Title: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
Author: James W. Loewen
Genre: Non-fiction, History
Publication Date: 1995 (Original edition)
Purchase Price: $16.00 (Updated and Revised Edition – Paperback)
“High school students hate history.”
Truer words than these are not often spoken. History CAN be dull; it’s an endless stream of dates, facts, names, and places, many of which feel like they are no longer relevant.
But James Loewen, a sociologist, believes that history is very much alive, and is extremely relevant to our world’s current happenings — it’s just that history books are–and I’m paraphrasing here–steaming stacks of poo.
But what exactly makes for a good or bad history textbook? Loewen spent several years studying 12 history textbooks, as well as interviewing book authors and publishers.
Turns out it’s not that history’s lame — it’s that the textbooks are.
Lies touches on all eras of US history, from Columbus to 9/11. The book is extensive and detailed, and the chapters discuss such themes as:
- Making perfect heroes out of imperfect historical figures;
- The invisibility of both racism and anti-racism in textbooks; and
- The glossing-over of many of the more negative aspects of the Vietnam War
By essentially sterilizing US history (so that we’re always the victors, and always overcome insurmountable odds), Loewen believes that we are turning history–dramatic, living, and breathing–into melodrama of the sappiest order.
No American in a US History textbook is ever really in danger of failing. There’s also no causality, no looking at the past to learn more about the present. Says Loewen:
“…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.”
Nothing is ever the result of any other thing — stuff just happens, apparently spontaneously.
Without the ability to think critically about where we’ve been and where we are, students are unable to consider where we might be going — and that is a dangerous situation.
Why are textbooks like this?
Compiling a textbook of any kind is difficult, and history textbooks are especially work-intensive. It’s also common knowledge amongst historians that those who DO write textbooks are sneered at by their peers. Add to all that the fact that many authors just aren’t interested in writing textbooks, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
As for who actually writes history textbooks, that’s anyone’s guest. Loewen interviews authors who claim they wrote the books, but when they are shown the historical inaccuracies presented in “their” books, they start to blame editors, copywriters, and even publishing interns.
It’s also about politics (isn’t everything?). A textbook is more likely to be rejected by schoolboards if it puts “too much focus” on minorities (including women), or is “too” conservative or “too” liberal.
Changing the rules
US history textbooks must cover a staggering amount of ground within the course of a year.
Loewen is not campaigning for shorter textbooks, however — he is campaigning for accurate ones. He also wants students to be able to examine primary sources, and to be given the freedom to actively consider and criticize the textbooks they are reading.
I think every high school student should be given a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me. History teachers should receive copies too; not because it’s going to tear them apart, but because it offers advice and hope that thinking and teaching out of the box IS a worthwhile effort.
My high school history teacher made history fun. When we wrote writing bills, read primary sources, or re-enacted the court martial of Lieutenant William Calley, we were getting a firm grip on the truth of history — and for Ms. Alexander I will always be grateful.
After having read Loewen’s book for the first time sometime during 2006, I emailed Ms. Alexander to thank her for being a great teacher. Turned out she’d read the book too, long before I’d ever heard of it.
I enjoyed history before her classes — she made me love it.
“For when textbook authors leave out the warts, the problems, the unfortunate character traits, and the mistaken ideas, they reduce heroes from dramatic men and women to melodramatic stick figures. Their inner struggles disappear and they become goody-goody, not merely good.” (p. 29)
Did you like history during high school? Did your teacher follow the herd, or break the mold?