“Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book. It is both a refreshing antidote to what has passed for history in our educational system and a one-volume education in itself.”
A new edition of the national bestseller and American Book Award winner, with a new preface by the author
Since its first publication in 1995, Lies My Teacher Told Me has become one of the most important—and successful—history books of our time. Having sold nearly two million copies, the book also won an American Book Award and the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship and was heralded on the front page of the New York Times.
For this new edition, Loewen has added a new preface that shows how inadequate history courses in high school help produce adult Americans who think Donald Trump can solve their problems, and calls out academic historians for abandoning the concept of truth in a misguided effort to be “objective.”
What started out as a survey of the twelve leading American history textbooks has ended up being what the San Francisco Chronicle calls “an extremely convincing plea for truth in education.” In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen brings history alive in all its complexity and ambiguity. Beginning with pre-Columbian history and ranging over characters and events as diverse as Reconstruction, Helen Keller, the first Thanksgiving, the My Lai massacre, 9/11, and the Iraq War, Loewen offers an eye-opening critique of existing textbooks, and a wonderful retelling of American history as it should—and could—be taught to American students.
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About the Author
James W. Loewen is the bestselling and award-winning author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, and Sundown Towns, all published by The New Press. He also wrote Teaching What Really Happened and edited The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. He has won the American Book Award, the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, and the Spirit of America Award from the National Council for the Social Studies. In 2012, the American Sociological Association gave him its Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award; he is the only white person to win this honor. Loewen is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
SOMETHING HAS GONE VERY WRONG
It would be better not to know so many things than to know so many things that are
not so. JOSH BILLINGS
American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible
than anything anyone has ever said about it. JAMES BALDWIN
Concealment of the historical truth is a crime against the people.
GEN. PETROG. GRIGERNKO, SAMIZDAT LETTER TO A HISTORY JOURNAL, c. 1975 ,USSR
Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade.
JAMES W. LOEWEN
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history “the most irrelevant” of twenty- one subjects commonly taught in high school. Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it. When students can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even when they are forced to take classes in history, they repress what they learn, so every year or two another study decries what our seventeen-year-olds don’t know.
Even male children of affluent white families think that history as taught in high school is “too neat and rosy.” African American, Native American, and Latino students view history with a special dislike. They also learn history especially poorly. Students of color do only slightly worse than white students in mathematics. If you’ll pardon my grammar, nonwhite students do more worse in English and most worse in history. Something intriguing is going on here: surely history is not more difficult for minorities than trigonometry or Faulkner.
Students don’t even know they are alienated, only that they “don’t like social studies” or “aren’t any good at history.” In college, most students of color give history departments a wide berth. Many history teachers perceive the low morale in their classrooms. If they have a lot of time, light domestic responsibilities, sufficient resources, and a flexible principal, some teachers respond by abandoning the overstuffed textbooks and reinventing their American history courses. All too many teachers grow disheartened and settle for less. At least dimly aware that their students are not requiting their own love of history, these teachers withdraw some of their energy from their courses. Gradually they end up going through the motions, staying ahead of their students in the textbooks, covering only material that will appear on the next test.
College teachers in most disciplines are happy when their students have had
significant exposure to the subject before college. Not teachers in history. History professors in college routinely put down high school history courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey of American history “Iconoclasm I and II,” because he sees his job as disabusing his charges of what they learned in high school to make room for more accurate information. In no other field does this happen. Mathematics professors, for instance, know that non- Euclidean geometry is rarely taught in high school, but they don’t assume that Euclidean geometry was mistaught. Professors of English literature don’t presume that Romeo and Juliet was misunderstood in high school. Indeed, history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become.
Perhaps I do not need to convince you that American history is important. More than any other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems our present 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, and according to sociologist C. Wright Mills, we know we do.
Outside of school, Americans show great interest in history. Historical
novels, whether by Gore Vidal ( Lincoln, Burr, et al. ) or Dana Fuller Ross ( Idaho!, Utah!, Nebraska!, Oregon!, Missouri!, and on! and on! ) often become bestsellers. The National Museum of American History is one of the three big draws of the Smithsonian Institution. The series The Civil War attracted new audiences to public television. Movies based on historical incidents or themes are a continuing source of fascination, from Birth of a Nation through Gone With the Wind to Dances with Wolves , JFK, and Saving Private Ryan. Not history itself but traditional American history courses turn students off.
Our situation is this: American history is full of fantastic and important stories. These stories have the power to spellbind audiences, even audiences of difficult seventh graders. These same stories show what America has been about and are directly relevant to our present society. American audiences, even young ones, need and want to know about their national past. Yet they sleep through the classes that present it.
What has gone wrong?
We begin to get a handle on this question by noting that textbooks dominate
American history courses more than they do any other subject. When I first came across that finding in the educational research literature, I was dumbfounded. I would have guessed almost anything else—plane geometry, for instance. After all, it would be hard for students to interview elderly residents of their community about plane geometry, or to learn about it from library books or old newspaper files or the thousands of photographs and documents at the Library of Congress website. All these resources—and more—are relevant to American history. Yet it is in history classrooms, not geometry, where students spend more time reading from their textbooks, answering the fifty-five boring questions at the end of each chapter, going over those answers aloud, and so on.
Between the glossy covers, American history textbooks are full of information— overly full. These books are huge. The specimens in my original collection of a dozen of the most popular textbooks averaged four and a half pounds in weight and 888 pages in length. To my astonishment, during the last twelve years they grew even larger. In 2006 I surveyed six new books. (Owing to publisher consolidation, there no longer are twelve.) Three are new editions of “legacy textbooks,” descended from books originally published half a century ago; three are “new new” books. These six new books average 1,150 pages and almost six pounds! I never imagined they would get bigger. I had thought—hoped?—that the profusion of resources on the Web would make it obvious that these behemoths are obsolete. The Web did not exist when the earlier batch of textbooks came into being. In those days, for history textbooks to be huge made some sense: students in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, say, or Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, had few resources in American history other than their textbooks. No longer: today every school that has a phone line is connected to the Web. There students can browse hundreds of thousands of primary sources including newspaper articles, the census, historic photographs, and original documents, as well as secondary interpretations from scholars, citizens, other students, and rascals and liars. No longer is there any need to supply students with nine months’ reading between the covers of one book, written or collected by a single set of authors.
The new books are so huge that they may endanger their readers. Each of the 1,104 pages in The American Journey is wider and taller than any page in the twelve already enormous high school textbooks in my original sample. Surely at 5.6 pounds, Journey is the heaviest book ever assigned to middle- school children in the history of American education. (At more than $84, it may also be the most expensive.) A new nonprofit organization, Backpack Safety America, has formed, spurred by chiropractors and other health care professionals. Its mission is “to reduce the weight of textbooks and backpacks.” In the meantime, pending that accomplishment, chiropractors are visiting schools teaching proper posture and lifting techniques.
Publishers, too, realize that the books look formidably large, so they try to disguise their total page count by creative pagination. Journey , for example, has 1,104 pages but manages to come in under a thousand by using separate numbering for thirty-two pages at the front of the book and seventy-two pages at the end. Students aren’t fooled. They know these are by far the heaviest volumes to lug home, the largest to hold in the lap, and the hardest to get excited about.
Editors also realize how daunting these books appear to the poor children who must read them, so they provide elaborate introductions and enticements, beginning with the table of contents. For The Americans , for example, a 1,358- page textbook from McDougal Littell weighing in at almost seven pounds, the table of contents runs twenty-two pages. It is profusely illustrated and has little colored banners with titles like “Geography Spotlight,” “Daily Life,” and “Historical Spotlight.” Right after it comes a three-page layout, “Themes in History” and “Themes in Geography.” Then come hints on how to read the complex, disjointed thirty- to forty-page chapters. “Each chapter begins with a two-page chapter opener,” it says. “Study the chapter opener to help you get ready to read.”
“Oh, no,” groan students. “Nothing good will come of this.” They know that no one has to tell them how to get ready to read a Harry Potter book or any other book that is readable. Something different is going on here.
Unfortunately, having a still bigger book only spurs conscientious teachers to spend even more time making sure students read it and deal with its hundreds of minute questions and tasks. This makes history courses even more boring. Publishers then try to make their books more interesting by inserting various special aids to give them eye appeal. But these gimmicks have just the opposite effect. Many are completely useless, except to the marketing department. Consider the little colored banners in the table of contents of The Americans. No student would ever need to have a list of the “Geography Spotlights” in this book. One spotlight happens to be “The Panama Canal,” but the student seeking information on the canal would find it by looking in the index in the back, not by surmising that it might be a Geography Spotlight, then finding that list within the twenty- two pages of contents in the front, and then scanning it to see if Panama Canal appears. The only possible use for these bannered lists is for the sales rep to point to when trying to get a school district to adopt the book.
The books are huge so that no publisher will lose an adoption because a book has left out a detail of concern to a particular geographical area or group. Textbook authors seem compelled to include a paragraph about every U.S. president, even William Henry Harrison and Millard Fillmore. Then there are the review pages at the end of each chapter. The Americans , to take one example, highlights 840 “Main Ideas Within Its Main Text.” In addition, the text contains 310 “Skill Builders,” 890 “Terms and Names,” 466 “Critical Thinking” questions, and still other projects within its chapters. And that’s not counting the hundreds of terms and questions in the two- page reviews that follow each chapter. At year’s end, no student can remember 840 main ideas, not to mention 890 terms and countless other factoids. So students and teachers fall back on one main idea: to memorize the terms for the test on that chapter, then forget them to clear the synapses for the next chapter. No wonder so many high school graduates cannot remember in which century the Civil War was fought!
Students are right: the books are boring. The stories that history textbooks tell are predictable; every problem has already been solved or is about to be solved. Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character. When they try for drama, they achieve only melodrama, because readers know that everything will turn out fine in the end. “Despite setbacks, the United States overcame these challenges,” in the words of one textbook. Most authors of history textbooks don’t even try for melodrama. Instead, they write in a tone that if heard aloud might be described as “mumbling lecturer.” No wonder students lose interest.
Table of Contents
Introduction to the Second Edition xi
Introduction: Something Has Gone Very Wrong 1
1 Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero- making 11
2 1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus 31
3 The Truth About the First Thanksgiving 70
4 Red Eyes 93
5 Gone With the Wind”: The Invisibility of Racism in
American History Textbooks 135
6 John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: The Invisibility of Antiracism
in American History Textbooks 172
7 The Land of Opportunity 204
8 Watching Big Brother: What Textbooks Teach About
the Federal Government 219
9 See No Evil: Choosing Not to Look at the War in Vietnam 244
10 Down the Memory Hole: The Disappearance of the
Recent Past 259
11 Progress Is Our Most Important Product 280
12 Why Is History Taught Like This? 301
13 What Is the Result of Teaching History Like This? 340
Afterword: The Future Lies Aheadand What to Do
About Them 355
Reading Group Guide
Lies My Teacher Told Me
James W. Loewen
Questions and Topics For Discussion:
- Loewen identifies herofication as a key practice of textbook scholarship. What does he mean by herofication? What are the key elements of the herofication process?
- What are the aims and purposes of herofication? Do you agree? Why or why not?
- What is a social archetype? How are they constructed? How are social archetypes related to the herofication process? Can one exist without the other? Why or why not?
- What does Loewen mean when he says that herofication is a “degenerative process”?
- How does Loewen redress Wilson’s and Keller’s herofication? What do you believe is gained or lost in his redress?
- Identify the five significant developments that Loewen credits with paving the way for Europeans to dominate the world in the beginning of the 15th century.
- What is cognitive dissonance? What part does it play in the US’s evolving conceptions of Indians?
- What are the social archetypes present in most history textbooks’ retelling of the Christopher Columbus story? What purpose do these archetypes serve?
- What do anthropologists mean by the term syncretism? What does syncretism reveal about the nature of cultures? How does it impact our understanding of the developments that made Columbus’s first voyage possible?
- Identify the elements of Columbus’s discovery narratives that are being challenged by historians and scholars. What are the actual facts of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage?
- Loewen suggests that portions of Columbus’s narrative were added to make a better myth for textbook readers. What does Loewen’s use of the term myth do to your conception of the story? Is it a useful designation? Why or why not?
- Loewen credits Columbus with two phenomena. What are they and how do they continue to inform US relations with foreign nations today?
- What does Loewen’s analysis of the word “settlers” reveal about the predispositions of language? Can you identify other words that are similarly loaded with meaning? What are these words and how can you shift their meaning as Loewen does?
- What role does syncretism play in Loewen’s re-envisioning of the First Thanksgiving?
- Explain the role that climate and diseases play in the European “settling” of New England. How does the inclusion of these two elements in Loewen’s analysis challenge popular history? What can you conclude Native Americans’ way of life prior to their European encounter?
- What are the social archetypes that appear in this chapter of Lies? How do they serve the Thanksgiving story?
- Through his demonstration of the ritualized nature of the celebration, Loewen proposes that Thanksgiving has been raised to the status of religious practice in the U.S. Do you agree with his analysis? Why or why not?
- How do Native Americans’ interactions with Europeans shift the balance of power within and among tribes? What elements of Native American and European cultures were enhanced and/or sacrificed?
- How does the “primitive to civilized continuum” continue to resonate in the stories textbooks tell about Native Americans? Why does it persist?
- What does the term cultural imperialism mean? How do the dynamics of the Native American slave trade give rise to it in the Americas?
- Identify the impact of Native American traditions on the values and institutions held in high esteem in the US.
- What were the long term repercussions of the end of the War of 1812 on conflicts between Native Americans and the United States? Why has the full effect of this war remained unexplored in history textbooks?
- What is the “magnolia myth”? How was it used in the debate about slavery
- How does Loewen define racism? What does he identify as its cause? Does his definition alter your conception of racism? How?
- What is the relationship between slavery and racism? How does each inform the other? Is there a distinction in each without the presence of the other? What are these distinctions?
- How does Loewen suggest that textbooks can better redress and deconstruct racism as a process?
- How did the US’s preoccupation with securing its border from fleeing slaves impact its foreign and domestic policies prior to the Civil War?
- What is the Confederate Myth of Reconstruction? How do textbooks foster and support this myth? What social archetypes do textbooks employ in the service of this myth?
- How does Loewen reframe the problem of Reconstruction? How does his reframing impact our understanding of the period known as the “nadir of American race relations”?
- What were the major legislative measures that marked the “nadir of American race relations” period? What was their resultant impact on the lives of African Americans? How did these measures challenge or reinforce the problem of Reconstruction?
- What does Loewen reveal about the challenge of upward mobility for African Americans? How was this challenge similar and different for Native Americans?
- How have textbooks’ portraits of John Brown changed through time? What do these shifts communicate about the relationship of time and ideas?
- What is the legacy of John Brown? How should he be judged?
- What were the contradictions and inconsistencies in Confederate arguments and behaviors as they sought to preserve and rationalize slavery?
- How might textbook representations of Brown and Lincoln increase readers’ awareness of the nuanced and complex nature of ideas, people, and behavior?
- How do textbooks shortchange American idealism in the Reconstruction era? What is the lasting impact on American ideologies, particularly their relationships with institutions?
- How does social class define and constrain individual and group experiences of opportunities in America?
- What are the “hidden injuries of class”? What are their long term effects?
- What are some of the reasons why teachers avoid discussions of social class? Why is this avoidance ultimately a disservice to students?
- What arguments do Loewen use to support his contention that opportunity is not equal in America? How do immigrants support or challenge his views?
- How do American textbooks perpetuate the myth of upward mobility? What is the relationship between upward mobility and presumptions of merit? Do you agree with the myth label? Why or why not?
- What social archetypes do textbooks employ to circumvent class and labor narratives?