Perils of Historical Misinformation: Devising Myths for the Masses

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Did George Washington really chop down the cherry tree? While it is true that there has not been much public debate regarding the accuracy of historical events taught in American classrooms, the perils of massive historical misinformation – to generations of youth – should cause red flags in the minds of responsible adult citizens. James Loewen in his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” agrees that most young American audiences “sleep through” history classes. (p. 3). Loewen subsequently asks, “What has gone wrong?” (p. 3). The point being, that if there were so many extraordinary and fascinating people from times past why are history books so thick, and the lessons so boring? 

This synthesis essay discusses the opinions of two authors. Daniel Hade's “Lies My Children's Books Taught Me: History Meets Popular Culture in the American Girls Books,” and the position of James Loewen is up for analysis. After presenting both their frames of reference, an attempt will be made to explain their reasoning. The implications for poorly informed students who do not have any authentic knowledge of history are both stunning and disturbing. 

For starters, Daniel Hade unfolds the background of The American Girl Collection founder's creation and intention. Hade offers that Pleasant Rowland heads up the company, with a purpose to sell dolls and books that bring “American history and the roles girls played” come alive (p. 153). The millions made by the firm attests to vast popularity of the magazine, dolls, and the 'Samantha Ice Cream Social' clubs around the country. Mostly held in libraries, according to Hade, these sessions require the 9-year-old girls to dress up. While in their fancy best and most prissy fashions, they sing songs,  fold “Victorian napkins,” and operate an old-fashioned ice-cream maker (p. 155). Each doll has a state and time-frame of historical presence. For example, Felicity Merriman is a Virginian representing the era in 1774. Hade continues, Kirsten Larson as immigrated from Sweden has settled in 1854 Minnesota. And so the varying makes and models of dolls go. The Addie Walker doll is “an escaped slave living in Philadelphia in 1864” Hade remarks (p. 153). Of course.

Hades emphasizes the widespread distribution of the American Girl books, as well. In quoting the best guess of book sales numbers, Jeanne Brady places 1993 sales at “10 million copies,” with the  Meet Samantha, Meet Addie, and Meet Kirsten series all well over 1 million in sales (p. 154). Hade goes on to describe the terribly expensive price tags of the dolls, costing at least $82 (at the time of this publication's printing) which is pretty outrageous for the average family. Hade seems to believe that correct historical depictions cannot be accurately captured in cute little tales, wherein each historical doll has essentially the same birthday, the same Christmas party, and so on. Hade objects to a lack of true historical reality being unconnected to the dolls/books, groaning “Somehow, it seems strange to attract children to a historical museum to learn about people who only exist in books” (p. 154). The museum events ticketing, he complains are quite expensive at $25. 

Hade's reasoning does not seem to suggest he would have American Dolls sell a bruised and bloodied doll, who maybe has lost a limb or has become blinded by shrapnel during the Civil War, for example. Imagine that – a one-eyed doll on crutches. Yet Hade realizes that children are intelligent. They do not need simplistic versions of what passes for genuine historical references. His logic leads him to conclude that children as young students of history, need to be able to connect a living present, with a living past that extends on a continuum. 

Descendants and events of the past must be seen as real. This is an element that makes true historical investigation so exciting and full of wonder. You get the idea that Hade is simply wanting to put flesh-and-blood on the situation, in a more realistic way. James Loewen makes an impressive imprint in the quest to clarify the falsehoods of history taught in American curriculum. Loewen, amazed at the growing thickness between the pages of American history books marvels over some new ones – nearly six pounds! He likens the textbooks to a generalized buffet or mishmash of information. Declaring “No longer is there any need to supply students' with nine months reading between the covers of one book, written or collected by a single set of authors” (p. 4). Furthermore, Loewen worries, teachers spend ever more time enforcing students to “deal with its hundreds of minute questions and tasks” (p. 4). In discussing hero-making Loewen makes it plain. 

There is diversity in humankind. Such is the case when historical story-telling is correctly, or more realistically delivered. Loewen mentions Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman graduate from medical school. Loewen also lifts into view, the incomparable playwright Lorraine Hansberry author of “A Raisin In The Sun.” Loewen argues that “biographical vignettes” do “show diverse ways that people can make a difference” in stark contrast to the solely “monolithic” white parade of “political leaders” (p. 12). Setting the record straight about Helen Keller, Loewen ponders why the history books omit the greater part of her adult life. It is common knowledge Keller was a blind and deaf young girl, and that is the extent. Loewen points out “the truth is Helen Keller was a radical socialist” marching literally, in supporting the woman suffrage movement, during the women's fight for equality.

Another completely radical act – especially for a the time – Helen Keller sent a $100 donation to the NAACP, an organization dedicated to the equality of black Americans. This is not to persuade one to agree with her politics, but simply to round out the landscape of what real history is. Loewen passionately is adept at giving example after example. From Christopher Columbus to Haiti, Cuba, Woodrow Wilson, and more; there is evidence of a much different historical reality than what has traditionally been stuffed down the psyches of American youth. President Woodrow Wilson, Loewen claims was intensely racist. Loewen quote a publication on this from, Triumph of the American Nation that Wilson “seemed to agree that segregation was in the best interest of blacks” and everyone else (p. 22). Loewen proceeds. It was not just the color issue Wilson felt irritated about. Generally, according to Loewen he did not like anyone who disagreed with him. Rewind back to Christopher Columbus.

In an entire chapter dedicated to the matter, The True Importance of Christopher Columbus, a traditional verse profoundly makes the point. The saying goes something like this: 'In fourteen hundred and ninety three, Columbus stole all that he could see.' After recounting the familiar story in virtually every American textbook, Loewen booms that most of the information is unverifiable in terms of the pristine heroic heritage, so often panhandled onto the kids. The often-repeated story begs a lie. Loewen outlines a more rational approach. Giving a detailed chronicle of Columbus' explorations as tied to further European pursuit of arms and social technological advancement, some astonishing statements ring true. 

For one thing, Loewen affirms is the greedy pursuit of gold and massive wealth. Loewen refers to Columbus's own words that, “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world...” (p. 36).  There also was a European arms race in the 1400s, of which the Americas fell prey. And at a point the “thirteen British colonies tried to outlaw the sale of guns to Native Americans” (p. 35). Sound familiar?  

Loewen deftly connects that bit of past to today. He cleverly fast-forwards to the United States' current effort in desiring to thwart the sale of nuclear weapons technology to “Third World countries,” and on it goes to matters involving Iraq and Al Qaeda (p. 35). Loewen arrives at several conclusions all to bring the key analysis into better focus. There is a myriad of 'histories' that comprise the overarching academic curriculum of history teaching from K-12. Loewen rightly and neatly connects the past to its future (the present) by the example above. What is so wonderful about Loewen's assessment is that he draw upon a wide variety of cultures and experiences. The main point is that everyone has a valid contribution to history. The Irish did not only drink whiskey, Blacks did not only pick cotton, Hispanics had done more than labor in grape vineyards, and so on. 

It might be interesting to research the inventors of the traffic light, the origin of the first book-bag, and firefighters breathing apparatus. Next, Loewen expands the case of the Vikings' expeditions criticizing the fact that most historical accounts in textbooks minimize them. He informs that the expeditions of these Norse men grew out of a “colony on Greenland [which] lasted five hundred years” and some archaeologists and historians place the Vikings “as far down the coast as North Carolina” (p. 42). The overall tragedy is that American students' ignorance of a more balanced view of commonsense history places them at risk to the development of any sobriety in their worldview, despite their political beliefs. 

The implications of such a poorly formed dialog about past events and an even-handed look at the contributions of a diversity of peoples severely handicaps one in trying to deal in today's global climate. The world has changed. No longer are people boxed off into their private territories. The Internet and the worldwide economy, with lightning speed pace has seen to that. Increasingly, opinions around the global stage deem many Americans as devoid of any prudent evaluation of a matter. History matters. That is – history counts. 

Hopefully, through a growing collection of efforts from parents, educators, teachers, and other responsible adults will encourage critical thinking among students of history. The good guys do not always win. The bad guys do not always wear black hats, either. Taking the shrewd approach, that learns to question events and investigate more deeply the lives of others that went before is admirable. There must be a mitigation of the perils of historical misinformation. Otherwise individuals will simply float along in society, as dense as ever, unable to cope in a changing world of diversity. What a sad commentary for descendants of the United States to be remembered for. 

It has been said that 'thoughts are things.' Understanding how politics, institutions, public administration, world finance, economics, and the rest are all tied to a foundational comprehension of history. Historical misinformation contributes to skewed thinking, damaging the mind. 

Works Cited

Loewen, James W., and Inc OverDrive. Lies my teacher told me everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

McGillis, Roderick. “Lies My Children's Books Taught Me: History Meets Popular Culture in “The American Girls” Books.” Voices of the other: children's literature and the postcolonial context. New York, NY: Garland Pub., 1999/2000. 153-164. Print.  

Greene, Stuart, and April Lidinsky. From inquiry to academic writing: a practical guide. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. Print