Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me 2nd ed.

Lies My Teacher Told Me 2nd ed.
By: James W. Loewen
444 pp., $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-7432-9628-1

When I picked up James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me I expected a simple little book pointing out some of the usual historical inaccuracies taught in US public schools but what I got was a serious critique on history textbooks. Loewen argues that many American history courses are not effectively teaching history to their students but instead teaching to the test and reducing history to factoids devoid students of information that can have a direct impact on their daily lives. “American History…” Loewen says “is about us. Whether one deems our presents society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we arrived at this point. Understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us.We need to know our history…” (2) 

One threat our historical figures face is a process Loewen calls “heroification” during which “our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest” (11). Heroification leaves out many important facts about our historical figures that may provide real insight into the world around us. Helen Keller, who struggled as a deaf-mute to learn to read and write, was also a radical socialist who not only sympathized with communist Russia but cheered for them in the streets. Woodrow Wilson, in addition to helping create the League of Nations also segregated the federal government and used military force broadly and aggressively across Latin America. And John Brown, the “insane” abolitionist who, while alive, was described by his peer Governor Wise of Virginia as “a man of clear head [who showed] quick and clear perception [,] rational premises and consecutive reasoning [and] composure and self-possession” (176).

In Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut wrote “1492: The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. […] That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat, rob and kill them” (10), Loewen uses three chapters to cover misconceptions about the history of Americas native population noting that “historically, American Indians have been the most lied about subset of our population” (93). Loewen breaks down the traditional account of Christopher Columbus and deems most of it “wrong or unverifiable” (32) and continues dismantling commonly believed falsehoods regarding Columbus and his actions in the Americas particularly his involvement in establishing the transatlantic slave trade. While commonly presented as a a virgin wilderness needing settlement, Loewen describes “[areas where] Native Americans had repeatedly burned the underbrush, creating a parklike environment” (85). History even casts sad truths on our annuals celebration of thanksgiving with most evidence showing our tradition has nothing to do with our actual history.

Many U.S. History textbooks commonly leave out events that would reflect negatively on our country. Rarely mentioned are subject such as the eight U.S. Presidents who owned slaves while in office, the Japanese internment camps of WWII or the Mai Lay Massacre. The Jim Crow south may be discussed but the race issues of the era are rarely presented in relation to current race issues. Coming to terms with the worst moments in our relatively brief history gives us a truer ability to be proud of the progress we have achieved. Loewen warns that “history textbooks offer students no practice in applying their understanding of the past to present concerns, hence no basis for thinking rationally about anything in the future” (301). The closer we get to current event the more vaguely events are presented. Events in the last twenty-five years need to be included in class discussion as these are events that students can insure about from real world sources like friend and relatives. Understanding how these past events impacting individuals results in a wealth of information that students can use to evaluate and understand their world.

This amount of bias and misinformation does a major dis-service to students. By presenting history in a more open and honest manner we “would prepare students for their six decades of life better than today’s mindlessly upbeat textbook…” (Loewen 298).

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. 2nd ed., Touchstone 2007
Vonnegut Jr., Kurt Breakfast of Champions. Delacorte Press 1973