Lie Spotters Social Studies Manual

Rich Gibson 2003

I have long used James Loewen's Lies My Teachers Told Me in my social studies education classes. Invariably, a good question comes up: How do we spot lies? I sought to design something brief, about two pages, and readable. This is it.

1. Criticize Everything. To do so, pay attention.

2. Ask radical (to the root) questions, that is: where does this come from? What is this connected to? Who does it serve? What is the other side of this? What is unseen or unsaid? How can I get from what appears to be, to the essence of something? Your struggle for what is true or false is organized by your method of thinking.

3. Know yourself--in relation to others--and know the terrain. Check both accuracy and context. Your theory sets up all that you see, and is corrected by tests in practice, reflectively.

4. Engage. Act. Test. Then evaluate, and engage again. Reflection is key.

What follows merely expands on these points.

The question, "How do we struggle for what is true?" is the key question that should be raised in every class. That question is at the heart of all of philosophy and science since the beginning of human time. It takes a complex answer--more complex than can be offered here. This is a mere beginning.

Even so, if you have a good sense of history, and a theoretical approach that is at least systematic, and does not rely on magic for proofs, you will do ok.

Nothing comes from nothing. There are no absolute beginnings. That means things have proximate causes that can be found, with work. Always place things in context, in the appropriate history. Cause and effect understanding is vital for understanding what is true, but without context, it can be misleading. In history textbooks, in many cases, causes are hidden, sometimes by omission, other times by deception. To say, "The US entered World War I to make the world safe for democracy," is assuredly not true. When missionaries were forcing Indians to be Christians, slave labor was certainly as much at issue as was the cross. When looking for causes, it is wise to look for the dollars (exploitation of people, markets, and nature) that might be veiled behind ideological claims.

All things are interrelated, so statements that suggest that things are not tied together (as in: the war, politics, and the economy are separate matters) are probably not true. Thus the notion that the US won the war in Vietnam, militarily, is wrong. Proof: the US had to withdraw. The U.S lost, in part because its leaders could never grasp the relationship between commitment, consciousness, politics, productive capability, and military action. The US military and political leadership saw things as disjointed, political commitment could be imposed on mercenary troops, and a mercenary government created by the US.

Things change. If something suggests that they don't, it is not true. This is an element that is usually left unsaid. It is like the wallpaper in a room, there but unnoticed. Most US textbooks treat US rule and capitalism as permanent, the highest stage of possible human development, which is not only unlikely, but not possible. Things change--for sure.

If you grasp the ways that things change, dialectics, you will do better still. One way that things change is that quantity turns into quality, that is, many small things, sometimes appearing to be unrelated, build up, come together, and form a big change. This is true in evolution and society, as in the build-up to the civil rights movement, or the Vietnamese resistance to the French, Japanese, and US invasions. It is true in teaching. Consider the many pedagogical efforts that are behind one student's "Aha!" moment. Search for those relevant quantities around you, and keep an eye on the horizon for big changes. This is an era of epic change.

Criticize everything. Ask radical questions (to the root of things). For example, in political science, ask, "Why have government? Where does it come from. Did it always look like this? Who does it serve? In economics, ask: What does this have to do with the social relations of people in their struggles to survive? Where does poverty come from-and wealth? Pull together political science and economics, ask: Why is it equally illegal for a rich person and a poor person to sleep in the park?

Know yourself, and your standpoint, in relation to others. As a teacher, your social position sets up your outlook. I believe what most influences your social position is your relationship to work, as part of the working class. While teachers are somewhat more privileged than industrial workers, or the jobless, teachers still must work to live, exert less control over their workplaces than more, and must serve at the behest of a chain of bosses. Teachers are professionals when we devote ourselves to our kids, parents, and communities, but too often we are told that professionalism means willingly taking wage cuts, working long hours with no recompense, attending mandatory training sessions beneath our intellectual development, and buying classroom supplies that should be provided by the districts. Locating yourself within the working class, as a member of the working class, influences all that you see-as does denying your location. For all their irredeemable flaws, communists and anarchists have paid a great deal of attention to the workers of the world, so examining what they did, or are doing, may be worth the candle.

Engage, then see. Truth is tested in social practice, so, go find out. Truth cannot be found, or verified, in faith, or in a textbook, or on an answer sheet. It is discovered by engaging with the real world. To really know something, whether it is an orange or a workplace, or a philosophical theory, you must try to change it: test.

Truth is always located within a given context. It is possible to be accurate, yet wrong. For example, a recent letter to the NY Times described the great work performed by US soldiers in El Salvador, in 2003, in building an elementary school. Did they actually build the school? Yes, they did. But what of the context? If one does not know that the US sponsored terrorist war against the people of El Salvador, over the course of the last 50 years and more, costing thousands of Salvadoran lives, and kept the mass of people impoverished; then one would not recognize the reason that people in El Salvador need the US military to build schools-and the irony in the letter to the Times. Or, take technological advances, which can be wonderful--unless they are only used to lay people off. In teaching, it is quite possible to correct a child's wrong answer, with the right answer, yet for that teacher's reaction to be insensitive, and hence wrong. It follows that there are answers in history, if you pay attention and know where to look.

History comes fairly easily if you pay attention during your time on the planet. Since all of human history is social, just as all forms of communication are social, it makes sense to keep an eye on how we organize our social lives--an evolving process related to how we work and interact with nature in order to live. Work, over time, created the possibilities for surpluses, and with those surpluses came levels of inequality. From that rose the age-old stories of Masters and Slaves. The relationship of Masters and Slaves is a good metaphor to understand much of history. At the base of that is the exploitation of labor, the battle against rational knowledge, the fear of sexual pleasure outside exploitation. In a society that is based on commodity production (and profits), it is easy to forget about the labor that goes into the creation of all things, from a Big Mac to a Textbook. "Where is the work in this?" is a good question to ask.

Labor is key to human life, as are sexuality and the struggle for rational knowledge, reproduction and reason. If you keep your eyes (in our era) on the activities of poor and working people, internationally, as a class, you will find clues for what is to come--and what most people are not noticing.

The Master/Slave metaphor is applicable to most of history. It simplifies the question of standpoint. What is true for the Masters is often not true for the Slaves, yet only the slaves have an interest in what is most broadly true. When you witness historical Masters suggesting, "We are all in this together," ask: "Who is we?"

The Master/Slave relationship, or the class struggle, gives rise to the Critique of Tyranny, or, the struggle for freedom, community, and creativity, in all aspects of life and social change. In this struggle, it is reasonable to suggest that every significant social idea is stamped with the brand of one class or another; nothing socially important is neutral. It would be in the interest of Masters, for example, to convince people that only Great Men, or Natural Laws outside the conscious working of people, create history. In contrast, evidence suggests that it is the (usually friendly) connections masses of people make through systems of production and exchange that lead to sweeping historical changes, such as the transformation of feudalism to capitalism.

Oppressed people always fight back, in a variety of ways, usually using methods that are quite reasonable in retrospect. For decades slaves in the US could not revolt and expect to survive. But they could break their tools, watch the masters carefully, cause field fires, etc. At the moment in the Civil War that it was clear that mass slave resistance offered survivable chances, thousands of slaves rose up, joined the Union Army, and were key to defeating the slaveholding south. Slavery has usually been linked to racism. When you see domination, look for racism. Since the Master/Slave relationship, tyranny, has a long history, it is common for it to be seen as the norm, and for reputations to be built on protecting normalcy. Remember, many respectable people at the time called John Brown a terrorist.

When you hear that oppressed people are happy being oppressed, you can assume that is a lie, and begin to look for unnoticed ways they are resisting. Oppression, though, is powerful. If context and standpoint are important, then how does the experience of a slave assist in seeing beyond the horizon of slavery? What breaks the cycle of domination and oppression? I think it is the incessant struggle for the truth and freedom--overcoming those who profit from resisting it. The struggle for the truth is simultaneously theoretical and practical, an interaction which is played out in life everyday.

You, in your relationships with others, are a maker of history and change. When you are treated as if you are not, as if you cannot understand and change the world, two things are at work: You are being treated like a slave, and you are witnessing a lie. You can understand and change the world. That is no lie.



Scientific Dialectical Thinking:

Dialectical Materialism in Outline:

Master Slave Questions:


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