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“The American Journey” is a classroom staple. The textbook has been described as a ‘superb, readable presentation of American history, from pre-exploration to the present.’ It is read by millions who are often tested on its contents every year.
But sociologist James Loewen discovered that the 2015 edition of the book contained passages like this one, about The Civil War.
The South Secedes
Lincoln and the Republicans had promised not to disturb slavery where it already existed. Nevertheless, many people in the South mistrusted the party, fearing that the Republican government would not protect Southern rights and liberties. On December 20, 1860, the South’s long-standing threat to leave the Union became a reality when South Carolina held a special convention and voted to secede.
This passage has been taken by some to suggest that slavery was not the reason why the South seceded from the North. Loewen argues that this phrasing is dangerous. It glosses over an ugly historical precedent of white supremacy, as well as being counterfactual.
And he suggests that textbook publishers often obfuscate because “they don’t want to offend Southern school districts and thereby lose sales.”
And it’s not just The Civil War that’s being misconstrued. Glossing over, lying about or misrepresenting events is also not a recent phenomenon.
Loewen broke down some major falsehoods in his 1995 book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” which is being re-released in paperback this summer.
The Atlantic summarizes the book this way.
It found that those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways. For example, the false yet relatively widespread conviction that the Reconstruction era was a chaotic period whose tumult was attributable to poor, uncivilized governance of recently freed slaves. Textbooks’ framing of the history in this way, according to Loewen, promoted racist attitudes. White supremacists repeatedly cited this interpretation of Reconstruction to back up their argument for not extending voting rights to black Americans.
What happens when textbooks get it wrong? What obligation do textbook authors have to their students? What are the biggest falsehoods that Loewen has uncovered?
Here’s one textbook myth debunked.
Produced by Jonquilyn Hill. Text by Gabrielle Healy.
- James W. Loewen Sociologist; author, "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong"; @JamesWLoewen
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