Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Where You Get Your History

From Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen (revised edition, page 45):
Standard history textbooks and courses discriminate against students who have been educated by rap songs or by Van Sertima.
Um... Yeah. Let me see if I've worked up any indignation over that. Nope. Doesn't look like it.

Loewen is upset that not enough emphasis is put on Phoenician maritime accomplishments, which predated those of early Portuguese and Spanish navigators by some 2000 years. However, the reason he's upset about this is that he feels it minimizes the accomplishments of black people (he likes calling he Phoenicians "Afro-Phoenicians.) It's true that the Phoenicians settled North Africa (their city of Carthage famously squared off against the Roman Republic) but they originated in the Middle East. Indeed, they were a Semitic people and are among those referred to in the Bible as Canaanites. Like the Egyptians (another group whose accomplishments are often mined by "Afrocentric" accounts) they would not have looked much like the modern African-American students that those like Loewen are eager to inspire with their accomplishments. This is nothing against either the Phoenicians or modern African-Americans. But if one is for some odd reason convinced that in order to be interested in history one must hear about the exploits of people who look like you, then the Phoenicians are not much help to "Black History".

And either way the Jungle Brothers (whose song "Acknowledge Your Own History" Loewen diligently footnotes) are simply not among the scholarly sources we need to take seriously in the school room.

UPDATE: More generally on Lies My Teacher Told Me, it's certainly a book which is opinionated enough to be a page turner, and Loewen does successfully criticize some tired old mythologies about US history, which I can believe do occasionally show up in text books. However, there's something one can criticize in analysis, error or omission on nearly every single page -- something which is particularly hard to overlook given that he's put himself in charge of criticizing other people's analysis, errors and omissions in detail and with vigor. And particularly trying is that after criticizing mainstream textbooks (which it is certainly not controversial to assert are often dull and based on very old research mixed with unsubstantiated tropes) Loewen often trots out his own tropes (footnoting some secondary or more often tertiary source) which are just as trite and inaccurate, and only have the virtue of aligning more with his ideological stance. He does make some useful complaints (some of which, like the minimization of the Spanish element in American history, would even be of particular interest to Catholic educators) but it's mixed in with a lot of very frustrating stuff.

I'll probably be posting more on it later.


Foxfier said...


Donald R. McClarey said...

Ignorance and Ideology can always be relied upon to produce awe-inspiring nonsence when applied to history.

Joseph M said...

Read this book (and his 'Lies Across America' follow-up) years ago, and, at the time, found very little offensive in them, and in fact really appreciated him bringing attention to bear on the whole process by which 'history' textbooks are prepared.

Maybe I'm just inured to progressive nonsense after these many years. Or maybe I need to reread them now more critically.

Can you please give some examples of treatment you found particularly objectionable?


Donald R. McClarey said...

Go here for an interesting run in between James Loewen and David Horowitz

"Loewen’s contentions about Columbus summarize the problem I have with the use of his book as a college text at all, let alone as the sole historical text for a course in American Studies. He claims that Columbus made two innovations that were revolutionary, robbing and subjugating indigenous peoples to the point of extermination and creating the slave trade. I pointed out that Columbus did neither (and I don’t agree with him about Columbus as he falsely claims).

Loewen tries wriggle out of the first gaffe by ignoring the Aztecs who were racist imperialists indigenous to the hemisphere and then by explaining that Roman imperialism was benign. This is impressive ignorance, even for James Loewen. Consider this well-known passage from Tacitus: “It is difficult not to remember what another rebel leader, in the highlands of Scotland, is to have said about the Romans before he, too, was defeated: ‘They rob, kill and rape, and this they call Roman rule. They make a desert and call it peace.’ This famous quote has become the very definition of the pax romana. So even if we accept Loewen’s view of what Columbus did, he wasn’t the first – even in this hemisphere -- and far from being a revolutionary departure from the past it was more like humanity as usual.

In making these momentous errors, Loewen has been misled by a passionate hatred for his own country unchecked by historical knowledge. The fact that other leftist academics have such low intellectual standards as to consider his work scholarly and assign it in classes or that professional historical associations have become so politicized as to confuse political correctness with accurate scholarship and reward him with honors is regrettable. But that doesn’t change the facts.

Loewen’s evident pain in publishing this article is something like the pain of a jilted lover. Yes I was once a deluded leftist like him, hypercritical of the world’s greatest democracy, and ready to turn a blind eye towards the crimes of indigenous peoples. But I put off these childish things long ago and learned to appreciate the fact that the world was more complex than “progressives” dreamed. I would be more interested in his complaints, now, if he showed the slightest aptitude for intellectual argument. I have actually written entire books explaining why I am no longer the man who wrote The Free World Colossus. I am waiting for the leftist who is up to taking them on."

Darwin said...

Joseph M,

I think he's right to criticize the committee writing (and approval) process for textbooks. Anyone who's dealt with intro level survey texts is familiar with what a travesty they usually end up being. (Loewen argues this is unique to history, but my dad used to have endless frustrations with elementary and high school level physics and astronomy texts.)

Also, Loewen is right to pin the tail on some tired old saws about American history which, while they've mostly vanished in the last 20 years, one still runs into. (Columbus being the brilliant guy who figured out the world was round being a prime example.)

What bugs me is that while getting these things write, he gets so many minor details off or wrong as well. His conviction that the Phoenicians were black (and he goes on for a couple pages about Phoenician navigation and how it shows that the Spanish and Portuguese weren't doing anything new) is one odd example.

Other issues in that chapter include:

- In looking at the (often not very good) treatment of why it was that Europe suddenly exploded into exploration and colonization activities around 1500 and went on to dominate the whole world, he faults books for stating that after the Turks captured Constantanople in 1453, trade with the far east stopped. He blames this on anti-Islamic prejudice and says that the Turks wanted European trade with the Far East because they made money on it, and then trots out the old line, "College students today are therefore astonished to learn that Turks and Moors allowed Jews and Christians freedom of worship at a time when European Christians tortured and expelled Jews and Muslims."

On the trade question, it's true that the Turks made money of heavily taxing European trade with the Far East, but he misses that this was in fact one of the main reasons the Spanish and Portuguese wanted to find another route: Turkish taxes were in fact incredibly high, and they insisted on certain things going through their own middle men. This was so costly that the Spanish and Portuguese thought it would be far more profitable to find their own route.

And on the tolerance question, while it's true that some Muslim areas were tolerant at some times (just as some Christian areas were at some times) they were far from universally so. Any in-depth reading about how the Turks dealt with their Christian subjects (and the wars between the Turks and various European powers) underscores the utter and complete savagery which each side was capable of using against the other with great frequency.

Darwin said...

On page 35 (still talking about reasons for the Age of Exploration) he says:

Perhaps foremost among the significant factors the textbooks leave out are advances in military technology. Around 1400, European rulers began to commission bigger guns and learned to mount them on ships. Europe's incessant wars gave rise to an arms race, which also ushered in refinements in archery, drill, and siege warfare. Eventually China, the Ottoman Empire, and other nations in Asia and Africa would fall prey to European arms. In 1493, the Americas began to succumb.

Now, it's blindingly obvious that military superiority was one of the key factors in the success of the Spanish (and later other countries) in dominating the Native Americans.

However, the above paragraph suggests that Europe was far ahead of China and the Turks starting in 1400 and that this was due to Europe engaging in wars more often than the rest of the world. (Those damn Europeans and their militarism again!)

However, it really wasn't until the 1700s that Europe started to pull solidly ahead of the Ottomans (arguably they surpassed the Chinese earlier, but there were so few Europeans making it to China it didn't matter as much.) The Ottomans were a major existential threat to European power at least until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and arguably until the failure of the second great Siege of Vienna (by the Turks) in 1683 -- nearly two hundred years after Columbus' time.

He then lapses into an indignant discussion of how the US seeks to keep up this advantage even today by denying nuclear weapons to third world despots -- which leaves one wondering: would things really be better if third world despots did have nuclear weapons?

Donald R. McClarey said...

Of course even against some of the native Americans, the European military advantage, at least on land was not that pronounced. For example, Cortez and his men quickly adopted the quilted armor of the Aztecs which they found preferable in a tropical climate to their metal armor. The arqubueses they carried were notoriously inaccurate. The same could be said for their slow firing artillery. Their biggest advantage probably was in the small number of cavalry they had, as the Aztecs had never seen horses. As the Aztecs became more familiar with the Spanish, the shock effect wore off. But for pathetically poor leadership and disease, I think the Aztecs could have prevailed against Cortez and his small band.

Trying to read Leftist political sermons out of fairly distorted history is a common trope of Loewen.

Joseph M said...

Thanks, good examples here and in the subsequent post. Read Loewen years ago and my chief memory is of his well-aimed attack on textbooks by political committee, and of his attacks on some early American hagiography, which seemed good to me at the time.

Survey courses, in general, seem to be designed to inoculate the student against ever learning anything about the subject surveyed. Reading a survey of philosophy, for example, has almost nothing to do with reading the philosophers themselves. Yet millions of college grads thing they understand Plato, because of what some textbook told them about Ideas and the society envisioned in the Republic.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

And so, where does that leave the rest of us who have only learned about history what we were taught in school...which it seems clearly can't be relied on.

If we don't already know what happened, how are we to know who (what texts?) to trust?

It's this kind of thing that makes me (and others) so frustrated as to maybe just not care. Find a book so you can learn more only to learn that you're (again) being taught the wrong things.

Darwin said...


That's a good and fair question. I'd like to see if maybe I can answer it more extensively (though not necessarily more conclusively) in a whole post in a day or two, but a few thoughts:

I think part of the issue is that a topic like "American History" is so big that it's nearly impossible to do anything like justice to it in a single book. One of the areas I think Loewen is right to criticize high school textbooks is in being far too long, and yet even at such length they're necessarily still very cursory, treating many important and complex issues in just a few pages. (In addition to pointing out that they're long and cursory, Loewen also lists a lot of topics which are ignored or barely treated -- and in these respects he's often right.)

One of the things about history is that it's the story of many, many people -- each one of whom if you had access to all possible information is an interesting person you could spend a lot of time trying to understand. There's just a lot out there.

In that sense, I think it's often going to be more revealing to read a number of books on specific topics and periods in American History than to look for a single survey text. When looking for such books, something which makes a lot of use of primary sources (letters, first person accounts, diaries, etc.) is always a plus. First person accounts are, obviously, not always reliable. But it at least gives you the interest of reading about what people found important at the time, and hearing them in their own voices.

(This isn't specific to American history, but one great resource in this regard is the anthology Eyewitness to History edited by John Carey, which contains first person accounts of historic events and places throughout history. The selections are all quite short, often 3-8 pages, and highly readable.)

For a general survey, one thing you might try is a set of college-level lectures from the Teaching Company or one of the iTune University courses. (I listened to the first edition Teaching Company course on American History some years back, and while there were certainly strongly biased sections, I have to say it was one of the more interesting general surveys I've run into, and it referred me to some very good sources. I haven't heard their current edition. If you ever consider getting anything from the Teaching Company, do so from the library, used, or on their periodic sales. The "normal" pricing is absolutely ludicrous.)

Hope that helps a bit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much.