Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone, 2007).

There's a certain predictable side to looking into books like this. I realized after reading some Howard Zinn that there would be more negative reviews that focus on the "how dare dat unAmerican commie pinko say dese dings" side of the argument than actually focus on the content of the book. With James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, there's so much that can be said about what a wearying slog this book is than falling back on right-wing whining, but, alas, few seem to want to make it. Let's see what we can find on Amazon... "dissent," "socialist ranting," "anti-American propaganda," yup. Well, at least about half of the commenters took the time to look at the forest, and, like me, found it desperately needing some weeding.

I certainly appreciate Loewen's perspective. After reviewing eighteen different high school history texts, he turned both barrels on the publishers of this dreck, accusing them of ignoring anything controversial in favor of "blind patriotism, mindless optimism" and feel-good mush - anything to avoid ticking off some loudmouthed parent somewhere. So the book straddles two tough objectives: to correct misconceptions about our history and also to address why the truth has been so badly obscured.

I like the message, but not the delivery. Loewen's argument is a sound one, but man, this book is a chore to wade through. It's just an endless, 360-page march through dense text, strident arguments and constant finger-pointing about how rotten our ancestors were and... well, really, how rotten everybody still is. Sadly, the book starts off with an upbeat and friendly tone before descending into shrill screaming. There's assuredly a lot more that we should know about Helen Keller's communism and Woodrow Wilson's racism, but the "secret history of America" approach soon gives way to relentless negativity.

In short, the story of America that students should want to learn is abandoned in order to attack sacred cows. There's just got to be a more subtle, clever and effective way to do that than in something this exhausting. Not recommended.

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