“This chapter is about heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes.” According to the text, biographical sketches (“vignettes”) also provoke reflection as purpose in teaching history. “Whose rise to prominence provides more drama?” The choices are debatable, but “surely textbooks should include some people based not only on what they achieved but also on the distance they traversed to achieve it.”
It has been proven that what most students know about Helen Keller is just that she was a blind and deaf woman, who lived in Alabama and was “unruly and without manners” until her teacher, Anne Sullivan came along. They also know that with the help of Anne Sullivan, she learned how to read and write, and even speak. Few students know that she graduated college. But about anything that happened afterwards, about her entire adult life, they were “ignorant”.
From pages 14 to 22 of this book, James W. Loewen talks about things I didn’t know or learned about Helen Keller’s adult life and President Woodrow Wilson’s life. Keller became a social radical, even before she went to college, she learned how the social class system “controls people’s opportunities in life, sometimes determining if they can see”, when she became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet, she devoted much of her later life to many things such as raising funds for the American Foundation for the blind, and composing essays on the women’s movement, politics, and economics. President Wilson led our country reluctantly into WWI, invaded Latin America, and much more.
There are many history textbooks that heroify Wilson, but “The possibility that the electorate knew what it was doing in rejecting Wilson never occurs to our authors. It occurred to Helen Keller, however. She called Wilson ‘the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!'” “In the case of Woodrow Wilson, textbooks actually participate in creating the social archetype.”
Textbook authors “want us to think well of the historical figures they treat with sympathy.” When textbook authors leave out the problems, the mistaken ideas, the warts and the unfortunate character traits, they reduce heroes from dramatic people to melodramatic “stick figures”. Their inner struggles disappear, and they become “goody-goody”, not simply good.
American history textbooks present Columbus without precedent and present him as America’s first great hero. American history books ignore the many flaws that Christopher Columbus had and portray him as being more heroic than he truly was. Textbooks imply and emphasize the belief that modern technology is a European invention. Textbooks ignore the achievements of other influences of many non-western societies upon the New World.
Loewen compares textbooks to show that African and Irish exploration of the Americas is biased. He shows that West African exploration is dismissed while Irish exploration is included.