Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thank you, thank you, thank you ... to my high school teachers!!

I just finished reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  I learned a lot from the book - but a lot of it I already knew thanks to my amazing high school teachers.  

Loewen argues that history textbooks, and many teachers, shy away from anything that may cause controversy in turn depriving high school students of the opportunity to form their own  opinions and think for themselves.  Many don't get this opportunity for discussion and complex understanding until they reach college courses - if they are lucky enough to go to college.  In my freshman year OF HIGH SCHOOL, after reading the somewhat controversial Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (a book also very worthy of a read), our class discussed whether or not we were old enough to be faced with a controversial idea and reason it on our own.  Many parents didn't want their high school freshmen to spend class time reading an antiwar novel  about a man who has lost all limbs and all senses and is now forced to communicate with the world via the tapping of his head in Morse code.  I loved that my teacher trusted us to form our own opinions and thought us mature enough to discuss controversial topics... so many students don't ever get to reach that understanding which is pointed out by Loewen in his book.

Loewen also describes the ethnocentrism that is promoted in so many of our American history textbooks and the promotion of Christianity as the most standard religion of the American people.  Also in my freshman year, my history class devoted great amounts of time to understanding Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  I still find what I learned in that class meaningful when it comes to understanding other cultures.  This information proved especially useful because that same year, in that same class, I watched the twin towers fall on our classroom television.  While a lot of the United States viewed the practice of Islam to be evil, I had the knowledge base to recognize the difference between regular Muslims and extremists.  

Loewen also discusses the heroification of many American figures that don't really deserve our respect such as Christopher Columbus (who wasn't actually the first to" discover the new world"  and should be known for bringing disease and cruelty to the Americans that already lived here).  My sophomore year history class revolved around our main project of the year - the trial of Francisco Pizarro - noble conquistador or selfish savage?  We spent weeks in the library trying to find primary sources describing Pizarro's character and his motives based on what side we were assigned.  Through our research we not only realized what a downright nasty guy he was, we also learned the importance of primary sources, bias, and how completely wrong our textbook was.  

Our junior year was another purely American history course (which I of course dreaded - how many times do I have to hear about the men of the Revolutionary War?).  Our teacher this year added some new elements that made it slightly less boring.  After reading countless times of brief mentions of the slave trade in our textbooks, we watched the movie Amistad, one of the few films to give me chills and leave me uneasy for the rest of the week.  I always knew the slave trade was bad... but seeing it on film adds a whole new dimension of disgust.  In this class we also read a personal account from a Native American who had been at the massacre at Wounded Knee - again heart-wrenching and completely eye-opening.  Our teacher gave us weekly copies of a political cartoon  relating to the subject we were studying.  The constant exposure to primary sources that relayed how people back then actually felt about an event made all the difference in the world when it came to learning about history.

And finally, I can't even described all that I learned my senior year of high school.  Loewen laments that many high school classes rarely make it all the way through a textbook (I know my classes never did).  This is in part because many texts spend pages, chapters even, discussing every detail of the Revolution or the Civil War and as a result, many classes don't learn much past that.  There are some vital parts of history that leaves out!  The World Wars, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Cold War, etc. were all topics my previous history classes just never got around to.  So sad since they are so incredibly relevant to our world today.  My history class didn't sugar coat a bit - and I loved it.  We began by reading the entirety of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  This is something most history teachers would rarely have the courage to do based on our country's feelings towards communism (wasn't that our justification for going to war in Vietnam?).  It was so beneficial to read what is sometimes described as one of the "world's most influential political manuscripts."  It made communism seem less scary and was yet another controversial topic that we were able to discuss and in turn understand - which few do.  Our textbook was hand-selected by our fabulous teacher.  It was no longer in print so our copies were quite tattered, some even missing their covers.  We read every page of that book.  We were assigned large readings every night and often that was my favorite part of homework because the book actually discussed events and people and motivations rather than trying to uphold the idea that the US has acted all this time without fault (as many other history books wrongly convey).  As a tie in, my Theory of Knowledge class even devoted an entire week to a documentary and discussion of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam- an event rarely mentioned in most texts. (Yes, I took a class called Theory of Knowledge while the rest of my school was at lunch - and I loved it.)

I always knew my high school education was pretty good.  After reading Lies My Teacher Told Me,  I feel like writing a thank you letter to all my teachers that weren't afraid of controversy.  I learned so much from them about the world and how to think for myself and will be forever grateful. 

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