THE FUTURE OF HISTORY CLASS
Many students think history is boring. Author-educator James Loewen is working to change this.
After reviewing a dozen history textbooks for the Smithsonian Institution, James Loewen came up with a vision for the future—one that included a complete overhaul of the way schools teach American history. The college professor-turned-author has since written several books, including Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, and most recently Teaching What Really Happened, for K-12 teachers. Loewen’s books have struck a chord with educators, and he spends much of his time conducting workshops for school districts and teacher groups on how to better teach history and social studies. “To my happiness as well as my surprise, teachers love Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Loewen says. “I am convinced that there are many teachers who want to teach better than the textbook, to get students ‘doing’ history.”
Ultimately, Loewen would like to see “a 300-page paperback” replace the current hardcover history textbooks, which average a whopping 1,152 pages. These weighty tomes may have been effective teaching tools in the past, especially in remote towns where resources were limited to one local library. Fortunately times have changed, as Loewen helpfully—and humorously—points out. “We now have something called the Web,” he says. Students and teachers can now research historic events, people, and stories without leaving the classroom. The Library of Congress, for example, has a rich online collection of maps, photos, documents, audio, and video from throughout American history, as well as a world digital library and much more. While a physical class visit to the Library may be impossible, a virtual visit is free and accessible.
Teaching Beyond the Textbook
Loewen says that tapping into technology will free up teachers to present past events in ways that are creative and engaging. It will also help them find factual information that has been distorted or excluded entirely from the textbooks. Some omissions protect the character of our nation or important figures. After a teacher in Illinois told her 6th grade class that most Presidents before Lincoln owned slaves, “they were outraged with their teacher,” says Loewen. After doing some research, he says, the students “became outraged with their textbook, for leaving that out.” Other historical gaps involve painful, difficult truths about our nation’s past, including lynchings and other crimes and misdeeds against African Americans and Native Americans.
Teaching about America’s trials as well as its triumphs gives students the information they need to become responsible citizens, whether they’ve set their sights on the White House, the Peace Corps, the boardroom, or the classroom. Loewen admits that some topics make for difficult lessons—and in many cases are better left to the upper elementary students. To this end, his workshops and books provide suggestions and guidelines for teaching issues such as slavery and racism. One of the tips that Loewen has seen work with 5th grade students seems almost too simple but will likely ring true for teachers of that particular age group. “Say to the class ‘Some people tell me that 5th graders aren’t mature enough to handle slavery,’” he says. “You will find that students rise to the occasion.”
So… What Really Happened?
To hear Loewen tell it, history is full of drama, conflict, and fascinating people and events; and of course it is, but by high school most students want nothing to do with the subject. Most everything they’ve learned up till then has been a watered-down, feel-good version of our country’s past. Some of the most troubling events don’t even make it into the textbooks. “Let me suggest to you that the single most important event or process of the last millennium is the Columbia Exchange—the transfer of ideas, diseases, crops across the oceans. That’s an incredibly important process. It transformed Europe; prompted the rise of the northern European nations. It decimated the population of the Americas, Australia, Hawaii,” says Loewen. “The textbooks I read did not mention it. All they said about Columbus was the usual claptrap.”
Teaching What Really Happened urges educators to change the way they present history in the classroom. Loewen provides teachers with ideas and strategies designed to inspire within students a passion for the past, or in the very least a strong interest in the people, places, events, major decisions, and other factors that helped shape our nation. In addition, the book provides real-world examples of teachers who have met with great success after presenting students with the real story of America—warts and all. Loewen dedicates one chapter each to difficult topics that teachers have the most trouble teaching, including slavery, and the Nadir of Race Relations, when race relations deteriorated. During this period, African Americans lost many civil rights, and anti-black violence surged. “It should be on every history teacher’s list of 30-50 topics that must be in a U.S. history course,” he says.
As Loewen notes, the antidote to “feel-good history” is truth, and this truth will empower students and prepare them for the future. In Teaching What Really Happened, Loewen writes, “Even when an event seems to be new, the causes of the acts and feelings are deeply embedded in the past. Thus, to understand an event—an election, an act of terror, a policy decision about the environment, whatever—we must start in the past.” Loewen’s books, his workshops, and teachings will help point tomorrow’s decision-makers in the right direction. And if history is any indication, an exciting journey awaits.
James W. Loewen is an educator who attended Carleton College, holds the Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University, and taught race relations for 20 years at the University of Vermont. Visit Loewen’s website, http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/, to learn more about his books.
By Kathy Satterfield
Kathy Satterfield is an editor and writer with more than 10 years of experience specializing in educational media for children. Most recently, as Senior Editor for TIME for Kids magazine, she managed the content of the 2nd- to 3rd-grade News Scoop edition and researched, reported and wrote for the 4th- to 6th-grade World Report edition. Kathy has also written for Grandparents.com and Fairfield Parent magazine.