As a world history teacher who wants to keep his job, and hence follows the curriculum, I often feel as if I am really a professional swindler of the young rather than a teacher. So, to clear both the record and my conscience, I will let a few cats out of a few bags, and reveal some of the lies and misperceptions I was taught in high school, and--from what I can tell from the textbooks and conversations with others--continue to be perpetuated in secondary education.
1. The period of time from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the late 1300's were the "Dark Ages". It's usually assumed that the end of the historical Roman Empire (as opposed to its survival in Byzantium and its ghost carried on as the Holy Roman Empire between 800-1803 A.D.) marked the beginning of a long hibernation for scientific and intellectual life. In fact, the period called "Dark Ages" contained the development of three-field crop rotation, the invention of carts with springs (which meant the possibility of their use for transporting humans rather than mere freight), horse collars, the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and the rediscovery of Aristotle by the philosophers of what are sometimes called the High Middle Ages. Let's not forget that Irish monasticism created the epithet "island of saints and scholars", influenced the historiography of the Venerable Bede, and fueled the Carolingian Renaissance.
While we're at it, lets not forget that many institutions of personal liberty and rule of law were also worked out during the so-called "Dark Ages", including English Common Law and Magna Carta.
2. Islam saved science and Greek learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Greek learning never died in the East Roman Empire, and a trafficking of Greek learning from east to west continued in larger and smaller flows, becoming a flood chiefly due to Venice's extensive contacts and trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Further, one of the neglected steps in the transmission of the classical tradition in the lands of Islam was the translation of Greek texts into Syriac, the liturgical (and, until fairly recent times, the vernacular) language of Christian communities across the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, much of the preservation of the ancient world's literature and thought was an enterprise of the Dhimmi peoples (Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabians, and Hindus) under Muslim rule, not of the Muslims themselves.
3. Islam treated minorities with dignity and tolerance. This is one huge lie. Examine the legal codes of any pre-19th century Islamic polity and you will find that non-Muslim peoples living under Islamic rule were subject to a number of disabilities, not least of all were extra taxes (jizya), the undervaluing of their testimony in disputes with Muslims, the surrender of some of their sons to be raised as Muslims and put in the military service of their rulers, and acquiescence in the abduction of some of their daughters. Often, Dhimmi had to step aside to let Muslims pass, were required to grant hospitality to Muslim travelers, were required to wear distinctive garb, could not allow their houses to be built higher than those of Muslims, and could not ride animals larger than donkeys (qhich had to be dismounted when meeting Muslims). Indeed, the petty humiliations imposed on the Dhimmi by Islamic law got passed by their erstwhile victims--the Spanish and Portuguese Christians--to the Indians and Africans and on to the "Black Codes" of America's southern states.
While we're at it, one reason why Maimonides' Moreh Nebokim (The Guide for the Perplexed) is because he had to scrupulously avoid anything that might offend an orthodox Muslim censor.
4. John Calvin invented the doctrine of predestination. In fact, questions about free will and predestination long predated Calvin. His own doctrine is heavily informed by at least the Psalms, the biblical history books, Isaiah, and the New Testament works of John, Peter, and Paul. According to Josephus, the Pharisees also believed that all things fall out according to divine providence; and at least some schools of Islam also have a predestinarian doctrine. Indeed, any theistic religion or philosophy will probably ponder this question. Even those who pretend to be freed of traditional theism have their own versions of the doctrine:
Moderns, with great consternation,
Hate Calvin's predestination.
Economics, we know,
Or our genes run the show
Of our lives! It's lliberation!
5. Newtonian Science informs the Enlightenment understanding of "natural law". This is a major misperception fed to students. the "natural law" discussed by 18th century political thinkers had virtually nothing to do with what Newton discovered about physics and optics, but continued a long dialogue in Western thinking about what moral principles may be innate (natural) to man, and hence might be discovered by unaided reason. I have a sneaky suspicion that this misperception about 17th and 18th century thought may be informed by the scientistic (rather than scientific) pretensions of Marxism.
6. The ideals of limited, constitutional, and consensual government depend on the enlightment doctrine of basic human goodness. If this is so, where did the Massachusetts Pilgrims, with their belief in the total depravity of fallen man (all of us descended from Adam by ordinary generation--hence all of us except for Jesus Christ) come up with their Mayflower Compact?
The fact is that the American founders had a number of republican ventures to examine in post-Classical Western history, including Italian city-states, Swiss cantons and federations, the Netherlands at times, and the English Commonwealth. They were also heir to a long and often bitter argument against the idea of royal absolutism; which itself was a novel idea of the 16th and 17th century made possible by the decay of feudalism and the Reformation's dissent against the Pope's universal jurisdiction. A host of Reformed divines and laymen penned polemics against the claims of Hapsburg, Valois, and Stewart monarchs. Much of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government is anticipated in the writings of such Reformed thinkers as John Ponet, Christopher Goodman, Francois Hotman, Theodore Beza, Junius Brutus, Johannes Althusius, John Knox, George Buchanan, and Samuel Rutherford. Both the defense and criticism of royal absolutism was essentially an extended debate on the proper interpretation of the mishpat hammelek (manner of a king) passage in First Samuel 8.
The crux of the Reformed polemic against royal absolutism was that unchecked power in one who is able to sin is an accursed power, and too great a burden for mortal shoulders (nod to Samuel Rutherford). Hence, all power in states, church, and family was a ministerial rather than masterly power. The Commonwealth men sought to realize this through safety in numbers (Parliamentary Supremacy), while their American heirs took it a step further with separated powers.
7. Eastern religious and philosophical traditions are tolerant. Again, a parade of ignorance. Read the Tang dynasty memorialist Han Yu, who remonstrated against the emperor's veneration of a bone of the Buddha, noting that Sakyamuni Gautama was born a barbarian (someone outside the pale of Sinitic civilization). Zhuang Zi is full of sly digs at Confucius and his disciples; the Legalist schol's disciple Qin Shi Huang had Confucian scholars buried alive; and the Buddhist novel Journey to the West never misses an opportunity to poke fun at Daoists. Our own era has seen Hindus massacring Muslims and persecuting Christians in India, while Buddhists and Hindus have been at each others' throats in Sri Lanka.
Maybe it would just be wiser to recognize that any truth claim is bound to exclude what it considders to be error.
8. The Modern and Post-Modern Eras are rapidly erasing the violence and intolerance of the past. Count the silver, kids. Dr. Rudolph Rummel of the University of Hawaii published a very sobering book entitled Death by Government, in which he documented how 20th century governments killed over 160,000,000 people to achieve the aims of social justice, national dignity, equality, and progress. Of course National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism are the major culprits, but the scientificos of the Mexican Revolution and the Chinese Nationalists also played their part as well. Before his death, Dr. Rummel revised his figures upwards.
The Jewish historian Ben-zion Netanyahu estimated that in Spain alone, the Inquisition was responsible for roughly 4,000 deaths between its inception in the 1480's and its abolition by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. Yet the sum total of political murders, purges, and internal feuds of the Spanish Left during the 1930's is far higher; and if Nationalist and neutral victims of Spain's political horrors are countered, the toll is higher (and let's not forget the victims of Nationalist white terror, either).
So much for now. Much of what passes for the "unbiased" study of history is in fact propaganda for the current political programs of various parties. This is not to echo Ford's view that history is bunk, or Napoleon's cynical view that history is a pack of lies on which everyone agrees. Rather, it is a plea for all students who wish to learn from the past to go beyond the assignments, examine the less-explored areas, practice honesty, and above all, question.