Book Reviews

Book Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen – A Must-Read!

The title of this book is a bit unfair. It’s not that the teachers intended to teach what they did, it’s that they were sort of forced to by the textbook makers and school boards. However, once you get beyond that, the rest of the book is stellar. Loewen was a college professor who was frustrated by what students came to college with from their American History classes, and he set out to find out why. The result is a scathing indictment of the U.S. Education system when it comes to teaching history.

Author James W. Loewen takes on those textbooks, putting them under the proverbial microscope. He is of the opinion that they fail to make the subject of history interesting. I would have to agree. I was totally bored by history when taught in school, and since leaving high school, I have devoured many books about history. Then there are the subjects that were left out of our textbooks that are also very interesting (the impact of Alexander Hamilton and his impact on the forming of this country were completely absent, even in New York). Loewen gives many examples of how the textbooks only show history in ways that would make students look at their country with blind faith and patriotism, failing to make them think about how we arrived at the point we are currently at. That is what history should teach us: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I know everything I learned about many things was a lie. Christopher Columbus? He was treated as a hero when I was in school, and his impact on the natives that already resided here was considered negligible. That’s fine if you subscribe to the idea that white European history is the only history. However, Columbus and other “explorers” treated like heroes in textbooks decimated the societies that were already here. I had always been under the impression that there weren’t that many natives in the “New World” when white Europeans arrived. There were hundreds of thousands – even millions across the continent that were all but erased by Settlers, and in many not-so-nice ways.

In case you think that’s all Loewen has. he takes issue with only telling part of the story of people like Helen Keller. I remember her being held up as a shining example of what you can accomplish in the face of adversity. The textbooks never told you “the rest of the story” where she was an avowed socialist bordering on communist. That part of her life is left out, in favor of a Conservative “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. I also never knew about Woodrow Wilson’s close ties to the Ku Klux Klan and his deep praise for the movie Birth of a Nation. Everything I was ever taught in school was all about what a great President he was getting the United States through the World War I era and helping form the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.

Loewen covers so much of our history that has been distorted, likely in the name of creating hyper-patriotism in students it’s impossible to name them all. It would seem that textbook makers have been successful in that area looking at the current climate, especially since 9/11, and he has something to say about that as well.

It was very interesting to read about how textbooks are put together and how so many people whose names appear on the cover to give the books credibility have little to do with them. Many times it’s just building on what is already there, with no corrections of false facts presented in previous editions of textbooks. Loewen challenges the notion that there is no cause and effect, as presented in textbooks. Things seem to just “happen” with no rhyme or reason. This helps propel the notion that we can get through anything that comes up because America is just that great. I think that is what many people want to believe, as long as it’s not something that happens to them.

The textbooks have to appeal to people in various regions of the country to sell, and nowhere is the issue more dumbed down than when it comes to the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. If the freed slaves following the Civil War were presented as able to serve in government and make great strides, the southern states would not buy them. Therefore, it’s eliminated. I never knew many of the things I learned following high school about the Reconstruction Era. In fact, I can remember it being emphasized that many of the elderly freed slaves had to stay with their former owners who graciously took care of them when their own children and grandchildren wouldn’t while the federal government penalized the former slaveholders. The textbooks are designed not to offend the people who buy them – mostly white school boards – and therefore they make history very bland and very vanilla.

Lies My Teacher Told Me is a book everyone should read. The people who will refuse to consider it are usually those who need to be sure the white version of history is the right version. In reality, learning that people we revere in history weren’t perfect and still attained some greatness is more inspirational. It certainly would make history classes more interesting and lively.

8 replies »

  1. A case in point: When I was still in my “getting used to America” stage and hadn’t quite gotten the hang of reading in English (say, a few months before my 10th birthday, back in 1973), I browsed through someone’s high school-level American history textbook, where I came across a heroic Frederic Remington-style painting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka Custer’s Last Stand.

    I don’t recall now the exact wording of the text, but the gist was that Custer was made to look like a hero who happened to be unfortunate enough to be involved in the Native Americans’ last victory in the long and bloody Plains Indian Wars. Nothing nuanced was mentioned…the text didn’t necessarily villainize the natives, but the choice of illustration made Custer and his Seventh Cavalry Regiment look like “good guys who ran into bad luck” on that June day in 1876.

    I already liked history as a kid, but that’s because I read it on my own and from books written for grownups and not the various public school systems.

    I remember reading somewhere that most textbook publishers tend to tailor their history books to appease Southern states, especially Texas, since that state is the biggest buyer of their wares.

    Good review, as always.

      • Another thing that bugs me as a more well-educated adult is that whenever the Battle of the Little Bighorn was mentioned (in the when it was OK to treat Custer as a hero days, anyway) the implication was that the entire Seventh Cavalry Regiment was “massacred.” Not true. Only the 200+ men under the man’s direct command were killed. The rest of the Regiment was elsewhere because Custer had divided his force, if I recall correctly, in three.

        At the time (1876), of course, the deaths of Custer and part of the Seventh Cavalry were a “great disaster” for the white people, so of course the Americans were even more aggressive in their war against the Lakota and other tribes which were defending territory that was, per treaties signed by the U.S. government, legally theirs. Naturally, those treaties meant little to the folks in Washington, DC if they got in the way of the various interests (the railroads, the miners, and the ranchers) that wanted those wide open spaces of the West.

        America, our America, was built on a foundation of violence, greed, and blood. Not too many whites, even today, seem to want to come to terms with that.