High school history critic to present research and book at Coffman Union

James Loewen said U.S. history goes beyond memorization of facts and numbers.

by Emily Kaiser

Krystal Travis said she learned someone else’s history in her high school U.S. history class.

Davis, a first-year retail buyer student, said her history course focused on the Caucasian European history of the United States, rather than a range of voices and stories.

James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” said five of six Americans never take a history course after high school, and that high school history books often are misleading and factually wrong.

“I think it’s a crime that young American adults grow up systematically stupid,” he said.

Loewen will present his research and book on high school textbooks, first published in 1996, on Tuesday at Coffman Union.

For his book, Loewen said, he looked at 12 high school history textbooks and analyzed their coverage of important topics in history.

One example he found was the misconception of the Dutch purchase of Manhattan Island from American Indians for $24 worth of beads. Loewen said the island actually was sold for $2,400 worth of useful items by an American Indian tribe that didn’t live on the island.

“It makes Indians look stupid because, Why would they sell their home for $24?” he said. “As students learn this, they are learning in a current setting that Indians are not very bright, even though it didn’t happen.”

Loewen said one of the textbooks he chose covered each topic best, and when he contacted the author, he discovered the book was intended for college students.

“It made me aware that college textbooks are systematically better, because I was not reading it as a college textbook,” he said.

American history professor Donna Gabaccia said many of her students did not receive adequate high school history education.

“Most (college students), at least in my perspective, are starting from scratch when they took history,” she said.

Although Gabaccia said she hasn’t taught an introductory course in more than 10 years, she saw a theme of citizenship education in high school history that wasn’t a part of college courses.

“Citizenship education frequently encourages a more celebratory than critical approach to the past,” she said.

Loewen said being a good citizen should be discussed in high school but often is misrepresented.

“I think that the textbooks have a very shallow idea of what a citizen should be in society,” he said.

History professor Tracey Deutsch said that in high school, students learn history is the memorization of facts and numbers, and they often are afraid to take a college history course.

“It’s often very satisfying to learn facts, but the crucial thing is to put those facts into a broader context with overall significance,” she said. “No book can teach you that.”

Postsecondary enrollment option student Keta Desai said she took an advanced placement U.S. history course in high school and was exposed to an in-depth history through the class.

“Our teacher told us the history of our country is written through that country’s perspective, so that is what we learned,” she said.

Loewen said his talks with potential educators will make students aware of the problems in K-12 history textbooks.

“Students will realize they shouldn’t memorize textbooks, and they should think about what they are learning,” he said. “What we really need to produce are students who read critically.”