Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
Reviewed by: John Stokdijk
Of the more than sixty book reports I have written during the past five years, this one about Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen has been one of the most challenging. I found the book to be very thought-provoking. But capturing my thoughts in writing as best I can does not capture all that has been in my mind.
Chapter 1 - HANDICAPPED BY HISTORY - THE PROCESS OF HERO-MAKING
Chapter 2 - 1493 - THE TRUE IMPORTANCE OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
Chapter 3 - THE TRUTH ABOUT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
Chapter 4 - RED EYES
What we did not learn about Woodrow Wilson is even more remarkable. When I ask my college students to tell me what they recall about President Wilson, they respond with enthusiasm. They say that Wilson led our country reluctantly into World War I and after the war led the struggle nationally and internationally to establish the League of Nations. They associate Wilson with progressive causes like women’s suffrage. A handful of students recall the Wilson administration’s Palmer raids against left-wing unions. But my students seldom know or speak about two antidemocratic policies that Wilson carried out: his racial segregation of the federal government and his military interventions in foreign countries.
What Loewen wrote about Woodrow Wilson did not surprise me. During the past four years I have often heard commentators describe Donald Trump as the most racist President since Woodrow Wilson. It would be interesting to know how this recent development has impacted high school history classes.
But I was surprised by what Loewen wrote about Helen Keller as my knowledge was limited to the myth.
The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist.
The early chapters of Lies My Teacher Told Me focus on the arrival of white Europeans in North America.
American history books present Columbus pretty much without precedent, and they portray him as America’s first great hero… But most of them leave out virtually everything that is important to know about Columbus and the European exploration of the Americas.
I was taught this aspect of history in much the way Loewen describes. In hindsight, two factors shaped my attitude towards Canada’s First Nations when I was young. In Nova Scotia, the First Nation was the Miꞌkmaq people, called the anglicized name Micmac when I was a boy. The Miꞌkmaq were invisible at that time, almost totally isolated, almost totally ignored. And as a boy I watched western movies in which John Wayne played the hero cowboy valiantly shooting savage Indians.
For most of my adult life I did not think much about these matters. That began to change in 2008 with the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. How white Europeans mistreated the indigenous people became front page news. I began to understand this history as a war of conquest of which I was a beneficiary.
In October 2018 the Ajijic Book Club discussed Talking to My Country by Stan Grant which examined how this same story unfolded in Australia.
As described below, textbooks now do tell about a sixth factor: the diseases Europeans brought with them that aided their conquest.
The devastating impact of the infectious diseases Europeans brought with them was not unknown to me. I have read Mexico by James A. Michener which describes the role of disease in the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. I wonder what Loewen would think of using historical fiction as a tool for teaching history. Most history I have learned as an adult came from books written by Michener, Wilbur Smith and Leon Uris. Do we even need history textbooks?
I agree with Loewen that hero-making is a problem. However, it seems to me that the absence of heroes would also be a problem and this he does not adequately address. Yes, we need accurate history. But we also need myths with heroes. We need sources of inspiration, but perhaps this objective belongs in literature classes rather than history classes.
Chapter 5 - “GONE WITH THE WIND” THE INVISIBILITY OF RACISM IN AMERICAN HISTORY TEXTBOOKS
Chapter 6 - JOHN BROWN AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN
I have no memories of what I learned in high school history class about race relations. But to this day I remember a book I read as a teenager, “Black Like Me, first published in 1961, is a nonfiction book by white journalist John Howard Griffin recounting his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under racial segregation.” Again, books like this seem like an effective way to teach history to young people.
My attitude towards race relations was also greatly influenced by my teenage hero, Muhammad Ali. And I was aware of the assassination of Malcom X in 1965. And I have also watched Gone with the Wind more than once, but I also watched the 1977 miniseries Roots.
I did not know anything about John Brown and found his story very interesting.
Consider the most radical white abolitionist of them all, John Brown… From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane… his mental health in our textbooks provides an inadvertent index of the level of white racism in our society.
Chapter 7 - THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
I lived the Canadian version of The American Dream. I believed that if I got an education and worked hard, I could get ahead, progress, prosper, perhaps even become rich. This is not so bad, but my attitude towards the idea of progress has changed significantly in recent years.
Boorstin and Kelley close their sole discussion of social class (in 1790, described above) with the happy sentence, “As the careers of American Presidents would soon show, here a person might rise by hard work, intelligence, skill, and perhaps a little luck, from the lowest positions to the highest.”
If only that were so! Social class is probably the single most important variable in society.
By never blaming the system, American history courses thus present Republican history.
In his book, Loewen rightly identifies bias as problematic. But in the above passages, his own bias shows through. His dogmatic assertion about social class overly simplifies a very complex matter. I agree with much of what Loewen says in Chapter 7, but in my opinion he does not sufficiently acknowledge the validity of a conservative perspective.
Chapter 8 - WATCHING BIG BROTHER WHAT TEXTBOOKS TEACH ABOUT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
What story do textbooks tell about our government? ...textbooks then underplay the role of nongovernmental institutions or private citizens in bringing about improvements in the environment, race relations, education, and other social issues.
... the United States now spends more on its armed forces than all other nations combined and has them stationed in 144 countries.
I am a Canadian and I hope my next statement does not offend my many American friends. I will first preemptively defend myself by stating that I have long made a distinction between the American people and the American government. That said, in my opinion, the American military presence around the world is at a level that is obscene.
When Americans try to think through the issues raised by the complex interweaving of our economic and political interests, they will not be helped by what they learned in their American history courses. Most history textbooks do not even mention multinationals. The topic doesn’t fit their “international good guy” approach.
When it comes to multinational corporations, I am mostly in agreement with Loewen. In my opinion, the expansion of the power of multinational corporations, which now is beyond the ability of national governments to control, has been harmful to the wellbeing of planet earth. But Loewen implies that this is mostly a problem of the silence of history. Again, the whole picture is very complex. It is also a matter of morality which involves value judgments. Multinational corporations are a story of both harms and benefits. A better history would be useful but would not by itself do much good.
Having ignored why the federal government acts as it does, textbooks proceed to ignore much of what the government does.
Again, what Loewen implies is simplistic. Government consists of an aggregate of individuals, each of whom is a complex entity. To understand why the government acts as it does in any given situation would require understanding why a large number of individuals behave as they do. Ultimately, such understanding is beyond reach and consequently the understanding of history will always be incomplete.
Getting rid of Richard Nixon did not solve the problem, however, because the problem is structural, stemming from the vastly increased power of the federal executive bureaucracy.
Again, I agree with much of what Loewen writes. But the problem is not just structural. THE PROBLEM, in my opinion, is also due to a shortcoming in the development of most players, most human beings, myself included.
Chapter 9 - SEE NO EVIL - CHOOSING NOT TO LOOK AT THE WAR IN VIETNAM
The Canadian experience of the war in Vietnam is instructive. Canada was the primary destination of American draft dodgers, perhaps numbering more than 30,000. At the same time, Canadians were volunteering to join the US armed forces, perhaps also numbering more than 30,000, of whom approximately 10,000 actually fought in Vietnam. History is complex.
As a teenager in the 1960s I was aware of The Domino Theory and I was conflicted about the Vietnam war. I was very aware of the anti-war movement in the USA. No doubt, my attitude to this war changed with each passing decade.
One in four, then one in two, and in the 1990s four in five first-year college students did not know the meaning of the four-letter words hawk and dove.
This is a shocking statement.
The images of the war presented in the book looked familiar, and continue to be shocking, more powerful than words.
Even more famous was the dissent of Muhammad Ali, then heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Ali refused induction into the military, for which his title was stripped from him, and said, “No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger.’” All eighteen textbooks leave out that line, too.
As I said earlier, Muhammad Ali was my childhood hero and my respect for him has never diminished.
Chapter 10 - DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE - THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE RECENT PAST
I discuss the history of the recent past in my essay About the Great Recession.
Chapter 11 - PROGRESS IS OUR MOST IMPORTANT PRODUCT
If we understand what has caused what in the past, we may be able to predict what will happen next and even adopt national policies informed by our knowledge. Surely helping students learn to do so is the key reason for teaching history in the first place. If history textbooks supplied tools for projection or examples of causation in the past that might (or might not) continue into the future, they would encourage students to think about what they have just spent a year learning. What a thrilling way to end a history textbook!
Here I come to my harshest criticism of Lies My Teacher Told Me. I was born in 1951. No one, not even the most knowledgeable historian, could have predicted what happened thereafter. No one on December 31, 2019, not even the most knowledgeable historian, could have predicted the world of December 31, 2020. Somehow, we need to accept this level of uncertainty as adults. Somehow, we need to teach children to be comfortable with this reality. I agree with Loewen that better history textbooks and better history teachers are steps in the right direction. But, I think, building skills to cope with complexity and uncertainty is even more important.
Thus, the idea of American exceptionalism—the United States as the best country in the world—which starts in our textbooks with the Pilgrims, gets projected into the future.
Again, at the risk of offending my American friends, the idea of American exceptionalism is, in my opinion, obnoxious. Loewen readily acknowledges that Lies My Teacher Told Me is incomplete, for example, saying little about Hispanic history. This disappointed me. As a Canadian now living in Mexico, I am very interested in knowing how American high school textbooks cover the Mexican–American War of 1846 to 1848. This is a very dark chapter in American history, a huge theft of land driven by the dogma of Manifest Destiny. The war was soon forgotten as it was overshadowed by the Civil War. But, unfortunately, American Exceptionalism survives.
Progress as an ideology has been intrinsically antirevolutionary: because things are getting better all the time, everyone should believe in the system.
I agree BUT… do we want revolution? Loewen seems unaware of the degree to which the spirit of revolution is growing amongst Millennials and Gen Xers. Better history textbooks and better history teachers are unlikely to reverse this troubling trend. If history teaches us anything, it is that revolutions are dangerous, unpredictable. And, in recent years, I too have given up on the idea of incremental improvements to the system while fearing revolution at the same time. Fortunately, these are not the only two options.
Chapter 12 - WHY IS HISTORY TAUGHT LIKE THIS?
The textbooks must be satisfying somebody. Publishers produce textbooks with several audiences in mind… Textbook adoption processes are complex.
I appreciate Loewen embracing complexity. However, in this case, I am going to move in the direction of simplicity. Publishers produce textbooks, primarily, to make a profit. Period. The needs of all others are a far second. In my opinion, textbook production by nonprofit organizations would be a step in the right direction, but only a small step.
And yes, the publishing system is a complex system embedded in a society that is an aggregate of many complex systems. People themselves are individual complex systems. Meaningful change is much more than a matter of better textbooks and better teachers.
...authors have no understanding that any telling of history requires choices as to what is included and what is left out and is therefore by definition an interpretation.
The above statement is, in my opinion, one of the most important ones in this book. Facts must be presented in a context and context is always a matter of interpretation. One modern thinker who I pay some attention to describes this as facts plus context equals warm data.
Could it be that they just don’t know the truth? Many history teachers don’t know much history...
Could it be that no one knows, or can know, the truth, at least not the whole truth?
“Most social studies teachers in U.S. schools are ill prepared by their own schooling to deal with uncertainty,” according to Shirley Engle.
Most people are ill prepared to deal with uncertainty. I have learned this lesson only since retiring. Only in recent years have I made some modest progress with coping with uncertainty.
In some ways the two inquiry textbooks in my sample are better than the sixteen narrative textbooks.
Are textbooks still needed at all? What about a process of inquiry plus wikipedia plus research plus knowledge of complexity and uncertainty? Perhaps history teachers need to know only a little bit of history but a whole lot about a complex process that helps students learn about history.
Teachers have been fired for teaching Brave New World in Baltimore, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in Idaho, and almost everything else in between.
Textbooks may reflect these lies only because we want them to.
The above statement is, in my opinion, another one of the important ones in this book. As I look back on my life, I now regularly ask myself how I have been complicit in making a mess of the world. Understanding that helps me in contributing in a small way to building a better world.
Chapter 13 - WHAT IS THE RESULT OF TEACHING HISTORY LIKE THIS?
Education as socialization tells people what to think and how to act and requires them to conform. Education as socialization influences students simply to accept the rightness of our society. American history textbooks overtly tell us to be proud of America. The more schooling, the more socialization, and the more likely the individual will conclude that America is good.
For most of my adult life, I was proud to be Canadian. As the years passed, I began to see myself as a citizen of the world. I thought I was being progressive. Only very recently have I discovered an even better point of view. The idea of citizens still implies countries with borders, artificial human constructs. Now I see myself as an inhabitant of planet earth, a concept that has common ground with all human beings and sees the value of all life forms. My utopia is an education system that socializes everyone to share this view. This will not happen in my lifetime, if ever.
Students will start finding history interesting when their teachers and textbooks stop lying to them.
The above statement is itself a lie in the sense that Loewen uses the word. It is so simplistic that it is almost meaningless. It is not hard to imagine better teachers and better textbooks and utterly bored students.
AFTERWORD - THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD—AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM
After the eleven years of research and writing that went into the first edition of this book, and twenty-three more years of study since, my own quest to know what truly happened in our American past has only begun. After reading all this way, so has yours. Bon voyage to us both!
And bon voyage to all inhabitants of planet earth.
I now want to go back to the beginning.
PREFACE - LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME IN THE AGE OF ALTERNATIVE FACTS
I have come to two additional conclusions. First, the truth can set us free. That is, when we understand what really happened in the past, then we know what to do to cause our nation to remedy its problems in the present… Second, there is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.
I have come to my own conclusions. We cannot deeply understand the past, but we must try and do our best. Understanding the past helps but is insufficient for solving our present problems. Justice in the present will not emerge from the truth of the past as such truth is unattainable.
Therefore, Loewen gives us only a small solution to a big problem, but his book is well worth reading.
I think another book selected by the Ajijic Book Club has more to offer. Interestingly, the book was written by a historian, a professor in a Department of History. That book is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.
Loewen wants truth in history, a noble objective. The truth is that America began as a result of wars of conquest. The truth is that the country was built on slave labor and extreme racism. America greatly expanded with the theft of land from Mexico. And after WWII, the United States imposed its will on the world both overtly and covertly. Today, the USA continues to be, by far, the greatest military power in the world and it often uses that power in self-serving ways. Although I personally do not view the USA as an evil empire, I understand just how easily that case can be made. A lot of history teachers would lose their jobs if truth were told.
Loewen wants truth in history. But ancient history informs us that the Greek and Roman empires collapsed. In fact, in truth, every civilization except the one in which we currently live has collapsed. Loewen wants to apply the lessons of the past to challenges of the present. But what would he say to a high school student who concludes that the civilization in which he or she lives will probably collapse also?
What is the purpose of education? Over the decades of my life I have watched the balance of objectives shift. Preparing for life and citizenship has steadily declined while preparing for careers has grown. Now there seems to be an educational-industrial complex and a medical-industrial complex along with the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about sixty years ago.
All things considered, reading and thinking about Lies My Teacher Told Me was time well spent. But the title of the book is terrible, although for reasons that have emerged since it was first published in 1995. Today we live in a very polarized society that exploits tribalism by provoking outrage. Today the title reads like click bait. Today the title feeds into the culture wars, a phenomenon well worth discussing in a modern history class.
Finally, James W. Loewen claims that his book has been a great success. Perhaps it has had some positive impact on students and teachers and publishers. But as I look at American society in 1995 and 2007 and 2018, all things considered, I see far more deterioration than improvement.
I attended high school in rural Nova Scotia in the 1960s. I remember almost nothing from my history classes. My history textbooks were boring and so were the teachers.
But to this day there are two things from grade twelve that I remember. We had a subject called Current Affairs and our “textbook” was a subscription to TIME magazine, a weekly newsmagazine. I have been interested in geopolitics ever since then. Why teach history to understand the present? Why not teach the present and use it as a basis for exploring the past?
The second thing was amazingly progressive for its time and place. Every Friday we had a twenty minute Radical Period. Any student was allowed, no, encouraged, to say anything about anything. We learned how to express our opinions and defend our positions. We were exposed to contrary opinions from our peers. I loved that experience and I was one of the most active students in that activity.
I will end my book report with a quote from Harari.
In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.