I mean 'me.'"  There is no moral drama in Columbus or the Spanairds. They are bad, but then so was everyone else back then. What?! 

Spanish Male, ca. 15-16th Century

A note on what history can and cannot be. This comes from John Lukacs' The Hitler of History but is something that I wish Loewen had considered in his book. Lukacs good. Loewen baaaaad! 
Contrary to the "scientific" illusion, in the research and writing of history there are no final results. And the purpose of history is often not so much the definite accounting of the events of a period as it is the historical description and understanding of problems: description, rather than definition; understanding, rather than completeness -- because while a perfect completion of our knowledge of the past is not possible, a reasonable and proper understanding of it is within our powers (xii).
Grasping the limits of our knowledge and the nature of historical truth would have helped Loewen and his book.
I think I can...
The book that needs to be written. Loewen's book did get me thinking seriously about how history is taught and/or should be taught. That could have been the subject of his book, but it is the textbooks themselves that he focuses on. Here are some thoughts after reading several chapters by Loewen.

1. Textbooks are and aren't the problem. Textbooks are the problem in ways that Loewen points out: they're too massive and aim at comprehensiveness instead of understanding. They over-simplify and create an atmosphere of thinking of history as being about brute facts instead of the human drama. But I would suggest that even if the textbooks were "good," they'd still be bad. The nature of the market for these boat anchors is such that they will be the way they are until teachers stop using them. At one point in the book Loewen mentions that there are slimmer and trimmer textbooks that survey much less history. This combined with a rich use of primary sources could make for an interesting class.

Perhaps Loewen is too polite to say it, but there is probably more things wrong with the teachers of history than anyone would like to admit. Loewen does mention that there do seem to be a disproportionate amount of coaches out there who also "teach history." Can you imagine your brain surgeon being a golfer who also "practices surgery"?! The priority of schools is surely to blame here and the lack of historians who teach history. A good teacher can do without a good textbook but a great textbook will never compensate for an incompetent teacher (except for those self-starting students who learn no matter what).

2. History is the story of persons, not mechanical processes. One of the most interesting things about history is how in any major event (and all kinds of minor ones), things could have been different. I don't think it's necessary to stress contingency with an excess of "what if" scenarios, but just because it did happen the way it did happen, we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking it had to happen that way. Textbooks would be useless in bringing this out, but take a book like Lukacs' Five Days in London: May 1940 and it is evident that what may be seen as chains of events linked by specific causes may also be viewed as being shaped by persons with all the range of virtues and vices imaginable. This is something worth communicating to students

3. Ideas have consequences especially when we never heard of the ideas (or ideologies, more often). This points directly to the need for philosophy in the high school. Why on earth one can find psychology and sociology on offer but no philosophy course in the dozen high schools I've subbed at is beyond me. Religion? Forget about it. Never mind that religion and philosophy existed for millennia while the other two are recent inventions.

Well, that's enough for now. The book to be written could be titled How to teach history even if you're stuck with a lousy anchor masquerading as a textbook or something similar. 

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