Wong: I was talking with a colleague about her history-education experience, and she recalls never learning what happened after the 1960s; I don’t remember my history classes ever extending beyond that period, either. Is that common? And if so, why is it that U.S.-history classes so often fail to teach students about the country’s more recent past?
Loewen: The recent past is always more controversial. It used to be that classes never even reached the war in Vietnam—even today that happens. Nobody’s going to get in a big fight with their parents about what their teacher said on the War of 1812, but what about when a teacher says the war in Vietnam wasn’t in our interest, that it was a terrible mistake, that it was done for domestic political reasons? What about when a teacher says that Bill Clinton shouldn’t have been impeached? Many Americans, and a lot of those people are still alive, so teachers often decide: Let’s not emphasize the recent past.
I argue that anything with implications for the present is de-emphasized. For example, we can talk about slavery because it ended; it now has become an American success story because we voted it out and fought it out. What about racism, though? Racism was, of course, the ideological justification for slavery. Slavery and racism were tightly entwined, but while slavery ended in the 1860s, racism doesn’t just end. We should discuss what caused racism to endure. If you can’t use history to illuminate racism, what is history good for?
Wong: Isn’t it possible that history books are just really long, and that—perhaps because of poor planning—classes simply run out of time to teach the last few chapters?
Loewen: Certainly time pressure and the felt need to cover so many topics play a role. But I’d argue that that poor planning has an interest behind it because the earlier history is less controversial.
Wong: You write in the new version of Lies My Teacher Told Me that “there is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.” What do you mean by that?
Loewen: Take, for example, the way textbooks handle the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The practice was hardly a secret—at the time it was well covered in the press. But what did the textbooks say in 1947? What did they say in 1950, or 1960? Well, they said very little about the incarceration; they just had a couple of sentences, if anything, and sometimes they even tried to justify it. But then the country changed course and paid $20,000 to every survivor; the federal government issued a formal apology. After that, some textbooks have two whole pages on this, with pictures, denouncing the practice. Why did the textbooks do that? Now that they have justice in the present, it makes it easier for us to face the past. And the reverse is also true—it’s a two-way street.
We want to hear what you think.to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How History Classes Helped Create a ‘Post-Truth’ America – The Atlantic