I just finished reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. This is a very thought-provoking book about how history and social studies are taught in our high schools. The basic premise is that high school American history texts are dumbed down, kept vanilla and don’t introduce controversy that could provoke interesting discussion in school. Through publishers walking the political line to get texts accepted in schools, to teachers not having time to check original sources to augment text books, the picture portrayed by Loewen shows high school students getting a bland picture of American history that primarily promotes a “feel good” image of the United States being the “good guy.” One-sided heroes are portrayed. One example: Woodrow Wilson is described as a promoter of peace without his other side of starting a number of wars in Central America and instigating racist policies in the Federal government. Another example: Helen Keller’s struggle to overcome blindness and deafness is portrayed without describing her adult life. She went on to become a radical socialist, a side of her character that is not covered in high school history books.
With the polarization in politics in our country, an implied message to me is it would be useful to have high school students exposed to different viewpoints and discuss both the positive and negative of historical people and the impact they have had on our country. Rather than rote memorization, it would be constructive to have text books that challenge our students to think and give them an opportunity to do research to understand opposing positions on critical topics.
Loewan gives five questions that should be considered in research. These apply equally to writers as to history students:
- When and why was this written?
- Whose viewpoint is presented?
- Is the account believable?
- Is the account backed up by other sources?
- How is someone supposed to feel about the image portrayed?
Likewise, the message I took away from this book also applies to mystery writing. As authors we need to have characters with dimension. We can’t have protagonist that are only good and antagonist that are only evil. Our heroes need flaws and our bad guys need to have redeeming virtues. This makes the conflict in the story compelling and not just a melodrama.