Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lies and the Lying Teachers Who Teach Them

Here's what I, as a somewhat educated feller about to become an elementary teacher in the public school system, where there seem to be Rules and Expectations that private places don't emphasize as much, have been thinking about lately:

How do public elementary teachers deal with teaching the Great American Myths that are passed off as Unimpeachable Fact in the country's classrooms?

The most blatant example here in Texas is our ballyhooed "independence" that we "won" from Mexico. The Texas-Mexican war is passed off as some sort of counterpart to the American revolution in miniature, when the stark truth is that Mexico allowed Americans to settle on their land and in no way deserved to get that land outright stolen from them by the settlers. Looking at it utterly objectively, the Texicans really were the bad guys in that scenario.

Or Lewis and Clark, that beloved pair of American "pioneers." One book compares their expedition to the moon landings in the '60s. Complete hogwash. Lewis and Clark went nowhere previously untouched by white people. They found sturdy wooden cities, built by Indians, that had a greater population than Washington, D.C. at the time; they met traders from Philadelphia, French-Canadian trappers, and Englishmen; they passed mountains that had been named by English explorers years before; they dealt with American Indians who spoke English and traded goods from Boston, Europe and (East) India. Not to mention that they traveled in a group of forty or more, including slaves and soldiers. Hardly the two lone trailblazers, arm in arm with Sacagawea, that popular opinion makes them. (Also, Lewis got shot in the ass by one of his own sergeants on the trip, which is not really germane, but amusing as hell).

And the list goes on. The myth of rags to riches as the rule, how we "saved Europe's ass" in WWI, the treatment of Amerinds in general, etc. American history is full of cherished and erroneous myths.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that per se. Most nations have their myths; France likes to believe that it was one of the Allies in WWII, for example. And myths can be good for a nation, though it is odd how often we give credit where it's not due (Lewis and Clark) and ignore others who deserve our praise (the thousands of brave families who crossed the country in covered wagons in the 19th century).

My question is, what ought a teacher teach? My immediate impulse, of course, would be to teach the truth, or at least as much as young minds can be expected to handle developmentally. But policy and politically-wise, what would be the ramifications? Would a teacher who taught the truth about Texan statehood or Lewis and Clark be reprimanded, or fired?

Or does it really just not matter, since all schools teach to the standardized tests of their state, anyway?

***

[EHT (of History Is Elementary) replied:

I say way to go Chance. Way to go! I cannot agree with you more. I don't think you were reading my site when I wrote about George Washington many moons ago. The post is called George, We Hardly Knew Ye.....and was prompted by a conversation I heard from two lower grade elementary teachers who were teaching myths as truths to their kids.

I think you are doing students a disservice if you don't show them both sides of a coin...Columbus was not "saving" the savages when he arrived in Carribean...the Europeans were not civilizing the savage...the Europeans did not have a right to begin colonization since the land was already settled...

However, there is a fine line you ride when you do this. I want my students to love their country warts and all but by showing them the warts we run the chance of making them cynical and untrusting. It's sort of like growing up and coming to the realization that your parent makes mistakes. You have to come to grips with that, accept it, yet still love and respect your parent.

I'm sure there are many other teachers who do this but not only do I bring out the fact that the Texans were technically on the wrong side of the argument I remind students that the Sons of Liberty who participated in the Boston Tea Party were destroying private property. We also talk about the great minds of our Founding Fathers and how they wanted liberty yet they were unwilling to resolve the slavery question at the outset during the Constitutional Convention.

Luckily I've never seen a standardized test that asks questions based on a historical myth of untruth. In Georgia our "test" is based on the standards, so I if I stick to the standards which is chronological American History I'm good to go. In a way I teach to test, but I'm teaching the standards too. I don't feel as if all I do is teach with the test in mind. I'm aware of how the questions will be posed and I'm aware that maps, charts, and graphs will be used to present information. This means I try to incorporate analysis of maps, etc. into each and every unit I teach.

It's so easy to be misled in history because there are so many resources that are wrong or not factually correct...I catch myself all the time having to change how I think about something as I discover new information I didn't know existed. Unfortunately there are too many teachers that I've witnessed who are unwilling to go beyond the textbook and actually become more knowledgeable about what they teach therefore they don't have the knowledge to manipulate the content from unit to unit in order to make long range connections.

This is a great topic. I'm glad you wrote about it.]

8 comments:

EHT said...

I say way to go Chance. Way to go!
I cannot agree with you more. I don't think you were reading my site when I wrote about George Washington many moons ago. The post is called George, We Hardly Knew Ye.....and was prompted by a conversation I heard from two lower grade elementary teachers who were teaching myths as truths to their kids.

I think you are doing students a disservice if you don't show them both sides of a coin...Columbus was not "saving" the savages when he arrived in Carribean...the Europeans were not civilizing the savage...the Europeans did not have a right to begin colonization since the land was already settled...

However, there is a fine line you ride when you do this. I want my students to love their country warts and all but by showing them the warts we run the chance of making them cynical and untrusting. It's sort of like growing up and coming to the realization that your parent makes mistakes. You have to come to grips with that, accept it, yet still love and respect your parent.

I'm sure there are many other teachers who do this but not only do I bring out the fact that the Texans were technically on the wrong side of the argument I remind students that the Sons of Liberty who participated in the Boston Tea Party were destroying private property. We also talk about the great minds of our Founding Fathers and how they wanted liberty yet they were unwilling to resolve the slavery question at the outset during the Constitutional Convention.

Luckily I've never seen a standardized test that asks questions based on a historical myth of untruth. In Georgia our "test" is based on the standards, so I if I stick to the standards which is chronological American History I'm good to go. In a way I teach to test, but I'm teaching the standards too. I don't feel as if all I do is teach with the test in mind. I'm aware of how the questions will be posed and I'm aware that maps, charts, and graphs will be used to present information. This means I try to incorporate analysis of maps, etc. into each and every unit I teach.

It's so easy to be misled in history because there are so many resources that are wrong or not factually correct...I catch myself all the time having to change how I think about something as I discover new information I didn't know existed. Unfortunately there are too many teachers that I've witnessed who are unwilling to go beyond the textbook and actually become more knowledgeable about what they teach therefore they don't have the knowledge to manipulate the content from unit to unit in order to make long range connections.

This is a great topic. I'm glad you wrote about it.

Geri said...

I also agree. Our children deserves to know the truth. If we don't share this to them, who would? They'll probably understand why it has to be that way.

Ed said...

That's the spirit. Students will never know about the secret if teachers would keep on telling them lies. They have the right to know the truth about it.

Frank said...

This is a great discussion. Of course, I agree with you. We keep on telling our children to tell the truth. Now that it's our turn to tell them, it would be unfair on their part if we don't tell them the truth.

By the way, I got your link from EHT.

Chance said...

Thank you for your input, spam-like webpages.

Larry Cebula said...

The worst part of the mythical history that public school teachers are sometimes expected to teach is that it makes the students both bored and suspicious. The little moral set pieces that roll out in the traditional narrative ("Then the brave Texans were overwhelmed by the numerous smelly Mexicans") are so predictable as to be uninteresting. And they are so duplicitous that any fairly bright kid eventually figures out that she is being lied to. Conclusion: History is a boring set of lies.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Anonymous said...

"The most blatant example here in Texas is our ballyhooed 'independence' that we "won" from Mexico. The Texas-Mexican war is passed off as some sort of counterpart to the American revolution in miniature, when the stark truth is that Mexico allowed Americans to settle on their land and in no way deserved to get that land outright stolen from them by the settlers. Looking at it utterly objectively, the Texicans really were the bad guys in that scenario."

I believe the trashing of the Mexican Constitution and Santa Ana setting himself up as dictator had something to do with the Texican revolution....and there were other Mexicans who rebelled against Santa Ana for the same reason.

Texicans? Bad guys?

No.

Chance said...

If you say so, anonymous. Can't say I agree that revolution was the Texicans' business.