“Lies My Teacher Told Me” is a 1995 book by sociologist James W. Loewen. The book won the American Book Award in 1996 as well as several other awards.
The main point of the book is to deconstruct the usage of textbooks in American high schools and colleges. Loewen explores the topics that history textbooks often leave out. He goes into depth on the good and bad sides of such famous American historical figures as Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, and Betsy Ross and the disparity in coverage of recent history. Loewen also talks about the racism and the bias of the white men approving the content of the books. Such topics as the African Americans who served in the Civil War and the ‘Gone With the Wind’ nostalgia that they seem to view slavery with.
The textbooks also tend to focus on British and euro-centric views of the early United States, ignoring the Native American’s entirely. Loewen’s intention is to point out the problems with the way US textbooks are written and published and what could be changed. Namely, the approval boards which are biased and focus only on topics that they personally have an interest in.
Handicapped by History and 1943
The first chapter of the book explores the gap between what high school students are told in their history classes about famous American historical figures and what the truth of the matter actually is. The author refers to this as “herofication”, a degenerative process that makes people over into heroes. “Through this process, our educational media turns flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creature without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.” Most textbooks have vignettes that give trivia facts about famous figures.
Several different famous historical figures are talked about. The first is Helen Keller. Keller was a famous humanitarian and advocate for the rights of disabled people. She was also blind and deaf herself. Loewen states that when he asks high schoolers what they know of Keller most responses revolve around her disability or her teacher, Anne Sullivan. The truth is that Keller was a Socialist who supported the Russian Revolution. Keller had visited many poor houses and sweat shops and noticed that the handicapped were usually the hardest hit by poverty.
Next Loewen talks about former president Woodrow Wilson, the man that lead the country through World War I but was also segregated his officials and was a fan of a movie that reportedly inspired the KKK. Some people, like Betsy Ross who Loewen argues, did not actually sew the first American Flag are mistakenly lauded by history books. Loewen posits that the story of Ross creating the American flag was a myth created by her descendants.
Another mistakenly lauded historical figure is Christopher Columbus, the man who was said to have discovered America. However, countless Native Americans were already living in what was to become the United States by the time he first discovered it. In addition to that, many explorers from other countries had already set foot on American soil.
Loewen explains that it was actually a Portuguese flotilla blockading the Red Sea that caused the European fleet to discover another route to “the Indies” and a considerable amount of new military technology went into the venture.
The truth about the first Thanksgiving and Red Eyes
These sections go into more detail about the myth that the first Americans arrived in 1620. By that time, the Native Americans had already been living there for thousands of years, but despite this school children are often told that the first people to live in the States where the white Europeans. Also, the Spanish and Dutch settlers had already been in the country for a while as well. But most history classes solely focus on the British occupation and history.
Loewen states that when he asked hundreds of college students when the country was first settled, most answered 1620. Part of the problem with this teaching, he states, is the usage of the word “settle.” Most believe that the question pertains to the pilgrims because they arrived here and “settled” in. Whereas the Native Americans were already here.
After the Europeans arrived, much of the Native population was wiped out by the diseases that the new people brought. In particular, the famous Native American, Squanto who helped the pilgrims later returned to his village to find that it had been completely wiped out by disease. The introduction of guns from the Europeans to the tribes was also deadly, as it upped the stakes of warfare between the tribes.
Loewen gives credit to the few history textbooks that attempt to tell the story of the European colonization of America through the eyes of a Native person but takes issues with the depictions of Native people as savage and uneducated. The Native people had very sophisticated societies before they were colonized.
The Native people were the first to be enslaved by the Spanish and British settlers, the precursor to the horrors of African slavery in later times. Their tribes were forced to become more mobile out of the necessity of fleeing the encroaching settlers. Some tribes became too dependent on trading with the settlers and fell behind on producing goods and food themselves. Many white settlers actually began living in the tribes themselves to escape the rule of the British king.
Loewen states that American Indians have been the most lied about the subset of our population. “In learning about Native Americans, one does not start from zero, but from minus ten.” But textbooks about Native Americans have improved in recent years. In 1961, the bestselling textbook, “Rise of the American Nation” featured only ten illustrations out of almost 300 that contained Native Americans. Twenty-five years later, the retitled “Triumph of the American Nation” contained fifteen illustrations. More importantly, Native Americans were not cast as primitives, but as real people who struggled and tried their best to preserve their land and way of life.
The War of 1812 was also devastating for the tribes as they made up the bulk of the deaths. When the British withdrew from the war, it was the beginning of the end for the domination of the Native tribes. The term ‘American’ began to reference the European settlers instead of the Natives.
Gone with the Wind and John Brown and Abraham Lincoln
Loewen suggests that the first real settlement of foreigners to the US was actually a group of African ex-slaves in 1526. Until the beginning of the civil rights era, Loewen says that textbooks reflected on slavery with a “Gone With the Wind” nostalgia. But the legacy of slavery is still evident to this day in the form of the racism and the disparity in the socioeconomic circumstances for African Americans that persists.
Racism is the deepest and most pervasive divide between the American people. Issues of relations between blacks and whites were what propelled the Whig party into a collapse, created the now familiar Republican party and caused the Democratic party to label itself ‘The White Man’s party” for almost a century. One of the first times Congress ever overrode a presidential veto was in 1866 for the Civil Rights Act, which was passed by the Republican party against the wishes of then president Andrew Johnson.
Some senators mounted the longest filibuster in US history to oppose things like this. They spent more than 534 hours filibustering to oppose the next Civil Rights Bill in 1964. Many of the founding fathers were slave owners, most notably Thomas Jefferson, who while he was signing the Declaration of Independence, owned 175 slaves.
This chapter also talks about common myths about the Reconstruction era. Up until the mid-1900’s, textbook portrayals of African Americans during this time were mostly negative, however, the overwhelming violence on the part of whites. Segregation and other crimes against African Americans persisted for years after the end of the Civil War.
One notable figure who was related to this topic that was poorly depicted in the textbook was John Brown, a man who tried to start a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1859. To eliminate sympathy for his views, textbooks depicted him as being insane up until 1970.
This section also discusses the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. One noted myth surrounding the former president is the one that he was born in a log cabin that still stands today. However, the cabin that is being referred to was actually built in 1894, after Lincoln’s death. The real cause of the Civil War is often said to be regarding states rights but this disguises and obfuscates the racism that was the real cause of the war. Over 180,000 African Americans served in the war, a fact which is also often left out of textbooks.
“Taking ideas seriously,” says Loewen, “does not fit with the rhetorical style of textbooks, which presents events so as to make them seem foreordained along a line of constant progress.”
The Land of Opportunity and Watching Big Brother
Although America is often said to be the land of opportunity, this is not true. Class struggles and socioeconomic status are never addressed in textbooks. Labor strikes are still a common event, despite textbooks making them seem like a thing of the early 1900s.
Loewen notes that when he asks high schools students the question, “Why are people poor?” the answers that he gets in response are “half-formed and naive.” The students often say that the poor are not hard working enough, etc. Not enough textbooks cover things like labor history and history from the point of view of the less privileged. On the topic of labor strikes and accidents, Loewen talks about the 1894 Pullman strike near Chicago (that was broken up by president Cleveland sending in federal troops), the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist fire where 146 working women lost their lives and the Taft-Hartley Act.
Much of recent US history is ignored in textbooks and mentions of class struggles are almost non-existent. The image of America where hard work alone can elevate you to the level of a billionaire is incorrect, Loewen states. Many barriers are present to deter or even prevent upward mobility in socioeconomic status. For instance, two recent strikes, the 1985 Hormel meatpackers strike and the 1991 Caterpiller strike are almost never mentioned in textbooks. Students are lead to believe that labor strikes are a thing of the ancient past that went out with unions.
Textbooks do not usually show that the Constitution has engendered a change in interpretation over the centuries. They also put too much emphasis on the role of the president in the government and the executive branch in general. The focus on portraying the life and work of every US president, even the ones who had only a short time in office, like William Henry Harrison. This, Loewen states take valuable textbook space from figures who had more of an impact on US history.
Textbooks also tend to gloss over darker periods and indefensible actions on the part of the government. The US is most often portrayed as being the “international good guy,” ignoring its pursuit of its self interests.
Down the Memory Hole and Progress is our Most Important Product
The book uses African words to describe the difference between the dead who are still personally remembered by the living (the Sasha) and the dead who passed before anyone alive could meet them (the Zamani). Textbooks are more comfortable with the second group as they can say whatever they want about them without consent. The recent past is mostly left out of textbooks and this, Loewen states, leaves students under prepared for the present.
The idea that “progress” is always good for Western society is another thing that the author challenges. Intellectuals have been refusing this idea for some time, insisting that progress can be dangerous.
Changes in Social Darwinism and other theories as a result of the different wars in America over the last 100 years have also been left out. Loewen argues that textbooks also oversimplify things and how historical problems have been solved. This fails the students and their understanding of historical crises. As an example, the energy crises of the 1970s are explained as an example of the way capitalism has a tough time resolving major shortages. Capitalism is designed to see demand outpacing supply as a good thing rather than something that is going to deprive people.
Instead of becoming more and more tolerant, Americans seem to be becoming less so. Loewen uses as an example the fact that no white presidential candidate has had facial hair of any kind since 1948.
Why Is History Taught Like This? and What Is the Result of Teaching History Like This?
In conclusion, Loewen says that textbooks are mainly made to the specifications of what the author thinks the teachers want, rather than what is the real truth. Each book has to gain the acceptance of an approval committee. Before 1945, all historians were white men and no African Americans had ever been employed to teach at white colleges in America. This whitewashing creates a bias that is not supported by a lack of historical papers. But, nowadays there is a lot of literature that can be used in addition to the textbooks and some teachers at more high-end schools who give their pupils a richer education.
The problem, Loewen states, seems to lie in the process of textbook approval and the publishers. Nearly half of the United States have textbook publishing boards that concentrate on removing anything offensive. And the states that do not have boards still have undue influence on the publishers and still require textbook to gain approval. Publisher tend to concentrate on the larger states to earn more money. Also, the people who are employed by the approval boards are able to focus on subjects that they care about the most, like their states representation in any book.
Students rebel against the books because of this pandering and ignore them. They later forget everything they learned in the books. Loewen states that most history teachers and textbooks give students no reason to love or appreciate the subject of history and we can’t respond by exhorting them to enjoy it more. But this does not mean that the sorry state of learning in history classes can’t be changed. Loewen believes that students will become interested in history when they see the point in doing so. When it seems both interesting and important to them and when they believe that it relates to their lives and their future.
After the last section, there is a short Afterward where Loewen talks about how teachers can implement the lessons in this book into their classroom. He says that the book is still incomplete. For instance, little is said about Hispanic history. But our textbooks today are so Anglo-centric that they could almost be considered Protestant history instead. He finishes the book by stating:
“Thomas Jefferson surely had it right when he urged the teaching of political history so that American’s might learn, ‘how to judge for themselves what wills secure or endanger their freedom’. Citizens who are their own historian, willing to identify lies and distortions and able to use sources to determine what really went on in the past, become a formidable force for democracy.”
James W. Loewen Biography
James William Loewen was born on February 6th, 1942 in Decatur, Illinois. The son of a doctor and a librarian, Loewen was a good student from an early age and graduated as a National Merit Scholar from his high school in 1960. He went on to attend Carleton College. In 1963, he spent one semester in Mississippi where he was exposed to a different culture that led him to wonder if what he had been taught in school about US history was entirely accurate. He was particularly intrigued by the Chinese immigrants in Mississippi and their descendants.
Loewen later attended Harvard University where he received a Ph.D. in sociology. Loewen then went on to teach at different colleges, including Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Tugaloo is a historically black college that was founded after the Civil War. At the University of Vermont, Loewen taught about racism for 20 years. He was also a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.
In 1974, Loewen coauthored a history textbook called “Mississippi: Conflict and Change.” Though the book won an award for Nonfiction, it was rejected for usage in public schools on the grounds that it was too controversial and focused too much on racism. Loewen sued the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board, and the judge ruled that the textbook was not banned on “justifiable grounds.” The case is considered historic in terms of the protection of the First Amendment to this day.
In the late 80’s, Loewen studied twelve textbooks at the Smithsonian Institution and compared them. His findings were released in the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” in 1995 where he concluded that the textbooks propagate Euro centric views on US history.
Loewen published “Sundown Towns” in 2005. The book is a history of the so-called “sundown towns” or towns where African Americans were encouraged to leave town before sundown in order to avoid racist violence. Loewen later followed up the success of “Lies” with another book, “Teaching What Really Happened” in 2010. The book lays out Loewen’s idea that history should be taught at the elementary and secondary school levels. Loewen also published several more novels and is currently working on a new book about inaccurate historical markers across the US.