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On Contact: Teaching of history as indoctrination

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the teaching of history as a form of indoctrination with Professor James W. Loewen. Loewen’s book is: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. His new book, a memoir, is: Up a Creek, with a Paddle: Tales of Canoeing and Life

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss the teaching of history as a form of indoctrination with Professor James Loewen.

James W. Loewen: Into this conflagration comes a bunch of Arab traders, they didn’t even know that the city was being attacked.  And so da Gama takes them.  And he kills them all by the most horrible means.  He actually cuts off their noses and their ears.  He breaks their teeth into their mouth, he leaves them pitiably still alive but dying on their ship and he sails their ship into the harbor to show the people in India what they’re going to be dealing with if they don’t do what he says.  Well, this is just the most horrible story, and I think we should be teaching--I think we should be teaching it to sixth graders.  They can handle it because this is part of their colonialism process and we got to tell it all.

CH: The teaching of history in our schools is not an impartial or neutral discipline.  It is at its core about justifying the power of the ruling elites in the present by defying the ruling elites in the past.  This means that history, as it is taught in our schools, is distorting and at times fabricated to achieve these ends, racism, injustices, lies, and crimes of the ruling elites are minimalized or ignored.  Problematic historical figures, such as the overt, racist, and imperialist Woodrow Wilson are transformed into mythical social archetypes whose darker actions, including the decision to re-segregate the federal government, are whitewashed or ignored.  In America, in the America of history textbooks, equal opportunity exists for all.  America exemplifies the trajectory of human progress, constantly improving and perfecting itself, the great leaders of the past, almost always white men are courageous and wise, bringing enlightenment and civilization to the lesser breeds of the earth, the lives of figure such as George Washington, one of the architects of the slaughter of Native Americans and a slaveholder are held up as heroic models for imitation.  The dark lust for conquest and wealth which lay behind the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans that was carried out by the Euro Americans and Americans is papered over.  Those who are poor and oppressed are taught, often subtly, that they deserve their low status and those who resisted often at the cost of their own lives for equality and justice, are erased from historical memory or trivialized.  Joining me to discuss in the first of two episodes how teaching history is too often a form of social control is Professor James Loewen, the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”  So as we begin, Jim, lay out how--which I didn’t know until I read your book, how these seminal texts that are used in schools are written.  Because they have the names of well-known historians, but as you point out in the book, most historians are not actually writing the books.

JL: That’s amazing.  They read those names and I think they paid pretty well to--for them well, too, although I’ve never actually asked a famous historian, “What did you get for putting your name on such and such?”  But they don’t like the books.  They don’t even read the books.  I had a conversation--I actually blew the lid off this story some years ago and I got a front page story in the New York Times, it has to be.  So I compared two textbooks.  I was reading six different textbooks at the time actually for a second edition of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” and I’m reading along about George W. Bush’s administration and the war in Iraq that he did, and the election in Florida that he won just barely by a vote of five to four on the Supreme Court and so on, and I’m reading it then in the next book because I wanted to see what all six of these books have to say and [INDISTINCT] if they didn’t sound a lot--a lot alike and I look at them and they were absolutely identical for paragraph after paragraph.  Even though they’re by totally different authors, this one is supposedly by a guy who was Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress and Brooks Mather Kelley who’s Chief [INDISTINCT] of the state Yale.  Both of them retired.  They wrote this--these other folks, a bunch of distinguished professors at Miami University of Ohio, they wrote this other book.  Well, it turns out that they didn’t steal off of them.

CH: Uh-hmm.

JL: They--these folks didn’t steal off of them.  Neither one of them wrote anything.  What the publisher did in this case was they had the same hack and used it twice, and so I called them up and asked them about it, them being the famous historians who were the famous authors.  I didn’t call up Boorstin because he had recently died but I called up is co-author and his co-author, Kelley, said, “Boorstin did it.”  And he didn’t mean by that, that Boorstin copied, he meant that Boorstin had actually read it--written it.  And I asked him, I said, “Well, did you know that for page after page, it was exactly the same as this other book?”  And he said, and I’m going to quota, he said, “Oh, no, that’s terrible.”  And pretty soon he admitted, “[INDISTINCT] Hall hired somebody to write that.  I forget the man’s name.”  So the first point is they don’t know who wrote--they don’t know the credentials of the person.  Second of all, they don’t read it and I proved that because I called the other guy, who allegedly read the other book, and he kind of implied he had written it, too, and then I said, “Did you know that it’s exactly the same as--” and he actually said this, he said, “Oh, no, that’s terrible.”  And pretty soon, he admitted he didn’t write it and I said to him, I said, “Well, aside from the fact that you didn’t write it, what do you think about as a work of history?”  And he said, and I quote, “Just a minute, let me get it down from the shelf.”  Meaning, “How the heck would I know?  It’s not like I ever read it.”  Now when I tell this to college students, which I do, I say, “Look, if you are stupid enough to buy your term paper for $10 for one of these term paper services on the web, I hope at least you read the damn thing before you hand it in.  These folks, these famous authors, they don’t know what they wrote.  They could’ve had Osama bin Laden being a Jewish rabbi.  They don’t know what they wrote, there’s no quality control whatsoever.

CH: And as you--as you talk on the book and you have an example in the book, you have these freelance people who’d often, as you point have no history credentials, in essence writing this boiler plate stuff for the textbooks, but they’re working often on the--on two different books and using the same copy.  Just before we get--before we get into the meat of the book, you also speak about how all of these textbooks are vetted by committees so that by the time a student has to buy one of these extremely expensive heavy tomes, it’s, you know, anything of any potential controversy is just washed out of it.

JL: Yeah.  The textbook publishers seem to not want to offend anybody.  Well, if you can’t offend anybody, you can’t say anything interesting either.  My favorite example on that one is my nomination for the second worst president in the history of the country which is--oh, my gosh.  He’s the guy just before Buchanan, whatever his name is, Franklin W. Pierce, that’s his name.  Now Franklin W. Pierce is the only president whoever came from New Hampshire.  He was so bad that when he actually got off the train from Washington, after his turn of office, nobody met him.  He--I wouldn’t go way into how bad a president he was, part of his problem was alcoholism, part of his problem was he was far out pro-slavery, and so he had no support whatsoever in New Hampshire, but that was a long time ago.  Now we don’t want to offend New Hampshire.  He’s the only president so we won’t say anything of what I just told you about Pierce, or anything bad about him.  Well, if you can’t say anything bad about Franklin W. Pierce, who can you say anything bad about?  You certainly can’t say anything bad about Abraham Lincoln, or George Washington, or Martin Luther King, or anybody else.  So you don’t say anything bad so you don’t say anything interesting, they’re just boring.

CH: I want to talk about because there’s a goal and you talk about it in the book, the, you know, for instance, part of the idea is to create social archetypes which are invariably white men, figures like Woodrow Wilson or Christopher Columbus, the tactic is the same and the tactic is this, you highlight those aspects of what they did in the case of Columbus, you know, the trip to discover the--discover is the wrong word, to invade the new world, and then to leave out the genocide, and pillage, and rape, and theft of resources, and enslavement that Columbus perpetrated.  And the same thing with Woodrow Wilson, former President of Princeton who refused to allow African Americans to study there, became president of the United States, re-segregated the federal bureaucracy which devastated families, tens of thousands of African-Americans of course, carried out a gunboat on the sea.  That just gets erased.  Create the social archetype.  Can you talk about that process?

JL: I was 42 years old before I learned that the United States put troops, into what then became the Soviet Union, into three different places, up around Norway and Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.  And also over by Japan.  And we did this on behalf of the whites against the reds in the Russian civil war.  So we intervened militarily and we took hundreds of casualties, too.  And I’m thinking now I took history in high school.  I got a minor in history in college, how did I miss this?  And so I looked at my--and this is college history textbook and this--by a famous--by three famous historians where one was more famous than the others but anyway, and it--here’s what it said, it said, “In 1920, Woodrow Wilson removed the last of the American troops from Vladivostok.”  That was the entire account of the invasion.  Nobody put them in but Woodrow Wilson took them out.  If they go in, they’d go in in the passive voice.  Troops were put into Vladivostok.  It’s not Woodrow Wilson put them there, Woodrow Wilson did the good thing, he pulled them out.  It’s kind of like you--we will remember--a lot of people remember, we had a good neighbor policy for Latin America under FDR.  Well, if we had a good neighbor policy under FDR, we must’ve had a bad neighbor policy under somebody, you know, somebody before FDR and, of course, the worst neighbor policy was under Woodrow Wilson.  He attacked almost every Latin-American country he could find.  Does he get credit or, in this case, blamed for it?  Pretty much not.  Troops go in, but he pulls them out again, he pulls them out an…

CH: And the other point you make in the book is that what is almost never discussed is the profit motive, especially in terms of imperial adventure, seizing natural resource, exploiting cheap labor, westward expansion, of course taking the Black Hills, violating the treaties after gold is found, talk a little bit about that.

JL: Yeah, even the pilgrims, the so-called pilgrims, well, they got to be called pilgrims in about 1880, but even the pilgrims who were motivated primarily by profit, it’s interesting to me because here we are in our country that really likes profit and elects profit people.  I mean, look at our president, he--one of the reasons he’s president is because he claims to be a billionaire.  There’s some issue about how much money he actually has and we haven’t really quite found his bank statements to be too forthcoming, but, you know, it’s supposed to be good to make money, it’s supposed to show that you have what it takes but somehow when we want to look back in our past, that’s kind of a dirty motive and so we don’t ever talk about it.  And so the pilgrims were in it for religious freedom.  Well, nonsense, they had religious freedom in Holland where they left from.  So they weren’t there.  They didn’t come to Massachusetts to get religious freedom.  Matter of fact one of the reasons they came to Massachusetts was to impose religious hegemony so there wouldn’t be any religious freedom except for them.  Now can we look at these things as they were?  Can we say some bad things about the pilgrims?  I think we can, I think we can and we will not fall apart as a nation.  The textbook authors obviously have something else in mind, they worry that, “My gosh, it could be the end of America if we tell the truth.”  But I don’t think the truth about America is that bad.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about how history is written and taught with Professor James Loewen.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about how history is written and taught with Professor James Loewen.  I want to also talk about another issue you raise in the book and that is the military technology which is, again, almost never discussed.  So there are advanced terms of the use of musketry and cannons, and military techniques that allow Euro-Americans and Americans to dominate indigenous communities, and yet that somehow gets translated into “a superior civilization.”

JL: Well, that’s pretty--you already said it, what’s your question?

CH: Well, I want you to talk about how that’s excised and not discussed.

JL: Yeah.  Well, that--you said it.  I mean, in the--yeah, I can’t--I can’t really do that because you really did say it.  Ask me something else, let’s go on or something.

CH: Okay.  Well, you said that--you write--you asked the question “Why don’t textbooks mention arms as a facilitator of exploitation domination?  Why do they admit the foregoing factors?”  And then you ask “Who are the textbooks written for and by?”  Who are they written for?  And we know who they’re written by but explain that orientation of textbooks because it is targeting a specific audience.

JL: Well, I think they’re written for you and me, that is I think they’re written for white males pretty much.  I think they’re written for rich white males.  I think they’re written so that the people who run the country will feel themselves that it’s a really moral and really good enterprise to run the country.  And that they’re doing a really good job.  And also so that everybody else will feel that.  And, you know, there are distinctions to be made between Democrats and Republicans and so on, but basically we are on--we are on kind of this, we’re on kind of an upward trail, we’re always getting better.  You people should vote.  And other than that, you don’t really have to do anything dramatic to be a citizen in the country just almost by dint of being an American you are participating in a global story that is sacred really.  It’s of course the myth of American exceptionalism.  Well, America is exceptional in certain ways but not the ways the textbooks mean.  What the textbooks mean by American’s exceptionalism is basically we are exceptionally good, or even better, we’re exceptionally nice.  So if we win a war, it’s kind of because we’re better.  It’s kind of because we’re nicer even.  It’s not necessarily because we have better technology.  Anybody could develop better technology so, you know, we’re going to underplay that a little and emphasize that we’re on the right side.  Sometimes we have it on the right side.  Sometimes we have not.

CH: Robert Bellah calls this a civil religion and you argue that much of the teaching of history is about buttressing, holding up this civil religion.  Can you explain what that is and how it works?

JL: Yeah.  That’s exactly what it is, a civil religion.  It has its sacred spots, and one of the sacred spots is Plymouth Rock.  And Plymouth Rock is maybe the silliest one because here we are in a--in a boat having decamped from the ship and we’re in a wooden boat and we’re thinking of landing.  And we could land anywhere along this coast, which is kind of a mixture of mud and sand.  Not too bad.  It doesn’t get on you too bad.  But let’s not do that, let’s land at the one place where the boat might actually get hurt, let’s land on this big rock.  Never happened, it’s about best we can tell.  But it must have happened because the rock is now sacred.  This is the first place that white people set forth when they were found in the United States.  Well, no, it wasn’t, I mean, for one thing it happened in 1620 and they’re all ready, all kinds of white folks what is now the United States, they were in New Mexico, they were in Florida, they were even in Virginia if they have to speak English to be counted as white folks.  They were also in Canada.  Probably on Plymouth Rock, well, it’s--there’s a whole process there that’s kind of silly.  But now we have pieces of Plymouth Rock all over the place.  Did you know for instance there’s a piece of Plymouth Rock embedded in the state capital of New Jersey?  There’s a piece of Plymouth Rock embedded in a congregational church in Brooklyn.  There’s probably one near you wherever you are in rural Illinois, I don’t know.  It’s everywhere.  And so that’s very religious, if you will, it’s like an icon.  It’s like, you know, the hair of the prophet or whatever.  So it is religious kind of, we even have, of course, our religious banquet just like the Last Supper, we call it Thanksgiving.  We have other religious holidays.  July 4th is somewhat similar in some ways to Christmas.  So what we’re--what we’re asked to do in history class then is different than what we’re asked to do in any other class in high school.  We’re asked to kind of--I’m going to put my hand up this way on purpose, we’re asked to swear allegiance really.  And you even see it in the titles of the books.  I mean, our textbooks should call things like, rise of the American Nation, the triumph of the American nation, the great republic, Land of the Free.  They’re not called typically American History, you know, that’s how our chemistry textbooks are called, chemistry.  We don’t call our chemistry textbooks triumph of the molecules.  You know, it’s just not what we do.  I think it’s kind of harder to study when you’re supposed to be saluting the flag.  By the way, all six of the new books that I checked and read carefully for the second issue of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” all six of them are red, white, and blue on the covers, just by chance.

CH: I want to talk about something that you point out in the book that when a person of color, an African-American, an indigenous person, carries out a feat, it is often buried or not acknowledged.  The example--the best example being the “Discovery of the new world,” they are strong historical evidence that people landed on the coast of Mexico, the Vikings, all before Columbus.  But the white male figure, European figure, is lifted out of history.  But that’s really mendacious.  And talk about a little bit about that process.

JL: Well, you know, I’m going to mention a guy you didn’t mention so far.  Vasco da Gama.  I’ve been on his case for the last couple of years.  I speak a lot around the country and I have asked numerous audiences, who was Vasco da Gama?  And they all know that he was an explorer, that’s about it.  One in a hundred gets the idea that maybe he’s the guy who went around the bottom of Africa and discovered India.  So we don’t say discovered India, but let’s say reached India, okay, and that’s all they know.  That’s pretty much what we know about each of the explorers, that they were great and they had persevered, and they discovered America, or they discovered Africa, they conquered Peru, or they--whatever they did.  Well, it turns out the interesting question to ask is what did they do on the second trip?  And on Vasco da Gama’s second trip, he goes to the city in Southern India.  And he shells it, he has 17 ships just like Columbus did, I don’t know exactly 17, but anyway just like Columbus came back to the Americas with 17 ships, but he has a whole bunch of ships and he shells it, and he then demands that these people in this city stop dealing with the Arabs, they’re not Christian, that’s the wrong religion.  You have to deal only with us.  And they say, “Well, we’re not sure we’re going to do that,” so that’s when he showed them.  Then into this conflagration comes a bunch of Arab traders, they didn’t even know that the city was being attacked.  And so da Gama takes them.  And he kills them all by the most horrible means.  He actually cuts off their noses and their ears.  He breaks their teeth into their mouth, he leaves them pitiably still alive but dying on their ship and he sails their ship into the harbor to show the people in India what they’re going to be dealing with if they don’t do what he says.  Well, this is just the most horrible story, and I think we should be teaching--I think we should be teaching it to sixth graders.  They can handle it because this is part of their colonialism process and we got to tell it all.

CH: Well, and Columbus of course is a litany of horrors against…

JL: He did his things, too.

CH: He’s as bad as…

JL: Yes, he did.

CH: I want to--you--in your new little memoir “Up a Creek, without a Paddle.”  You write “When the topic is shameful or controversial, oral sources are typically more accurate than written sources.”  Which I think comes out of your book on Sundown Towns but I found that a really fascinating point.

JL: Yeah.  I’m going to hold that book up just for a minute.  There.  I like it.  It’s--I just finished it.  It’s kind of funny but that point you’re making about oral history both relates to one of my canoe trips I talk about.  And also, as you said, to the issue of Sundown Towns.  I have gone to talk with, oh, for example the number one historian in the Town of Pinckneyville, Illinois, and talking with him like we’re talking.  Well, I was there, we’re not really quite there, we’re doing it virtually.  But talking with him face to face, he told me all kinds of things about how Pinckneyville drove out its black population in 1928 or ‘29.  He said there was a hanging tree.  He told me where he saw a black body hanging.  That he had overstayed his leave and was there after dark and so they killed him and hung him.  And he has never written anything like this, and he will never write anything like this.  Indeed I talked with the chief archivist at Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.  And he told me “You cannot prove with documents that the major leagues were segregated and kept out black folks before Jackie Robinson.”  Of course everybody knew it.  You can prove it by all kinds of people even today who still remember it and can tell you about it, but in terms of documents, you don’t want to write about that stuff.  So oral history can be very important and I’m thinking on an issue that’s shameful, it’s more accurate than written history.

CH: Just to close, what’s the danger of sanitizing our historical past for students?

JL: Well, I think two things, it makes us ethnocentric, that is we think our culture is the best.  We think we’re the best country in the world which makes us unable to learn from any other culture.  And there are other cultures that do things better sometimes, depends on the things.  It seems like there are some cultures that are handling the Coronavirus better than we are.  And if we would just emulate them, that might be an idea.  There are some cultures that handle mental illness better than we do especially institutionalized mental illness.  We got a lot we could learn from.  We got a lot to teach other cultures, but we have a lot to learn, too.  So it makes us stupid because it makes us unable to learn from them because we already know we’re better than they are.  And the second thing I’d say about that is, Lordy, if there’s any country that didn’t need to become more self-centered and more ethnocentric, it would be us because, I mean after all we’re already--Coca-Cola already dominates the world pretty much, high-fiving dominates the world, you know, we’re--we have quite a bit of influence around the world.  We don’t need to have even more because we know we’re the best.  I think it would be good for us to have an accurate assessment of where we are.  That’s, to me, patriotism, an accurate assessment, not a nationalistic we’re the best.

CH: Well, also without self-criticism and self-reflection, you perpetuate the evils of the past which I think you all…

JL: How’d you get better?  Yeah, yeah.

CH: Great.  Thank you very much.  That was Professor James Lowen on History as a form of Indoctrination.  Next week we will talk about monuments and statues and public manifestations of history and how they are used to again buttress the ideologies and stature of the ruling elite.

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