History lite

How can students celebrate the school desegregation decision if they don’t know anything about the Constitution or the Supreme Court, asks Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post.

If Brown was about anything, it was about how the language used by America’s founders — words such as “equality” and “freedom” — ultimately proved more powerful than the forces of deep-seated racial prejudice. But if you don’t know who America’s founders were, or what language they used, or why there was racial prejudice in the first place, then the commemoration necessarily becomes a bland celebration of diversity.

Textbooks are written in “a tone of cheerful, sanitized neutrality so overwhelming that it actually renders the prose ahistorical.”

Thus in a section on “Life Behind the Iron Curtain,” middle-schoolers are taught both that “Communist governments in Eastern Europe granted their people few freedoms,” and that “in some ways, Communist governments did take care of their citizens. Food prices were low. Health care was free,” as if all prices really were low and health care really was free in economic systems that depended upon bribery and connections. Thus in a unit on the Industrial Revolution, students are asked how they would react if forced to become child laborers — “Would you join a union, go to school, or run away?” — as if there actually were unions, universal education and places for children to run to in early-19th century Britain . . .

Not only are dead white men absent, writes Applebaum; students don’t learn about slavery either.

It might make someone feel bad.

About Joanne


  1. If all that’s true it’s pretty bad, but I have to say it doesn’t describe my daughter’s public school experience in any way, shape, or form.

  2. That is terrifying and one of the reasons parents need to be involved in their children’s education. I intend to be very involved.

  3. Fuzzy Rider says:

    The less sanitized the study of history is, the more interesting it becomes. If you examine history, ‘warts and all’, it turns out that it is the ‘warts’ that make it fascinating!

    The kind of mindless drivel cited in the posting is a great example of educational malpractice!

  4. Ken Two says:

    Whilte texts are marginal, another catagory of classroom tools are the worksheets which teachers use to supplement the text and their lecture and provide as classroom or homework assignments. I have erred in thinking that such worksheets were supplied by the text publisher. Recently I saw one from Mark Twain Media, a publisher I cannot locate, which profoundly miss-characterizes Stalin’s development of a nuclear weapon in the 1940’s. This was the final blow. I’m on my own kind of rampage to out this junk.

    There’s a good reason why the public is confused about global politics. It’s because even clear thinking parents have relied on schools to teach their children history [and other subjects]. And the folks leading those discussions — for the most part — don’t know what they are talking about. And so lack discernment that they will use any piece of paper available as a teaching aid.

    No wonder there are an estimated 2.2 million kids in the U.S. being “taught” at home.

  5. Bob Diethrich says:

    I use a “warts and all” approach to history. I don’t pull punches and I don’t sanitize. You should see some of the sparks that fly as we cover world religions here in the Bible Belt.

    I also get a chuckle out of the untold story of communism:

    “Health care was free” Yes, horrible managed healthy care with no quality control or excellence.

    Or “Food prices were low” Yes, if the food ever made it to the people through the labyrinthine buereaucracy and incompetant central distribution system. I once saw a stat that said the average Romanian spent over six hours a day (!!!!) waiting in line.

  6. P. Pruitt says:

    Building on what Ken mentioned above, one of my son’s regular assignments is to read a “newspaper” called Junior Scholastics. The “goal” of the assignments is to improve reading comprehension and increase the children’s knowledge of current events. If your child is required to read this, I highly recommend that you read it also so that you can help develop a questioning attitude in your child when they are exposed to subjective articles.

  7. “The less sanitized the study of history is, the more interesting it becomes.” Very true. If I were teaching about the Industrial Revolution, I would indeed talk about child labor in the factories. But I’d also talk about the pre-industrial life of children working dawn-to-dusk on farms, and about 12-years-olds serving on sailing vessels, climbing the mainmast in the middle of the Atlantic. It might be pretty interesting for the kids..but it doesn’t precisely fit the “industry bad–nature good” mold, so the administrators probably wouldn’t like it.

  8. James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me nails this subject rather well. Unfortunately, the socialist in him gets out towards the end of the book, which turns into a rant against “Reaganbush.”

  9. Roy W. Wright says:

    No wonder there are an estimated 2.2 million kids in the U.S. being “taught” at home.

    I’m curious: why the quotation marks?

  10. Ken Two says:


    Relax. Taught in quotations has no special significance. Just a writer’s use of a punctuation device in an arbitrary way.

    As I tell my children:
    You are here ………………………………….

    And we need you here …………………..

  11. Yes Ken, but puncuation is usually chosen to convey something, “” signifies ‘this is subjective and has a scarastic slant of disbeleif.’

  12. Tim from Texas says:

    There exists a textbook ring/cartel in this country. Not only are the texts incorrect and badly written, they are skewed, filled with way too much material(which cannot be covered in a semester or a year), filled with many color separated glossy pictures and weigh a “ton”, and they are way too expensive. We must love them for we keep buying them.

  13. Alex Bensky says:

    When I was teaching there was a suggested exercise in the World History textbook unit dealing with modern European history. It had student playing the part of various interest groups, including feminists, discussing with Bismarck whether he had “sold out.” Sold out to what wasn’t mentioned.

    I think I was able to get across to the class why Otto von Bismarck wasn’t likely to have sat down with feminists, who weren’t likely to have been very numerous or influential, to discuss the merits of his policies. But I wonder what sort of lessons students drew from classes where they did play the game.

  14. My daughter almost was suspended because when she was “studying” slavery I told her that Blacks in the North owned slaves as well and showed her the proof on an internet site run by “Tony Brown’s Journal”. The shit hit the fan with neither the teacher or the Black principal willing to so much as look at her statement. It ended when I asked them “how far they wanted to go with this?:” and they backed down. They weren’t teaching about slavery but how horrible white people are. We’re thinking private school next year.

  15. Bob Diethrich says:

    Likewise Howard you should have seen the cocked eyebrows when I talked about those wonderful pious “Bahstahn” abolitionists before the war?

    When I told them how most of those abolitionists had the “pre White Man’s Burden” paternalistic view of blacks and wanted them to be free, but then wanted to put them on boats to Liberia and never, ever would have wanted them in their neighborhoods, chruches, schools (or marrying their daughters either), their cherished ideals from 8th grade history were “Gone with the Wind.”

  16. Damn! Charles Dickens was lying!

  17. theAmericanist says:

    Has anybody ever seen either a good criticism (besides Loewen) of the textbook cartel, OR a serious proposal to do something about it?

  18. Eric Brown says:

    Diane Ravitch’s _The Language Police_ is a pretty good criticism of the textbook cartel.

    I’m not sure much _can_ be done with the textbook cartel, as one of the main reasons textbooks aren’t very good is that textbooks are written to avoid angering pressure groups, not to impart knowledge.

    I think the only way to win is not to play.