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The Problem with Any World History Textbook: James Loewen and the World History Survey

Eric Lane Martin
Lewis-Clark State College

    Which world history textbook should I use? This question resurfaces on H-World annually as new groups of teachers struggle to develop a coherent world history survey course. And it is not only a question for those new to the classroom. Those of us who have taught more sections of the survey than we care to recall also ask ourselves this question time and time again. It seems fitting that the sixth issue of the newest publication devoted to world history teaching and research should discuss the value of various textbooks. The decision to use or not to use a particular textbook is of critical importance for the simple reason that textbooks offer an organizational structure to frame the course, and thereby have the potential to shape the type of knowledge and the style of learning taking place in world history surveys. But before we decide on which textbook to use, let us consider an equally important issue: why should we use a textbook in the first place? In the pages that follow I question the desirability of organizing the world history survey around textbooks through an examination of the most successful tool I have ever used in the world history classroom.
    If success is measured by lively and meaningful classroom discussion, then James Loewen's, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,1 is easily the most successful book I have used in the world history survey. The historical themes Loewen chose naturally lend themselves to a type of global contextualization that not only meets the needs of the post 1500 world history classroom, but also positions U.S. history within the broader framework of the history of the planet. Additionally, Loewen does an excellent job of analyzing the discipline of history as a whole, emphasizing the difference between national mythology and analytical history. This approach encourages students to think not only about historical content, but also about historical production.

    Loewen's introduction, "Something Has Gone Very Wrong," begins with the following statement:

High School Students Hate History. When they list their favorite subject, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history "the most irrelevant" of the twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school.2

    Although I have never asked my college freshman to list their favorite subjects, I do ask about their expectations for the class on the first day. Of course there are a wide variety of answers, some students are excited at the prospect of learning about the world outside of the Idaho panhandle where I teach, but too many students tell me that they expect a boring, irrelevant, and difficult semester from a required course. Loewen's thesis is essentially that students dislike history courses because these courses are committed to a pedagogical model dependant on poorly conceived textbooks and that, moreover, "the teaching of history, more than any other discipline, is dominated by textbooks."3 4
    Loewen's textbook critique can roughly be summed up as follows. Texts have too much information, which reinforces the idea that studying history is about memorizing names, dates, and facts — which are usually presented as disconnected. At the same time, too few texts contain primary sources. It is assumed students cannot handle the ugly truth that history "is a furious debate informed by evidence and reason."4 The narratives are predictable, portraying problems as resolved and avoiding controversial issues, frequently promoting national pride over critical inquiry. And while we tell our students that the study of history sheds light on our contemporary world, the present and past are rarely connected in a meaningful way to illuminate one another in history textbooks. Although Loewen's critique is directed specifically at American history high school textbooks, world historians would do well to pay attention to it, since we face similar problems in higher education. 5
    An additional problem with organizing a course around a survey textbook that Loewen does not address directly is that textbooks are not very effective tools for sharpening analytical thinking skills. My college teaching career has been on campuses composed primarily of working class students who were products of public education systems. Many of the college freshmen that pass through my class need to be taught how to critically read a book. How do you identify an author's thesis statement? What kinds of evidence did the author use? How did this connect with other knowledge you have on the subject? Were you convinced by the author's argument? Perhaps our students should be better prepared academically, but many are not and survey texts provide few opportunities to develop these skills. Additionally, in order for our students to become better analytical writers we need to offer models that illustrate how to set up a thesis and support it by using evidence. Due to their encyclopedic nature, world history survey textbooks — and there are some good ones —simply cannot serve these functions. This is a job for good old fashioned monographs — like Loewen's.
    In the first chapter, "Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making" Loewen examines the process of heroification through two cases studies: Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. Here he sets out the modus operandi he will use for the rest of the book, examining the hero-making process through what twelve popular high school history textbooks have to say about a topic, and then comparing that to what scholars know. In the case of Helen Keller, Loewen points out the broken link between her radical socialist politics, which are practically ignored in textbooks, and her physical disabilities, which she attributed to her social class. As for Wilson, Loewen argues that textbooks portray him as a leader who reluctantly brought the U.S. into World War I and worked to establish the League of Nations afterwards, while ignoring the imperialist interventions that occurred during his administration in Latin America and his white supremacist views. The point is not to besmirch the reputation of this or that historical "hero," but rather to point out the hero-making process. Loewen does not directly address the equally distorting counterpart of heroification, the process of demonization, but students quickly figure it out and are eager to point out cases of each for the rest of the semester where historical figures have essentially been "Disneyfied."
    Loewen's introduction and first chapter have proven excellent at provoking discussion and debate on basic conceptual questions such as: what is history, should we study it, and how is historical knowledge created in the first place? I assign these two sections for our second class meeting along with a 250 word written assignment that asks students to address the following questions: What is the overall thesis of this book? What kinds of evidence is Loewen going to use to prove his thesis? Were you able to relate to the issues Loewen brought up? Unlike survey textbooks, Loewen's book has a clear argument with supporting evidence built into every chapter lending itself to these types of questions.
    On the second day of class, I organize students into groups of five for about 15 minutes. I ask them to discuss what they have written amongst themselves and to develop some collective answers to share with the whole class. Although there are a great variety of responses, in general my students indicate that they were able to relate, at least in part, to Loewen's critique of the high school history experience. Those students who were unable to relate to negative experiences studying history are often eager to explain to the class why they liked their history courses. Usually it was because of a memorable teacher. Either way, students reflect upon the nature of the discipline of history, consider the pros and cons of the basic pedagogical tool — the textbook — and look for connections to their own intellectual experiences. 9
    The rest of the book is organized around thematic chapters that analyze what twelve popular U.S. history textbooks say and do not say. Each chapter is written in such a way that it could work as a stand alone reading, and although focused on U.S. history, the topics that Loewen has chosen to examine naturally lend themselves to discussion during the second half of the world history survey. Loewen begins by examining the narratives told about the Columbian voyages and the first thanksgiving, followed by a discussion on the absence of Native Americans in American history textbooks. All three of these chapters fit nicely within a broader discussion of the creation of an Atlantic world zone of interaction and the role of the Columbian exchange at the global level. His next two themes, the absence of both racism and anti-racism in American history textbooks, also connect into the Columbian exchange discussion as well as a discussion of slavery at a more global level. The chapters focus on a time period from just before the American Revolution through the American civil war and into the early 1900's, opening up opportunities to discuss issues related to enlightenment thought, revolution, industrialization, and colonialism. Loewen's chapters on the absence of social class from American history textbooks and on the heroification of the state also relate to a broader discussion of industry, empire, and the growth of the nation state. His critique of the absence of the recent past from most textbooks, the role of "progress" in historical narrative, and the results of teaching history like this provoke end of the term reflection by both students and teachers. 10
    Loewen does not provide a magical solution to the world history textbook question. However, Loewen does provide a clear thesis for each chapter, supported by primary and secondary sources that students can analyze critically. I use variations of the following questions for the duration of the semester. What was the thesis of this chapter? What evidence did Loewen present? Did the evidence in your reader support/contradict Loewen's historical interpretation? Were you convinced? How did this chapter fit in with his overall argument for the book? Developing answers to such questions promote analytical thinking skills. These are simply not the kinds of questions that can be asked of world history survey texts. 11
    Many students credit Loewen for helping them to get over a personal history phobia by pointing out that history is as much about the process of documenting and interpreting the past as it is about the actual past. These students are relieved to learn that there is nothing wrong with them, that history is not supposed to be read from a textbook and then memorized. Some appreciate Loewen's lowering of their historical blinders by highlighting some of the (mis)information they had been taught as history. Not only are these students interested in this new information, but it also helps some understand why they thought history was so boring in the first place. 12
    Others think that Loewen's interpretation of U.S. history is too negative, his confrontational style a bit repetitive, and his political leanings too leftist. Students do not all agree with each other or with Loewen, but the vast majority of my students indicate that they think I should continue to use the book in the world history survey because our discussions of it have encouraged them to be a more critical of the sources they use for information. Students may not agree with Loewen, but they form an opinion about his work and want to discuss it in a way that I have not seen with any world history survey text. In fact, I do not think any world history text is able to generate as much discussion as Loewen's book because most textbooks are descriptive rather that argumentative, and those that have an argumentative element to them certainly are not putting forth the argument that the stuff you learned in high school, which you thought was history, was in actuality a bunch of lies. 13
    Not only are all of Loewen's themes easily globalized, but he makes a solid effort to place U.S. history within the history of the wider world. Loewen's focus on American history texts can help students connect to larger process by starting from something that they already know, or thought they knew. However, his work cannot stand alone in a world history survey; it will need to be further contextualized in class lectures, in discussions, and through accompanying readings. I currently use Kevin Reilly's Worlds of History, which is an edited reader with both primary and secondary sources, for this purpose.5 Many of the other world history readers could also complement the Loewen book. One advantage to using such a reader is that students can test much of Loewen's argument with their own primary/secondary sources. I have found that even simple assignments, such as "did the assigned readings in Reilly support/contradict Loewen's historical interpretation?" generate lively, document based discussion among students. 14
    Now that I have questioned the pedagogical value of the survey oriented textbook, especially if one is interested in teaching critical thinking skills, I have a confession to make. In addition to Loewen and a primary/secondary source reader, I usually assign one of the world history survey texts. Most of my students know so little history that they need a basic reference text. But I have taken a new approach to the survey texts and encourage students to read them as they would an encyclopedia — in small chunks, with the purpose of getting some broader historical background. I also encourage my students to take the critique Loewen offers of American history high school textbooks and apply it to their college level world history text, an exercise which can produce some wonderful end of the semester discussions assessing Loewen, the reader, and the survey text in connection with one another. I'd like to find a monograph that served a similar function as the Loewen book for the pre-1500 world history survey, but the expanded time scale of the pre-1500 survey has made this a much more difficult task. 15
    I do not think that it is pedagogically desirable to organize the world history survey around an encyclopedic textbook. This model reinforces the myth of an authoritative, all encompassing meta-narrative that need only be memorized. It also reinforces the idea that the field of world history is limited to issues related to teaching the surveys. In both instances, world history is implicitly defined as content -- the history of everything that happened in the world. Promoting world history as a conceptual approach to content, even at the survey level, would help distinguish the specialized characteristics of the field, including world history research. 16
    It is clear, however, that students need a resource that provides basic historical background as well as an introductory bibliography from which to begin their own historical investigations. And the truth is that many teachers/professors have never given the field much, if any, thought until they received a world history survey as part of their course load. So it is not just students who need such a resource. Fortunately, the field of world history has several good texts that accomplish these tasks. The trick is providing a resource to students (and teachers) who need it and using it effectively, without allowing that resource to dominate the organizational structure of the course in such a way that students (and teachers) disengage because they are overwhelmed by content. 17
    This last summer the issue of improving the historiographic consciousness of the field was raised at the fourteenth annual meeting of the World History Association in Ifrane, Morocco. Participants in the discussion argued that future world history research, methodology, teaching, and conceptualization would all benefit from a stronger awareness of the field's historiography, which could be developed through a more explicit use of this literature in our research and teaching. At the same time a debate concerning exactly what the world history literature included also emerged. A very useful discussion for future issues of World History Connected, or on the H-World listserv, could focus on various sets of books that together form the backbone for a coherent world history survey, both pre and post 1500. I'd like to hear from those who have successfully disposed of the world history survey text all together. I think such a discussion would not only improve our historiographic consciousness, but would also promote the development of world history surveys based on monographs, journal articles, and primary sources. Such courses could bridge the gap between world history 'the teaching field' and world history 'the research field,' furthering the intellectual development of both. 18
Biographical Note: Eric Martin is an assistant professor of history at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. He received his Ph.D. from Northeastern University in 2002 and is one of the Editors of H-World as well as a Co-Editor of the World History Section of History Compass.  


1 Touchstone Press, 1996.

2 Loewen, 12. Emphasis in original.

3 Loewen, 13.

4 Loewen, 16.

5 Kevin Reilly, Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader, 2nd edition (Bedford/St. Martins, 2003).


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