James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me discusses the avoidance of social class in high school history education. A new report shows major problems with the way American textbooks teach labor history to students.
September 7, 2011

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James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me discusses the avoidance of social class in high school history education.

A new report shows major problems with the way American textbooks teach labor history to students. Specifically:

The report found that these textbooks often present labor history in a biased, negative way, focusing on strikes and strike violence while giving little or no attention to the employer abuse and violence that caused the strikes.

In addition, it notes that the textbooks virtually ignore:

  • The role of unions in passing protections and reforms such as the eight-hour work day, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, occupational safety and health, the end of abusive child labor, and environmental protection;
  • Unions’ strong support for the civil rights movement; and
  • The role unions played in the 1960s in particular, when the rise of public sector unions brought many more Americans into the middle class and gave new rights to public employees.

    AFT President Randi Weingarten said the report “explains why so few Americans know much about labor’s history and contributions.”

    "It paints a devastating picture of distortion and omission. Too often, labor’s role in U.S. history is misrepresented, downplayed, or ignored. The result is that most American students have little sense of how the labor movement changed the lives of Americans for the better. A vital piece of U.S. history is disappearing before our eyes."

  • The report is from the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Labor Studies Center and furthermore reports:

    Many of the textbooks we reviewed do not tell the full story of the existence of the organized working women’s movement in the United States, instead often focusing on middle class women. For example, the books do not tell the full story of the Lowell Mill girls’ formation of an early, all-female union, including the awareness by the Lowell Mill girls that their union rights stemmed directly from their democratic rights, and their union’s sophistication in launching a public and political campaign against abusive mill owners. Another example: the books fail to mention important women union leaders of the 19th century, such as Kate Mullany and Augusta Lewis Troup. The books do not adequately cover key events spearheaded by women’s labor unions, such as the massive 1909 Uprising of the 20,000, led by the ILGWU.

    A glaring problem in these textbooks is their omission of the role that organized labor and labor activists
    played as key participants in the civil rights movement. For example, while coverage is thin on the relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement in the 1940s, it is virtually nonexistent regarding labor’s extensive and sustained support for the civil rights struggle from the 1950s on. This is despite the fact that many unions (such as the UAW) and many leaders of organized labor (e.g., Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph) played important roles in securing the legislative and other successes of the civil rights movement. The books fail to mention Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s belief that civil rights and labor rights were naturally intertwined, and Dr. King’s own support for the labor movement. The books fail to mention the specific union involved in the sanitation workers strike that Dr. King had gone to Memphis to support when he was assassinated in April 1968, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

    This problem is nothing new and is something that James Loewen (see video above) first began discussing in the mid-1990s in Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book you need to read if you haven't already done so. Richard Shenkman also wrote about the problems with history education in the United States in Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and other books.

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