“Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”
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“Lies My Teacher Told Me,” new edition 2018
A book by James W. Loewen
In the introduction to his magnificent critique of American historical education, James Loewen starts provocatively: “High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it ‘the most irrelevant’ of twenty-one school subjects commonly taught in high school. Bo-o-o-oring is the adjective most often applied.”
Since the initial publication of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” in 1995, I have regularly read this passage to my UCLA students in my course on the history of social protest. The overwhelming majority of my students have enthusiastically concurred with Loewen.
Many decades ago, I too sat in my high school history class, listening to Mr. Jones drearily reciting an unremittant litany of historical facts, mostly without context, intended to be memorized and regurgitated for future examinations. I also drifted off into my own world, thinking about things that teenage boys think about.
This book is subtitled “Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” In this third edition published last year, the text retains sociologist Loewen’s sharp critique of the 12 American history textbooks he surveyed in his first edition as well as the six books he examined for the second edition. He found, as he describes, “an embarrassing blend of bland optimism, blind nationalism, and plain misinformation, weighing in at an average of 888 pages and almost five pounds.” He showed persuasively how American history textbooks—these ponderous tomes—lied to millions of American students by sugarcoating historical events and persons, encouraging mindless patriotism and faith in unending American progress, and negated any serious critical thinking.
Most strikingly in his new preface, Loewen notes that more recent U.S. history texts merely promote the illusion of critical thinking. But they rarely encourage students to assemble real data to back up their opinions about historical controversies. Indeed, they actually promote the false notion that all historical opinions are somehow equal, and fully deserve respect.
Click here to read long excerpts from “Lies My Teacher Told Me” at Google Books.
As Loewen perceptively observes, the absence of useful historical textbooks augments the challenges for young people in the Trump era. He pointedly identifies Trump and his pernicious White House minions as purveyors of lies and falsehoods: the age of “alternative facts.” The preface shows the photographs of the inaugural crowds of President Obama in 2009 and President Trump in 2017. Former press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that 2017 saw the largest audience to witness an inauguration. Kellyanne Conway defended this absurd assertion. The photographic evidence clearly revealed the falsehood of the claims. The insidious combination of inadequate and deceptive historical education and a national administration that denigrates the free press represents a grave threat to democracy.
Some of the chief things that American history textbooks get wrong are their lies by omission. As Loewen repeatedly shows throughout the book, the focus is on those men (rarely women) in American history who have represented the dominant power centers of social, economic, and political life. Rarely do these textbooks mention the people who have resisted power and spent their lives fighting for structural change. And even when a few are mentioned, it is often in highly sanitized form.
For several years in my social protest class, I have done a brief exercise at the outset by identifying some major American agitators and asking students if they have ever heard of them. I often start with Ida B. Wells because about half or more of the 150+ students have heard of her. Then, I move to the other figures on my list. Emma Goldman. Joe Hill. Eugene Debs. A. Philip Randolph. Mother Jones. Saul Alinsky. Paul Robeson. Harry Hay. Fred Korematsu. JoAnne Robinson. E.D. Nixon. Dorothy Day. Fannie Lou Hamer. Stokely Carmichael. Reies Tijerina. Dolores Huerta. Several others.
The results are strikingly similar each academic year. Three or four students, or fewer, can identify these figures. The rest have no clue. I note that they are rarely mentioned in historical textbooks and, for the large part, many history teachers are likewise unfamiliar with them and their radical social and political work.
I then provide my class with a dramatic example from the first chapter of Loewen’s book. He writes about the case of Helen Keller, whom every student knows. They all know about the blind and deaf girl who overcame her handicaps. They know the story of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who helped her to read, write and speak. Almost no one, however, knows what Loewen writes in his book: Helen Keller was a radical socialist, a supporter of the IWW, of the ACLU, of Eugene Debs, of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and so forth. Keller’s commitment to socialism emerged from her personal disabilities and from her deep sympathies with all handicapped and oppressed people. This is missing from the textbooks and from historical education. Instead, students get the same warm and fuzzy stories that network news provides for a few minutes each day at the end of their broadcasts.
This lack of knowledge about America’s radical past cripples today’s students by failing to inform them of the long historical tradition and record of resistance to injustice, racism, sexism, homophobia and capitalism itself. “Lies My Teacher Told Me” is replete with examples throughout its pages. The book highlights how students learn distortions and inaccuracies in their texts and throughout their “educational” experiences.
Take the case of John Brown. The radical abolitionist who led the raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and was executed for his role is regularly portrayed in history textbooks as a religious fanatic who was likely deranged. Yet among African-Americans of the era, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, John Brown was hardly thought of as crazy; rather, he was seen as a man of principle willing to go to the gallows for what he believed was morally right: eliminating the unspeakable evil of slavery. Loewen’s corrective about Brown is hugely important. Students should sympathize with Brown’s righteous fervor about racism instead of dismissing it as the ravings of a mad extremist.
Similarly, American history textbooks devote little if any space to the disgraceful persecution of civil rights figures, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover. “Lies My Teacher Told Me” touches on how history texts follow the Hollywood approach to civil rights. Loewen cites the dishonest film “Mississippi Burning” as the exemplar of highlighting white people as the heroes of civil rights advances and progress. This romanticized and misleading information about civil rights in the United States does a profound disservice to students, and retards efforts to redress the virulent racism that continues to pervade the nation’s institutions.
Loewen’s treatment of such events as imperialist adventures and invasions of Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and other Latin America countries, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the Iraq War and other dubious American historical events throws into relief the propensity of traditional textbooks to see no evil. This propensity is disastrous for students. Without a comprehensive understanding of history, they are simply unprepared for a life of active public citizenship. “Lies My Teacher Told Me” is powerful; indeed, it is an essential complement to Howard Zinn’s iconic “A People’s History of the United States.” Like that remarkable work, it serves as a crucial counter-textbook to provide a more realistic and critical narrative about the American past.
Textbook publishers are integral parts of the American capitalist industrial apparatus. They exist to make profits; they are, to be sure, not entirely indifferent to the truth, but that principle always gives way to the bottom line. High school history textbooks in particular are designed for mass sales and must conform to the specific requirements of state textbook selection committees and commissions, many of which are dominated by conservative forces and personnel. Bland, noncontroversial, patriotic language is the safe approach because that leads to the highest probability for adoption and sales.
Loewen reveals another disconcerting truth: Textbooks appear to be authored by major academic authorities with strong, even stellar reputations as historical scholars. But they are not the real authors of the texts. Freelance writers are paid to ghostwrite many or all chapters with the dull, fact-heavy material that students must digest in their perennial quest for high grades. Publishers merely “rent” academic names to go on the cover (some of whom are actually dead or long retired). This essentially fraudulent practice underscores the basic thesis of Loewen’s entire book.
Moreover, teachers for the most part are perfectly content to continue using these tomes. Burdened with multiple responsibilities, they reflect the same inertia of all institutional settings. They have used these textbooks for years and they are generally familiar and comfortable with them. Changes requiring them to institute and teach true critical thinking skills would take serious effort, time and emotional energy. Regrettably, not enough high school history teachers want to move in that direction.
Inadequate history courses supported by misleading and deceptive textbooks lead to adult citizens unable to make critical judgments and decisions in a complex society beset with multiple social, economic and political problems. This is especially troublesome in the Trump era of alternative facts. George Orwell put it all too well in “1984”: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”