History Channel Releases Official "Ancient Aliens" Guide for Children, Teaches Kids Aliens Are Behind Everything
I don’t always get outraged by the terrible choices that cable TV makes. Cable channels have always done terrible things in the name of profit, but yesterday I learned of a horrible new product that flew under the radar when it was released a few months ago. Just seeing it made my blood boil, and I hope you’ll agree that it symbolizes pretty much everything wrong with American education and popular history in the twenty-first century.
That product? The Young Investigator’s Guide to Ancient Aliens: Based on the Hit Television Series, a book tie-in to the Ancient Aliens TV series, which carries the History Channel’s official endorsement and authorship and was released by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Macmillan, one of America’s largest book publishers. The volume is aimed at readers aged 8 to 12, though after skimming the book I’d think it’s perhaps a bit too ambitious for an 8 year old. (I wonder if grades 8-12 was what was meant instead.)
And lest you think the existence of this book is an idle danger: According to the Toronto Public Library’s website, they purchased an astonishing 31 copies of the book to ensure that 23 branches of the library had one or more copies on hand. WorldCat reports that 97 libraries currently stock the book in their children’s sections. Indeed, the Youth Services Book Review blog, run by librarians in Massachusetts, gave the book a five star review and recommended it for all libraries serving children and teenagers. I would like to posit this question: If the History Channel promoted a book of “Creationism for Kids” or “Why Vaccines Will Kill You,” would anyone consider it a trusted resource or stock it alongside serious nonfiction for educating kids?
I’ll give the Youth Services librarian Katrina Yurenka one small bit of credit, though: She recommended the book be placed in the Dewey decimal system’s 000 section for general nonfiction rather than in the science section.
The bright, colorful, and well-designed volume opens with an explanation of the ancient astronaut theory that claims it is a legitimate field of study, explaining “ancient astronaut theorist” as a job description, and canonizing Chariots of the Gods as “a major text in the field of Ancient Astronaut theory.” The volume suggests that children can aspire to grow up to be ancient astronaut theorists, and it makes use of bastardized popular anthropology to do so, referring to ancient and non-Western peoples as “primitive cultures.”
The volume, credited online to author Don Steinberg, an author of disposable nonfiction of no great seriousness, informs young readers that NASA is engaged in a conspiracy to hide the truth about aliens from the public and that Neil Armstrong helped to cover up evidence of aliens on the moon. And for a book that pretends to be a science text, it’s unusual that it stops to note that “many of us are taught to believe that God is everywhere,” just like a creationist text might. However, this book does so in order to suggest that humans associate heaven and God with the sky due to memories of ancient spaceships. The book informs readers that “it’s important to remember that myths come from somewhere, often from events that witnessed by people who invent stories to explain what they don’t completely understand.” This gross oversimplification is wrong even as an explanation for the preteen audience the book targets.
I could go on all day about the faulty claims that the History Channel foists onto children, but all of them are recycled from the Ancient Aliens TV series, with extensive quotations from Giorgio Tsoukalos but precious few references to primary sources or any way for children to learn the real story behind ancient astronaut claims. Oh, and Tsoukalos is selling autographed copies at a 100% markup.
What angers me is that the book is clearly the product of significant financial outlay. It is handsomely illustrated with gorgeous photography, which does not come cheap. It is laid out beautifully, and the pages are carefully designed to be visually attractive. Again, this kind of care doesn’t come cheap. What’s infuriating is that this is the History Channel’s only book of ancient history for children, according to an Amazon listing of their (very few) official books. This is how History employs resources that a decade ago it used to “provide teacher training sessions, grants/scholarships, public service announcements and classroom materials for New York City public secondary school teachers and students” as part of an effort to improve history education, and two decades ago used to take educating children seriously as part of its mission statement?
When the History Channel started a college course at the University of Oklahoma last year, professors objected at the pop network invading academia, but the head of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, said this spring that there was no cause for concern.
Different venues, whether they be television, commercial tourist attractions, children's books, national parks or classrooms, offer people different kinds of history. I am pleased that Americans are so eager to engage history, and fully recognize that they will engage different kinds of history in different ways. The AHA maintains standards for professional historical work. But we don't license. History Channel and other purveyors of popular histories play a vital role in stimulating and nourishing American's interest in the past. This is a good thing.
(Grossman’s organization, as he is the first to note, takes money from the History Channel, which sponsors an event at the AHA annual conference.)
Would he therefore argue that Ancient Aliens on TV and in educational books for children are simply “different kinds of history” and ultimately good? I asked him yesterday via email, but as of this writing I haven’t heard back yet.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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