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Who was the first black major league baseball player? Which iconic child hero grew up to be a radical socialist communist feminist? Which president lionized for his prescient foreign policy and progressive domestic initiatives ordered some half dozen foreign invasions, even sending troops into Soviet Russia, and re-institutionalized racism? Which great American hero, one of only two honored by name with a national holiday, launched genocide and slavery in the western hemisphere? Was Lincoln actually racist?
Why don't we know these things? Because, according to author James Loewen, a professor of sociology, our high school history textbooks omit, distort, or outright misstate some facts of our history, striving to tell a nationalistic story based on pride, patriotism, rationalization, and self-congratulation rather than the truth of the matter. Our history was, as the saying goes, written by the winners.
But, warns Loewen, if you elevate that cliche from explanation to excuse, you risk falling into another cliche: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Twenty years after Loewen wrote his cautionary tale, recent history demonstrate his point -- the fictional rationale for invading Iraq, ongoing debates that sometimes devolve into turmoil over social justice, racial inequality, and environmental disaster, and (on the more specific issue of how these things are taught), the introduction of controversial textbooks in some states that exacerbate the distortions Loewen wrote about two decades earlier to further a particular political agenda.
How you react to this book, to its premise, to its highly detailed decimation of history texts, will depend on how willing you are to re-examine what you were taught in high school, how you feel about the truth behind myths taught as history. It will likely also depend on whether your personal opinion tacks to starboard, because this book decidedly leans to port. Loewen has an unmistakable point of view -- I believe his case would pack more punch if he took an objective approach, even though I align with him almost 100% ideologically.
As a one-time history major back in my long-ago college days, I always prefer truth over mythology. So I ate up Oliver Stone's TV documentary and companion book, The Untold History of the United States, and I devoured this book in audio format. I already knew many of these things, but I was still capable of being surprised by other revelations. I would heartily recommend this to others willing to re-examine the truth behind some of our beliefs. If you're not comfortable with that, I suspect you don't need me to tell you stay away, you'll get that from the title and description.
My only criticism is that the last three chapters are no longer about the distortions in our history texts, but about how these texts are created and adopted, how they affects people's perceptions, and what can be done to rectify the situation. The context of how history is taught in high school is perfect for unmasking the truth of our history, but for me personally, the subject of the textbooks themselves is less interesting. So this ultimately cost the book one star in the story category (I would really like to rate it 4 1/2 stars, so I go with 4 for story and 5 overall to get a 4 1/2 average -- the narration gets only a 4 because it sometimes borders on strident).
The answers to the questions in the opening paragraph: a) not Jackie Robinson, b) Helen Keller, c) Woodrow Wilson, d) Columbus, and e) other than being against slavery, yes, in his early days, as was almost everyone in his era, but he evolved rapidly once he became president.
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
I agree with the criticism that the author has an agenda, but I disagree that it is so clearly biased. While his examples often include commentary and opinion, the reader should be able to filter through that to the real point: there is a lot of missing information or outright lies told in high school history books used today.
I especially like the reviewer here who expresses the sentiment that Americans be proud of their history. That reviewer misses the main point which is that you don't only tell the positives without any of the negatives because you deprive the student from understanding that history, both the people and the events in it, are not one dimension things which can be glossed over.
I challenge any reader/listeners of this book to think about whether the way Americans are taught history is accurate for all students. If you are native American, African, or any other racial group other than white, are the stories accurate or is American history just supposed to make white Americans feel good about how great they are?
I am white and no apologist. History is history and none of us are responsible for what others did, especially in the past. The point is that history should help us understand why our world is the way it is today. If it's just a feel good fiction story, what is the point?
201 of 223 people found this review helpful
I really enjoyed this book, it was thought provoking and well read. Its main premise is how the teaching of history by text book is killing the subject, which wouldn't be so bad if the text books were not just full of rubbish history.
The examples are told with humour but it can be a little repetitive.
Beautifully read and giving fascinating insights into American history. Cannot fail to make you annoyed at the way history has so far been taught. The only downside is that author, by his own admission, fails to look into the history of two important social groups in American history: women and Hispanics. That would have made it perfect but nevertheless Loewen does inspire you to read further and in effect to be your own historian. Highly recommended.