Schools of “Thought”: Nationalistic Propaganda in History Textbooks

Schools of “Thought”: Nationalistic Propaganda in History Textbooks

Helen Keller was a radical Socialist; Woodrow
Wilson advocated white supremacy; within three years, the plagues brought by Europeans to
America left only one native in twenty alive in coastal New England. A student would be
hard-pressed to find facts like these, which paint America and its heroes in a less-than-positive
light, in a typical history textbook. Indeed, these textbooks have by and large functioned
as handbooks to produce patriotic, socially responsible young American citizens. By following
this goal, these books fail to convey a realistic picture of the past, instead electing to show
what popular society deems they should. Some would argue that this propaganda is reasonable
— that it seeks to inspire young people to take pride in their heritage and emulate
ideal heroes. However, misrepresentation that indoctrinates young people with patriotism
propagates a “happy-face” version of history, creates historical figures too good to be
true, and, frankly, lies to students. In both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union,
textbook manufacturers skillfully twisted subject matter to laud their respective nations
and spread their ideology. Though we may wish to believe otherwise, this practice resides
much closer to home as well — as a 1942 Office of War Information poster put it, “Books
are weapons in the war of ideas!” Textbooks, which today dictate the majority of elementary
and high school classroom activities, provide a conduit for propaganda that is unique to
American youth. History classes are especially susceptible. Often, inside the covers of thick
history tomes, America and its heroes are nearly flawless. Mistakes, disputes, and anything
that might inspire debate are largely glossed over or ignored. Above it all, a distant voice
assures students that what they are reading is the absolute truth.
Take the case of President Woodrow Wilson, for example. Today, many history texts laud
him as a champion of women’s suffrage, the reluctant hero of World War I, and a staunch
proponent of the League of Nations. However, most textbooks never hint at his significant
role in the military intervention of foreign countries or his beliefs in racial segregation.
James Loewen’s 1995 survey of twelve history textbooks failed to find any mention of Wilson’s
secret aid to Russian anti-communist forces in 1917, even though this was far from a minor
event — the Soviet Union demanded reparations for the damages incurred for the next seventy-odd
years. Furthermore, textbooks often assume a passive voice concerning the president’s
very active position on invading Latin American countries, thus insulating him from the fault.
History textbooks speak even less about Wilson’s outspoken belief in white supremacy. Wilson
effectively segregated the federal government, leaving some parts to remain that way until
beyond the 1950s. The trickles of racism from the White House encouraged a newly rekindled
Ku Klux Klan. In spite of all this, most textbooks adhere to nationalistic “heroification”
and show President Wilson spot-free. Helen Keller receives similar treatment. Elementary-school
textbooks wax poetic about the blind and deaf girl whose overcoming the odds should provide
inspiration for us all. About her later life, though, they are largely mute — perhaps
because, as a 2000 article in the journal Disability & Society reveals, she committed
herself to socialism, praised the newly formed communist Soviet Union, and marched in demonstrations
for progressive reform. Indeed, she would have likely vehemently disagreed with the
sentiment that most textbooks ascribe to her story: that is, that anyone could succeed
if only he worked hard. She wrote, In general, textbooks make no mention that Keller advocated
for the poor, actively participated in the Industrial Workers of the World, and helped
found the American Civil Liberties Union. In most texts, Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson,
and many other figures from history are portrayed as rather featureless, banally positive personages
— or plainly lied about. On the whole, history texts never mention that Paul Revere would
have almost certainly been forgotten but for Longfellow’s well-known poem; that Alexander
Graham Bell may have stolen some of his research for the telephone; or, that Patrick Henry’s
famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech was patched together 41 years later
from the memory and imagination of other people. The sum total of an overly optimistic attitude
toward United States history creates an atmosphere in which Americans are at all times tolerant,
productive, rational, amicable, and in general indistinguishable by any trait out of the
ordinary. The question now becomes whether this propaganda
in schools is justified; the answer is an emphatic no. Nationalistic propaganda in textbooks
is perceived to engender good citizenship, but may result in the opposite effect. Excluding
or evading the various slipups of the United States propagates a “Disney version” of
history; children depart classrooms with no realistic expectations of what may occur.
When real life doesn’t go according to the fairytale story, many may wonder what they
have done wrong. Are they acting un-American for this to result?
In a similar manner, American personages are stripped of their humanness to become rather
dull heroes. Like the statue of George Washington in the Smithsonian Institution, American figures
from history are portrayed as impossibilities. Instead of recounting their imperfections
and leaving their accomplishments to speak for themselves, textbooks deny students the
chance to look up to realistic heroes. Surely, President Wilson doesn’t need flattering
omissions: his progressive legislation, which established the Federal Reserve Act and an
income tax, among other things, is almost unmatched, even today. Revealing Helen Keller’s
later life might give flesh and blood to a “pretentious symbol that is too good to
be real,” as Loewen calls her. We seem to operate under the assumption that heroes can
only remain so if they are uncontroversial and one-dimensional. Then again, this leads
to more problems — discounting Wilson’s racism, for example, absolves him within the
covers of textbooks, right under the nose of every non-white reader.
However, quibbling over results may cause us to miss the point; even if propaganda in
textbooks did churn out strong American citizens, covert lies within historical accounts would
continue to be wrong. Propagandistic education persuades children not to think critically
about their society, but merely to believe in its intrinsic goodness. We strongly object
to propagandists treating us like sheep, but are content to allow impressionable young
children to learn history at the whim of popular society. The “truth” becomes marketable,
controlled by what will sell. Perplexingly enough, though, the fault for
the continuance of this propaganda lies at least partly with us, the American public.
For a country whose children’s minds are stagnated in history classes taught by flavorless
quasi-fictions, radical change is required. Every generation is taught the societal interpretations
of history of its time, only to see the ostensibly constant “truth” change later on. The
current propaganda taught in history classrooms is neither ethical nor useful, and it is a
poor example to be setting to the inheritors of our imperfect society. It’s time that
our textbooks enable our students to learn both the good and bad of American history,
to handle the inevitable mistakes that come from living in the real world.

6 thoughts on “Schools of “Thought”: Nationalistic Propaganda in History Textbooks

  1. what we need to ask is why we need to expose the people today ..this was always know right ? its being put out to be used as a rudder to change the movement in America – its part of the communist agenda .. unreal

  2. I think we all understand humans make mistakes .. do we point them out of do we point out the good in our fellow man?

  3. The Constitution states the US is an attempt at a "more perfect" union. Implies that we, like all countries are not perfect, but strive to be better. You can't really criticize elementary school books for lack of criticism, b/c those aren't college classes. And if we were to delve into the many personal flaws/prejudices of historical figures then textbooks would be thousands of pages instead of a few hundred. I challenge you to find me an accredited textbook that glorifies the trail of tears, slavery or Japanese internment.

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