Sociologist James Loewen questions American historical narratives

March 24, 2014

By Matt Hawkins

Sociologist Dr. James Loewen suggested an innovative classroom approach could excite students about learning from history. Loewen, the keynote speaker for the Illinois Council for the Social Studies Spring Conference, encouraged educators to teach beyond texts to engage their students and to narrow performance gaps.

“There’s a new emphasis on critical thinking, not just in social studies but in English, math and science,” Loewen said. “Therefore, teachers are beginning to feel safer about getting students questioning. Students always wanted to question rather than memorize. The future of the past looks pretty bright.”

The Decatur native has written several books that research untold or sanitized episodes of American and European history. “Sundown Towns” investigated U.S. communities that barred blacks from living in communities. “Lies My Teacher Told Me” challenged the narratives often told in American history texts.

By utilizing primary (original) sources or oral histories, Loewen believed teachers could spark students’ interest in reflecting on the past.

As an example, he pointed to a research project by two Springfield junior high students on the city’s 1908 race riot. The students presented their research to the city council, which led to a 2008 centennial commemoration of the event and a historical walking tour of locations important to the riot.

“If you turn your students loose on this subject or any other, look what they might accomplish,” Loewen said.

Sundown town discussions are ripe for discussion inside and outside classrooms because 77 percent of Illinois communities have been identified by Loewen as confirmed or probable sundown towns. According to Loewen’s research, Peoria and Princeton are among the few Illinois River communities without such a past.

In this context, conversations begun in classrooms can yield changes to communities that still struggle with the past.

“If towns apologize today, people will benefit from it. It’s current practice until it’s undone,” Loewen said. “More than half the people are not in favor of being sundown towns and would like the truth to come out so the town can transcend its past.”

He blamed part of achievement gaps on popular textbooks that distort key events in American history by writing from a white or European-centered perspective. These historical accounts, he believed, ignored complexities and contributions by nonwhites. As a result, the straight “facts” tune out many youth who don’t relate to the textbook accounts.

“It should be social studies and history more than any other disciplines that bring people together,” Loewen said. “Instead, it’s the cause of this.”

Teachers who think outside the book, though, can make a difference.

“Americans are very interested in the past,” he said. “Most are dissatisfied with their K-12 history experiences because most classes teach the book. If you teach from outside it, your class will be one of the students’ favorite classes.”

Loewen’s appearance, coordinated with assistance from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, continued Bradley’s yearlong Civil Rights Act celebration.