I learned it in History; so it must be history!
August 11, 2006 11:13 PM   Subscribe

What are some things that are taught as History in a college/higher learning setting (as a piece of, or as the whole) that aren't fully supported by facts (such as documents, carbon dating, etc)?

I realize this is a question that can invite very ludicrous and batty answers... But, I'm wondering if there are things that are currently being debated as to whether or not they are fact-- but in History classes (especially non-specific/non-niche courses) are being taught as true history ('This happened'). And if that proves to be extremely difficult (as it may), how about some examples of things that were taught, up until somewhat recently, in this way, but are now seen in the regard I'm describing.

I forsee there being a lot of answers regarding science, but I'd actually be more interested in examples in a history-book context. "I learned this happened... wait... it didn't? But, uh, college said it did!" Yeah, that type of thing.

It's late... I hope this makes sense.
posted by defenestration to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Lies My Teacher Told Me

Woodrow Wilson founded the League of Nations...
... and was a monstrous racist.

Helen Keller was the plucky blind girl...
... and she was a Communist.

Nathan Bedford Forrest has more monuments in his honor in Tennesse than any other person...
... and he founded the Klu Klux Klan.
posted by frogan at 11:57 PM on August 11, 2006

That book should be called Lies My High School Teacher Told Me in 1965.
posted by LarryC at 12:31 AM on August 12, 2006

With regard to high school history classes as compared to college level elective history classes, I noticed a difference that involved not so much outright lies as omissions of inconvenient truths. High school history in retrospect seemed much more like a "cheery, ultra patriotic" version of the truth, whereas the things I was exposed to, mainly through primary source documents and frank discussions, were of a more sobering and balanced kind.
posted by odinsdream at 1:51 AM on August 12, 2006

* exposed to in college, that is *
posted by odinsdream at 1:52 AM on August 12, 2006

I think this crap is mainly limited to high school. I didn't do much history at university, but in the years since then I have yet to come across any indications that anything we covered as established (as opposed to contraversial) was in fact still contraversial or unsupported. It seemed that when material was contraversial, we were aware of that.

As you say, science-wise there is plenty. Newtonian physics for example, is used because it works, but I think even at the highschool level students are taught that Newtonian physics does not hold true always.

I also sat in on a peace studies course. There was a bit of a political bias in that one, which sometimes warped the how and why some things happened, so plenty of contraversial stuff presented without the contraversy there, but it doesn't claim to be a history course.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:15 AM on August 12, 2006

You might find 'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey interesting. This is a fictional story that aims to debunk the image of Richard III as a monster that had been created by the Tudor historians and, in particular, Shakespeare. It mentions several myths about history.
posted by rjs at 2:40 AM on August 12, 2006

Well, I doubt you'd get much of that in collage, since history classes are either electives or (if you're a history major) pretty in depth. My middle school teacher once said Nixon lost his re-election bid.

One I remember well is about the Boston Massacre. The way they teach it makes it seem like people were just standing around and then got shot. In actuality, people were throwing rocks, etc. I remember that because I did a debate about it in middle school and we did all this research, ended up pwning the side defending the colonials.
posted by delmoi at 2:48 AM on August 12, 2006

I don't know of any fictitious events that I was taught as fact in college History. What I did see was a lot more information about motives (as compared to high school). My college profs spent a lot more time on why things happened. In HS, for, instance, the American Revolution happened because the Noble Patriots loved Their Freedom, so they embarked on their Heroic Struggle (similar to what Chinese kids are taught about their revolution, but with inferior sculpture). Since so much of the material in college dealt with motives, it was obviously open to interpretation.

This probably varies from one college or professor to another.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:11 AM on August 12, 2006

History is a *hotly* debated field, just like any other heavily studied field. But, just like other fields, this controversy and debate is rarely even touched on, let alone discussed, below the collegiate level.

Looking for specific examples can get tricky though. You can't exactly apply lab techniques to an entire historical event! Individual pieces are verified all the time though, and constructing these pieces into something like a whole is what writing history is all about.

History is another one of those fields tat the further into it you, the more you realize we really have NO frickin' idea! Which is why I like it so much...
posted by schwap23 at 6:14 AM on August 12, 2006

Speaking as someone with a degree in history, I'm not sure that you will find what you are looking for.

In middle and high school, there are quite a few things that are left out - or could be called misleading - in the textbooks. There are a lot of "brave americans fighting the bad person" scenarios that show up.... as an example, my high school textbook ( I still have it somewhere around here) mentioned Wounded Knee II, although it left out any of the details.
Instead, the book showed a picture of a man holding a rifle and laughing. The caption for the photo said something like "rebellious American Indians attempt to hold the community of Wounded Knee hostage."

Or something insane like that...

Most college professors have a lot of fun debunking high school texts. As a student, I remember thinking that I hated history - until my professor in my first history class at the university stated that "we might as well just forget everything that we learned in high school, since all of it was complete crap."

Sure, if you dig deep enough, you will find errors - but you may have to narrow your search a bit. Perhaps you could pinpoint a particular university or text. I'm not sure that there is "one big universal lie" that is currently being taught in college history classes.
posted by bradth27 at 6:59 AM on August 12, 2006

As you say, science-wise there is plenty. Newtonian physics for example, is used because it works, but I think even at the highschool level students are taught that Newtonian physics does not hold true always.

Newtonian physics is a special case of general relativity; it's not false.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:07 AM on August 12, 2006

I was always ticked off by being told that "women used to have no rights/ have been opressed for thousands of years/ were mere property until a few years ago/ men had all the fun". Maybe in some cultures but not mine. Some of the oldest known sets of laws outline all kinds of rights for women including property ownership, marraiges and divorce, custody etc. Besides, the vast majority of both sexes were treated like crap throughout much of history.
posted by fshgrl at 2:22 PM on August 12, 2006

The answer to this question rests on how later-debunked "facts" were presented to students. Here's an example that will illustrate the point and give you the sort of example you're looking for. Up until very recently scholars were absolutely certain that Aeschylus wrote one of his plays, The Suppliant Maidens, near the start of his career. They based their reasoning on stylistic considerations as well as comments from Aristotle in the Poetics. The details aren't all that important for the purposes of this discussion. The point is, up until very recently, students would have been taught that it was one of Aeschylus' earliest plays.

Anyway, evidence came to light to completely destroy this certainty. Now everyone is absolutely certain that the play was written much later, near the end of Aeschylus' life. To get an idea of the degree to which scholars were certain of the now-debunked dating of the play, Seth Benardete, a highly respected translator and scholar, went so far as to suggest that scholars now need to figure out why Aeschylus wrote the play and stuffed in his drawer for decades!
posted by smorange at 5:17 PM on August 12, 2006

I think that junior high and high school textbooks will almost always be deficient. The defeciency I suffered was a near canonization of all Native Americans. I think textbooks were attempting to right the wrongs of textbook past by focusing soley on the wrongs (and there are a lot of them) that imperialist America suffered up on them. Not that this is a bad thing, but it tends to give the reader a sense of complete and total victimization of the Native Americans, when in actuality it was far more complicated. Not all tribes were perfect, and that was a hard peace pipe to smoke, for me. For example, I had no clue how barborous the Iroquois were towards the Huron tribes, nearly wiping them out of existence. I was stunned when I read the accounts of the torture that the Iroquois would employ against their captives. "Native Americans couldn't do that!" I yelled.
posted by allthewhile at 9:44 PM on August 12, 2006

Are you talking about stuff that was taught in history classes, or is taught in history classes? A lot of Mefi members are in their 30s, and when they were in high school, the curriculum was apparently very different from what it is now. I graduated from high school in '04, and the fact that Columbus was a bad guy (for example) was never a surprise to me -- I learned that in middle school and had it drummed into my head every year since. Same deal for a lot of the other stuff that's usually mentioned when this topic appears.

See if you can sit in on some classes. If you're interested in high schools, find a small local one. Call to talk to the principal, and ask if you can listen to a history class or two out of curiosity (you may not want to state your agenda up front). If you're interested in colleges, just audit a history course. Those are the only ways you'll find out what's being taught now. And don't go in with too many preconceived notions.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:14 AM on August 14, 2006

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