Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Maybe you can help me understand this...

So, I'm starting to re-read Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone, 1995), by James W. Loewen. I mentioned it in a post a few days ago as covering some of the same territory as Michael Parenti's History as Mystery, only in a better, more interesting way.

In the Introduction, on page 15, Loewen writes, after discussing how boring history textbooks (and especially high school history textbooks) are and how often they aren't exactly accurate:

Often a textbook is written not by the authors whose names grace its cover, but by minions deep in the bowels of the publisher's offices. When historians do write textbooks, they risk snickers from their colleagues--tinged with envy, but snickers nonetheless: "Why are you devoting time to pedagogy rather than original research?"

I knew that textbooks (of most kinds) are often not written by the named authors, but ghostwritten by publishing company employees. They're kind of like U.S. Supreme Court decisions that way; those are often written not by the Justice whose name is on the majority opinion, but by their law clerks. So that is not a shocking revelation to me.

However, I'm having a serious problem with his characterization of the attitude of many professional historians to the writing of textbooks. Why would they not want to participate in the writing of textbooks? Why would a professional not care whether or not the knowledge in their field is accurately presented to the next generation?

Maybe Loewen is exaggerating the problem? I don't know. I do know that the history textbooks I had in school, and that I've run across along the way are mostly very boring. I've never done a fact-check of any of them...although that would probably be an interesting project (yes, I'm a geek). But, despite the fact that whoever writes the books has to get a lot of information into a fairly small amount of space, I don't believe that history textbooks have to be boring and error-ridden. And certainly, even if the books are name/date/fact heavy, teachers can make the subject interesting. I've seen that done before. Not in my own junior high and high school classrooms, but that's another story for another time. It can be done.

What do you think? Can history textbooks be interesting and accurate? If Loewen is characterizing the attitude among professional historians toward the writing of textbooks accurately, do you think they need an attitude adjustment? How can that be accomplished? Do you think part of the problem lies at the hands of the textbooks publishers?

Oh, and one more question: If the minions are going to continue writing the textbooks, how do I get to be a minion? I think that would be a fun job to have. Well, maybe not if I have to do it in a basement, but still...I'm a writer, I love history, and I wouldn't have a problem with checking facts. I love to do research.

Edited to add: I do not mean to cast aspersions on the motives or attitudes of any professional historians by what I've written here. I'm asking these questions for a couple of reasons: 1) I don't know how accurate Loewen's characterizations are. 2) It is an issue that I'm concerned about as a writer; I want all books to be interesting, no matter what the subject, and I believe that they can be. I'm just here to learn.

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