Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ignorant Irony: The very best kind

Since I've begun my teaching credential program, I've had several professors recommend James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. After flipping through one of his other books a few months ago and liking his style (Buchanan was gay? Neat.), decided to follow up. Luckily, there are oodles of used bookstores around me so procuring a copy of LMTTM was not too hard (or expensive).

It's been quite a read, with interesting tidbits and much good food for thought in terms of how to present history in a way that's interesting, relevant, and honest. Particularly useful have been Loewen's points regarding POV in textbooks-- and how by whitewashing and simplifying history into "white folks good, others bad," everybody loses, particularly since then white students not only can't relate to European-American personalities, they also find them boring as hell.

This is only relevant because, as it turned out, Tucker Carlson has made a really, really bad education documentary (contains link to Youtube version) that Fox was constantly broadcasting (and promoting) a few weeks ago. Carlson couldn't really decide what he wanted his whiny movie to be about: PC censorship, gay agenda, kowtowing to Muslims, or the textbook industry being generally sucky, but the second segment really stuck with me just for its sheer dishonesty.

The lead-in was a rant about Columbus. Since I had just finished reading Loewen's chapter about Columbus, I was intrigued. First, one woman complains that her kid was "brainwashed" into being so anti-Columbus that his whole class decided that Columbus did not deserve a holiday. She and Tucker complain bitterly about how one-sided the text the class used was. The text? Bartolome de Las Casas, a near-contemporary of Columbus, a Spanish settler of America, who happened to become an anti-slavery activist horrified by his countrymen's atrocities. Granted, one can hardly call Las Casas unbiased, but it's not like he was making his stuff up. His activism is documented, and corroborated by Columbus' own accounts of what he was doing in the Caribbean.

Most people probably don't know about Las Casas. I hadn't until last week, when I read LMTTM's second chapter, which happens to be about Columbus. Loewen calls Las Casas "the first great historian of the Americas, who relied on primary materials and helped preserve them." He praises Las Casas' work as giving Americans a valuable insight to Columbus' real, not mythical, actions, and bemoans that many textbooks refuse to include it. In Loewen's words,

When [history textbooks] leave out Las Casas, they omit an interesting idealist with whom we all might identify. When they glorify Columbus, our textbooks prod us toward identying with the oppressor.

Elsewhere Loewen capably points out that the historical record clearly shows Columbus to be a violent conqueror, a ruthless exploiter or resources, a racist, and a brutal slaver. This does not preclude him from being brave or successful, by the way, but, at best, one can say that Columbus is a problematic person to try to glorify to schoolkids (and were it not for his popular place in American consciousness, we probably wouldn't bother-- no teachers waste their time trying to claim that Louis XVI or Tamerlane were the best people ever, for instance).

These details about Columbus are not propaganda, but actual facts, and relevant ones, to boot. They are particularly relevant because Columbus became a model for later Europeans in their interactions with Natives elsewhere in the Americas, for instance, John Smith in Jamestown.

I thought about all this while watching Tucker Carlson pooh-pooh Las Casas and the anti-Columbus children, who had clearly been brainwashed by reading actual history by an actual contemporary. And I thought, "I wonder what James Loewen would have to say about this?"

Just like that, the next cut, shows a distinguished looking, older white gentleman. I squint. I check the name underneath the talking head. "James Loewen, author, Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Hey! What a coincidence! I was excited. This would be good.

But... it was not to be. Loewen was talking about problems with the textbook industry, in particular, state-wide-adoption of curriculum. There was no question about Columbus, no reference to his book, no context connecting it to the previous "example." Nothing. Your average observer of the piece would have assumed that Loewen's book had been about liberal misinformation, when in fact his classic book, now almost 15 years old, focused on how "classic" American myths, still found in textbooks in 1995, were based on distortions and feel-good pabulum, designed to reinforce class, gender and racial status-quos.

If Carlson had been interested in an actual discussion, it would have been perfect. But he wasn't. I wonder if Loewen has seen the documentary? Does he know the sad irony of the final editing?

Carlson couldn't even be bothered to pick an angle and run with it, so the end effect of his "documentary" is a disjointed and confusing mess: the viewer knows textbooks are bad, but doesn't know why, or how they can be improved. Even more depressing, the bald-faced lie-by-omission in including Loewen but not his book lets one of Carlson's most basic claims go unchallenged: that the problem with textbooks is that they are too PC or left-wing, the implication being that before the world "became PC," history textbooks were "just fine." Loewen spent an entire book exposing this as pure nonsense. It's particularly ironic because the example Carlson used is one where he and his "expert" angry grandmother do not offer any facts to justify their indignation at kids having problems with Columbus; rather, they are outraged by the mere suggestion that he might not have been a saint and automatically accuse the teacher or the text of "bias."

Maybe this is all part of Tucker's big point: who needs a textbook when you don't bother to read in the first place?

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