Monday, May 11, 2009

Lies My Teacher Told Me

My dear aunt, who teaches history and is a bit more liberal than I, gave me copy of this book by James Loewen back when it was released in the mid-1990s. I recall enjoying the book at the time mostly because of the plethora of trivia missing from my high school history textbook. Interestingly enough, I believe I found online the history textbook I used in class back then, which is one of the texts Loewen takes to task in this book. It's been many years since my time in history class during the late 1980s so I couldn't swear to this being the exact textbook, but the cover of this one certainly looks very, very familiar. I was curious to read this book again but having little time for actual reading, decided on the unabridged audiobook via iTunes.

For the most part, Loewen's book is still very enjoyable. Some of it seems dated to me now approximately 15 years later, but part of this could be because I was more interested in listening once again to trivia from our history that isn't generally known rather than listen to his criticisms of old history textbooks. Having been out of high school for an even longer period of time may be a factor in this as well. Ever since I can remember I've been an avid reader and have had a voracious appetite for all things involving history. I share his distaste of how poor high school textbooks are, or at least were when his book came out years ago. In school, my history textbook was the only one I ever recall reading from cover to cover and was usually left with an empty feeling afterwards as if there wasn't enough there. This is why I always supplemented my class textbook with whatever I could find in the library.

With regards to Loewen's book itself I'd have to say that the author is an accomplished story-teller and the narrator for the audiobook did a good job as well. It is quite apparent to me that Loewen is much more liberal than I am and I would say was heavily influenced by events during the 1960s. For the most part that is okay as I enjoy good history regardless of the subtle or not-so subtle bias. I have found that if one reads a variety of different perspectives than they will be able to learn far more than if they just rely upon whatever is most comfortable to their way of thinking. Yet there are times in the book where Loewen's bias breaks any pretense he may have had of being the objective historian and can be quite stark. I enjoy being challenged by authors and not coddled, yet I do not like having my intelligence insulted by an author trying to be too clever by half. Perhaps the most egregious example I found of this, where Loewen can rightly be charged with hypocrisy given his critiques of other historians, was the use of Senator John Kerry's infamous testimony before Congress in 1971 concerning atrocities by some U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. To rely upon such a source as Kerry and the discredited Winter Soldier Investigation is particularly galling since there are far more credible sources out there. This also brings his treatment of modern history into question in my mind, especially concerning Vietnam, since his politics seem to overpower his training as an historian. To put it in terms from his book, he seems to do a far better job with zamani rather than sasha. It is true that I do not come to this free from biases myself. I am the son of a Vietnam veteran and served years later myself in the U.S. Navy. I've had a deep and abiding respect for the military ever since I can remember which may affect how I view this, which my more conservative political views undoubtedly color as well. Yet even keeping in mind that none of us is completely free personal bias, I found Loewen's telling of the Vietnam Era to be highly suspect probably because it was so glaringly obvious. Overall though, despite its weaknesses, I still would recommend picking up a copy of this book for there's just too much in it that left me eager to explore other sources for more. I suppose as long as one remains mindful of the author's bias, as well as their own, this is probably the best one can say about any good book. Enjoy.