Lies in the Classroom

History is like maths. Things which already happend and which are therefore easy to tell. But that depends on who’s telling it.

In reality, history is a very biased area of teaching and especially a very biased way of thinking. History is not just what-really-happened-in-the-past, but a complex intersection of truths, bias and hopes.”  It lies in the nature of history that some things are forgotten and others are added on purpose. In a book dedicated to the topic, the author, James W. Loewen, writes:  “the teaching of history, more than any other discipline, is dominated by textbooks… the books are boring… [they] exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character” Here are some projects aimed at getting things right:


If we look through our history books it seems as if “our society in general was the society of MEN”. However, some women did not let themselves be reduced to cooking and educating the children, they actually made history. The project She-Story wants to “make visible some extraordinary women that contributed the development of the society of the Mediterranean with their work and life, but didn’t gain enough attention and recognition in the past.”


History has always meant “national” history. A way of telling the past in which the own national is the (mostly heroic) centre of the world. A new project based in Holland is now offering history teachers a tool to teach their subjects with different points of view. Historiana “provides content that is inclusive for all people, regardless of their cultural, religious or ethnic background. Alternative themes and topics such as Human Rights, Migration and the Environment, are integrated alongside traditional ones such as the World Wars and the Industrial Revolution.” Generally, Historiana offers a new way of approaching history education, an approach which is “learner centered, and promote key competences, such as critical thinking and multiperspectivity”.

Zinn Education Project: Teaching a people’s history

For the US, you can find a enriching list of projects on how to teach history with a more critical view here. The Zinn Project’s “goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates.” Here’s also a video worth watching. It focuses on Mexican American Studies and the right to tell your own history.

Finally, to get back to Columbus, just think about him for a second and what they told you about his adventures in school. Now, read these lines taken from Lies my teacher told me:

  • “Columbus claimed everything he saw right off the boat. When textbooks celebrate this process, they imply that taking the land and dominating the indians was inevitable if not natural” (44).
  • Most important, [Columbus’s] prupose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. If textbooks included these facts, they might induce students to think intelligently about why the West dominates the world today” (45).
  •  “Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass” (60).
  • Columbus’ story really is “.. one of the primary instances of genocide in all human history” (64).
  • “Columbus is not a hero in Mexico… Why not? Because Mexico is also much more Indian than the United States, and Mexicans perceive Columbus as white and European. “No sensible Indian person,” wrote George P. Horse Capture, “can celebrate the arrival of Columbus.” Cherishing Columbus is a characteristic of white history, not American history” (70).
  •  “The worshipful biographical vignettes of Columbus in our textbooks serve to indoctrinate students into a mindless endorsement of colonialism… the Columbus myth allows us to accept the contemporary division of the world into developed and underdeveloped spheres as natural and given, rather than a historical product issuing from a process that began with Columbus’s first voyage” (70).

So what alternative is there? The Rethinking Columbus Project says: “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is a foundation of children’s beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child’s first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.”

Rewriting the truth about colonialism is a big task but first steps are being taken.


3 thoughts on “Lies in the Classroom

  1. Good post! It’s important to remember context too though. In Columbus’ time, the late fifteenth century, his European counterparts considered his actions perfectly acceptable. They may have even considered the people he met in the Caribbean and North America to be less than human – so dominating and slaughtering these people was something like herding goats or cattle. Five hundred years later we have evolved, and now see these actions for the atrocities that they were. These things are no longer considered acceptable, which is why people protest when they happen – for example, the US-led operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya in thinly-veiled efforts to exert control over dwindling oil reserves.
    This makes me wonder what things we do today will be considered unacceptable five hundred years from now. What do we consider perfectly normal today that will be considered barbaric in future? Some things seem obvious: globalization of labor; the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxins; genetically modified organisms, and more. But more curiously, what things might we feel quite innocent about today because we are not considering the true impacts and true costs of our actions? I suspect that 1850 to 2050 will be considered a particularly wretched period of humanity.

    • Very good question, Rob: “What do we consider perfectly normal today that will be considered barbaric in future?” It’s good to ask that from time to time.

  2. The problem happens when we stop researching and finding out for ourselves and just take it for granted that the establishment that is “teaching” our children is actually unbiased and there are no agendas out there to mislead them. Our children are no different to what we were when we were children. The only difference is that the media has had a whole lot more time to work out how to influence them and thanks to technology, they are easier to affect en mass. Our children are also taught not to rock the boat and to settle for mediocre. A tame population is an easily led population that accepts what they are told. The positive side to technology is that our children are also being exposed to positive messages thanks to social networking sites that “out” news articles that would otherwise have never been told. We can find things out for ourselves if we are willing to take a look. Cheers for those great links Rahel. Have a great weekend 🙂

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