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March 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 6

Book Review / Teaching What Really Happened

A survey by the National Center for History in the Schools found that only 40 percent of all high school history and social studies teachers majored in history or a history-relevant discipline—and 13 percent never even took a single college-level history course. It's no wonder, writes James Loewen in Teaching What Really Happened, that the overwhelming majority of high school students rely on their social studies textbooks almost exclusively. Unfortunately, nearly all of these books are woefully inadequate.
Following up on the success of Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong (Touchstone, 1996), which surveyed more than a dozen popular textbooks and presented their pedagogical failings and blatant inaccuracies, Loewen's new book presents realistic suggestions that social studies teachers can use to liven up the classroom experience and get students interested in history.
My own past experience working as an editor with several major K–12 educational publishers confirms Loewen's assertions: Most high school textbooks are not written by the scholars listed at the front of the books, they are not reviewed by historians prior to publication; they often rely on faulty assumptions, and they usually omit—or gloss over—subjects that are even remotely controversial. Indeed, "honest history might always offend someone. So instead, textbooks offer dishonest history" (p. 80).
Loewen avoids the trap of merely creating a list of textbooks' inaccuracies, inadequacies, and weaknesses. Most teachers are likely to already have a fairly extensive list of their own. Instead, he offers a compelling and thought-provoking analysis of the current state of U.S. textbooks and then builds on this analysis by pointing out how students can address the weaknesses of their textbooks to better understand and independently "do" history. Textbooks, then, become a means to the end: historiography:
What happened in 1492 happened. But that is not history. History is what we say happened. What we say about 1492 changes as we change. Historiography is the study of why and how history changes. (p. 68)
Loewen reviews six of the trickiest topics in U.S. history—including the "discovery" of the New World, slavery, and the history of U.S. race relations—and suggests how students and teachers can challenge textbooks' treatments of these topics. As a start, he advises, teachers should encourage students to realize that textbooks are imperfect:
Quickly [students] will realize that [their textbook] is worse than Wikipedia—which has footnotes, after all—and far inferior to a good journalistic summary of recent research. (p. 29)
Loewen's book encourages students and teachers to compile independent research and provide feedback and criticism to publishers.
Loewen's passion for his subject fills the pages of this relatively short volume with vital information for both the novice and veteran educator.
A teacher communicates with students for no more than 160 hours in a school year. This is less than 2 percent of their waking lives in a given year. … Every minute that they spend 'going over' the textbook in the usual dreary way is a minute that will not make them better at doing history, to say nothing of transforming their lives. (p. 41)
Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History by James W. Loewen was published by Teachers College Press in 2009; $21.95; 248 pages.

Jamie Greene has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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