By Megan McDermott
Sociologist and best-selling author James Loewen has a habit of turning common knowledge on its head. His most popular book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, exposes supposed facts as mere oft-told fables and shines light on the truths, too often glossed over to maintain biased, bland historical narratives.
I was assigned the book for Advanced Placement U.S. History the summer before my senior year of high school. Not all the facts or falsehoods stuck with me, but Loewen’s desire to overhaul the teaching of history did. He wanted students investigating, interpreting, discovering; history wasn’t something he wanted students to memorize, but rather, do.
Familiarity with Loewen’s book led me to hear him at Susquehanna’s Alain Leroy Locke Lecture in November, sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Social Justice. Loewen’s speech packed Faylor Hall. His topic, titled The Most Important Era in American History You Never Heard of, and Why It’s So Important, covered the nadir of race relations from 1890 to 1940, a time of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and construction of Confederate monuments.
Loewen claimed that the Neo-Confederates won the Civil War during this time. His lecture proved that ideological victory can be even more powerful than a militaristic one. Sundown towns, all-white towns that barred minorities after dark, embodied this terrifying power. In one of the most chilling examples, Tulsa, Okla., attempted to drive out its black population by having airplanes drop dynamite on black communities in 1921. Loewen found 504 sundown towns just in his home state of Illinois. To this day, sundown towns are impacted by their history and severely lack diversity.
Though Loewen’s research appears extensive, he requires more if he hopes to pinpoint all the sundown towns across the country. He encouraged the audience to find sundown towns on their own and aid with their recovery. Loewen’s three-step plan for such towns—admit, apologize and never repeat— sounds simple enough, but the task itself is intimidating. What I am quick to dismiss as impossible, Loewen viewed as something all audience members, including me, were capable of accomplishing.
During the Q & A session, he lamented the failings of history education, saying, “We’re teaching twigs.” The implication was that we need to move beyond glancing at twigs and get our hands dirty shaping the historical landscape.
Overall, the passion and philosophy of Lies My Teacher Told Me were personified in its author. And perhaps that personhood points to a major difference between college and high school. In high school, I read this man’s words. He was another book, a summer assignment. But in college, he stood in front of me. He was a person, a vibrant being with a lot to say to his audience and just as much to ask of them.
My freshman year at Susquehanna confronts me with the same proposition Loewen did in his lecture: do more.
In high school I created a portfolio of short stories and poems with the help of a great teacher. In college, my Introduction to Fiction class with Professor of English and Creative Writing Tom Bailey required me to push my fiction to the next level, to re-haul and rethink rather than merely revise, and to write pieces of more complexity and substance. In high school history classes, analyzing primary documents was expected and practiced. Such analysis became even more essential when taking Latin America, 1492–1825, here at Susquehanna. In this class, I was held to a higher standard of depth, insight and intelligence. High school journalism courses provided interviewing and writing experience, but my assistantship working for Susquehanna Currents has made me more disciplined in improving these skills. Even student activities I’ve joined ask me to step up my game. For instance, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Lutheran Student Movement challenge me to grow in my faith.
Just as history shouldn’t be sugarcoated and simplified, neither should any aspect of college life, academic or otherwise. This year is a year of peeling away any leftover sugary layers. This year is a year of being asked to do more. And hopefully, this year is a year of my meeting that challenge—though I’m not promising any historical discoveries just yet.
Megan McDermott is a first-year creative writing major from Lewisberry, Pa., and a contributing writer to Susquehanna Currents magazine.