Heroification in American History: The Process of Hero-Making

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.” – James Baldwin Heroification. It’s a word that you’ve probably never heard but has influenced every single day of your education. Now I’m not telling you great American heroes aren’t worthy of your honor and consideration. What I am asking is for you to dig a little deeper about the “heroes” we as a society uphold and how they achieved that status in the first place. In 1995, historian and sociologist, James Loewen, published a bombshell of a book titled, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong. The title alone is intriguing! In his work, Loewen analyzes 12 different American history textbooks and comes away with a startling truth: we sure like make our “good” guys sound, well, really good. It’s not a bad thing when credit is truly due, but there are also numerous “heroes” in our history that got that way because of influence from textbooks or an effort to sterilize otherwise controversial topics. I want you to read the first chapter from Loewen’s book entitled, “Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-Making.” He will dissect two American icons by examining not only how they became some prominent, but also what students actually know about them. Think about some of the American legends you know from the periods of class we’ve learned about this semester. People like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, etc. come to mind. But what do most students really know about these figures? Well, Washington was the first president, of course! But…then people tend to trail off, not really knowing much beyond that. Think about another popular American icon – Christopher Columbus. You read about him while completing the reading guide, but what did he REALLY do for American history? How is he perceived in our collective memory? We know he “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492 and most Americans still believe he “discovered” our now-country. But in reality, he landed in the Bahamas (and later Hispaniola and Cuba) and is responsible for the death of nearly 100,000 Arawak Indians in modern day Haiti and he Dominican Republic. So, take the opportunity to really think about who we hold in high regard and a person (or people) you think need more time in the spotlight. I’m not trying to make this sound “conspiracy-ish”. I’m talking about a hard look at what qualifies someone to be a national hero. Think about it another way – in early American history, whose poster would you want on your kid’s wall? (I mean, if your kids are cool like that and have historical figures on their walls…..) Read chapter 1, “Handicapped by History” from Lies My Teacher Told Me answer the following questions in ESSAY form. Your paper should be 2-3 pages minimum, typed, size 12 font with normal margins, and double spaced. **Please do not answer these questions in the form of a worksheet – this will result in an automatic 15% deduction for failing to follow directions. Piece your thoughts together in a fluid report. And please, for the love of Michael Scott, PROOFREAD AND SPELLCHECK. Please?** Directions and questions are continued on the next page… To access the reading, go to the following website and scroll to CHAPTER 1. You might want to print these 19 pages for ease of reading and/or the ability to highlight. Website for reading: http://tinyurl.com/fesperman-essay2 Questions for this reading: 1. What does James Loewen say is the process of “heroification?” What about “archetypes?” Why is it such an issue in our American history textbooks and how educators teach the subject? 2. Even though Helen Keller is outside the scope of our class, think about what you learned about her growing up. Does it fall in line with what Loewen experienced in his classes? What is the biggest “surprise” for you reading about her life in Loewen’s summary? 3. What about Woodrow Wilson – what stood out as surprising compared to your history classes? Do you believe that Presidents should be “immune” from negative press or poor historical analysis because of the high-pressure nature of their job? 4. After reading the entire chapter, what is one or two arguments or reasons Loewen gives for WHY textbooks authors tend to glorify American heroes? (He gives a bunch – just pick out one or two that really stand out to you). 5. Take a moment and scroll through a chapter of our textbook for this class. Did you notice any of this “glorification” while you read for your reading guide/scrolled just now? What about a textbook from high school? Do you remember anything about them that coincides with Loewen’s argument? If not, what about his argument do you disagree with? 6. Think back to Loewen’s discussion on Michael Frisch asking his classes to “name American heroes from before the Civil War” (on page 42). Who are some of the heroes you grew up learning about over and over again? Take one of those people and do a quick Google search on them (Wikipedia is good too). Tell me something surprising you read about them that was NOT in a history textbook (make sure you give a quick shout out to the source in a citation). Why do you think this particular person was glorified in American history textbooks? Betsy Ross was a compelling figure to point out. My personal favorite for “over-glorified national hero” is Paul Revere or Christopher Columbus. 7. Pure opinion time – what do you think of history textbooks in general? We (history teachers) often need to rely on some form of written text because it’s just too darn hard to cover every single topic in class. How did you like the book for this course? What other types of medium would you like to see more of in history classrooms? Be honest here! I didn’t write the book, so you won’t hurt my feelings

THE PROCESS OF HERO-MAKING
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