Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Revised and Updated Edition

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Overview


Since its first publication in 1995, Lies My Teacher Told Me has gone on to win an American Book Award and the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, and has sold over a million copies in its various editions.

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, and the My Lai massacre, 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.

This new edition also features a handsome new cover and a new introduction by the author.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"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."
—Howard Zinn
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595583260
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 3/31/2008
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Pages: 444
  • Sales rank: 137,822
  • Product dimensions: 9.70 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Meet the Author


James W. Loewen is the bestselling author of Lies Across America and Sundown Towns (The New Press), among many other books and articles. He is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and lives in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt


INTRODUCTION

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.

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Table of Contents


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 Ahead—and What to Do
About Them 355

Notes 363
Appendix 435
Index 437

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 198 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(95)

4 Star

(47)

3 Star

(23)

2 Star

(12)

1 Star

(21)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 198 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2008

    Biased Work Claiming to be Unbiased

    I knew when reading this book that I would have to examine my own education in history, which I thought was always subpar. However, none of these 'revelations' Mr. Loewen writes about startled me. I knew our US presidents owned slaves, that the civilizations of the natives who were here before Europeans (Loewen, for all his PC-ness, still calls them Indians) were wiped out due to violence and disease. But what truly disturbed me was his chapter about contemporary history, specifically the 80s and 90s. I agreed in that recent history is not taught as it should be, preventing students from applying the concept of causality. But, when discussing 9/11, he makes the claim that after the events of that day, we should have not focused on extreme Islamic policies and instead focused on what we did wrong and change our policies. In earlier chapters, he notes many textbooks make the mistake of blaming the victims of history. As a military member and one who is familiar with Middle Eastern culture, the language, and the religion, I took great offense to this. Loewen, at best, is an apologetic. To him, there were no good people in history. Every hero we've ever had was a racist hothead who made sure the white race always stayed above the other races. I realize there are dark points in American history and he is in the right to point them out since many textbooks do not address them. However, going the other extreme is not a way to solve anything. He claims history books are really propaganda, make human beings into gods, and bore children. What he has written is propaganda on the other side of the spectrum, makes human beings into White Devils, and discourages children from seeing any good points about the history of their own country.

    42 out of 62 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2008

    Politics searching for history

    Everyone has an opinion about the past and will carefully select what they want to justify their world view. Be wary of someone claiming to present an unbiased and therefore more intellectually honest portrait of history. As just one example of the author's illogic, how can one glorify a murderer and traitor 'i.e., John Brown' and vilify a president like Woodrow Wilson, who was admittedly a flawed individual, but hardly an anti-woman, racist, ideologue? There is always more to people and history than can be captured in a book but to assert that yours is the true version of what happened is just silly.

    18 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2005

    The Rest of the Story

    As most of us know, the winners write the textbooks and if you know much about the textbook industry, it is blatantly obvious that politics plays a huge role in what gets published. There can be absolutely no doubt that this country has refused to acknowledge its own sins of the past, particularly where the Native American issue is concerned. As a career educator and administrator in the public sector, I have witnessed (and unfortunately, been guilty of) teaching sketchy, often misleading, and sometimes completely false historical information to public school students. We don't have a choice oftentimes, because to teach in opposition to the adopted textbook, or to even expand on it and give a more multi-faceted view, is controversial and could lead to the loss of a teaching job. Again, politics raises its ugly head, at the expense of the truth. So, Bravo! to Mr. Loewen for having the nerve to present an opposing viewpoint. Those who have been completely indoctrinated into the current radical right wing mindset will have much difficulty with this book, because it would require a major paradigm shift for them. And, as we know, the very term 'conservative' implies sameness, follower, unexcepting of differing views, etc. A paradigm shift requires kicking over sacred cows, and re-evaluating belief systems it requires casting a critical eye on why we believe what we believe. If you are interested in the truth behind the myth of American History, READ THIS BOOK!

    18 out of 27 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2005

    Michael Moore's American History

    A distortion of the truth and out-of-context assertion of American History. If you liked Fahrenheit 911 you'll love this. If you prefer your history objectively rendered, look elsewhere. Ward Churchill undoubtedly gives this book 2 thumbs up!

    15 out of 32 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    History as it SHOULD be taught.

    Enlightning beyond belief. The belief that if we were told it in school by someone of authority, then it HAD to be true. BUT SO MUCH OF IT WASN'T! This book will set you straight on many aspects of our country's "history" as nothing else I've ever read. An important and necessary book for all people no matter what your race, social background or age. If it isn't required reading for high school students, then we can only hope that one day it will be. Not the fast-paced kind of read that fiction can provide but has facts so startling new and true, for many of us, that you will be amazed at what you find out.

    13 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    What began as an interesting description of the history not included in most US History textbooks quickly degraded into a primer on left-wing socialist philosophy. Though it seemed through the first half of the book that the author was truly attempting to give a non-biased look at history, even then his politics kept squeezing through. I don't mind reading an author with whom I may disagree however, I was looking for a book about historical facts, not philosophy. I would have much preferred having the history laid out accurately but sans commentary so that I could draw my own conclusions.

    13 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2002

    Brilliant

    The most brilliant book I've ever read on US history. This is US history as I learned it in Europe. Why do Europeans learn the truth and Americans don't? You have nothing to be ashamed of, not even of the truth. Yes, it is brutally honest, but the history of every country is full of extremely brutal things. We can't make anything better in the future if we aren't aware of our past. In order to be proud of our heritage, it is absolutely necessary to also know the negative things our native country did. No country on this planet only did good things, that's just not human nature. You can be proud of your country anyway. So this is an absolute must read book, not only for Americans.

    13 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 24, 2010

    Biased, False and Boring - Very Poorly Written!

    One of the worst books I've ever read. Chapter 1 starts off strong. It discusses what may not commonly be known about such well known individuals as Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson. The remainder of the book is biased, false and boring. Did you know that Bill Clinton got 54.7% of the popular vote in the 96 Presidential election? Well he didn't. Feel free to Google for the correct number. I'll bet it's closer to 49.2%. Did you know that almost a quarter of Dr Loewen's students thought South Korea fought in the Vietnam War. He was stunned. He was also wrong. Our Vietnamese adversaries learned the hard way not to attack the South Korean troops that were in South Vietnam. I could continue citing his erroneous information, but I'll stop there. There's are several valid points that may be made about History textbooks. He fails in that respect. His arguments are biased and unconvincing. Dr Loewen does not seem to be a skilled writer, nor is he a Historian. Dr Loewen stick to Sociology, and hire a ghost writer.

    10 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2006

    A nice chaser for a standard history course.

    Picture the American history as a pitcher of water. Typically, the author sugars the mixture into the ground. What Loewen has done here is provide us with a nice, tart packet of Kool-Aid mix. Lies My Teacher Told Me is an interesting, if very deliberately angled, window on what some might call 'revisionist history.' Taken on it's own, the book may be seen as incredibly biased (to overextend an already ridiculous metaphor, Kool-Aid made without sugar is bitter indeed), but any such criticism of the book must take into account the fact that it is not MEANT to be taken on it's own. Lies My Teacher Told Me labors under the challenge of having to examine almost 6 centuries of history's accumulated misconceptions and omissions, which generations of Americans have had drilled into them over thirteen years of primary school, and counterbalance them all in the span of a single one-or-two hour read. He really goes out on a limb with some of his conclusions, but if the volume in general comes off as abrasively liberal and revisionist, it is only because he has given himself so little space to challenge (radically) so many two-dimensional historical notions. Challenge may not be the right word, though-- little of what Loewen has to say will be news to anyone but junior-high and high-school kids just starting to realize that history's grand heroes were real, flawed men and women, and not the marbleized demigods and easily defined villians laid out in their inoffensive grade-school texts. The funny thing here is that, in writing a book whose obvious intent is to shock the reader into a broader awareness of history, the author uses many of the same techniques he rails against- specifically, the charicaturization-by-omission of key historical figures and events. An eye for an eye? Fair enough, but to revisionist readers he's singing a song they already know by heart, and to many of the more moderate readers, like myself, the picture of history provided here is left jagged and distorted unless one keeps firmly in mind that it is best read as a counterbalance to traditional history, and not an intended replacement.

    9 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2004

    this guy must be friends with micheal moore

    Very biased attack of popular american beliefs and history. Maybe some of it was true but alot of it just pissed me off. Kind of boring read too, you can only take so much of 'the white guys screwed everything up and then rewrote history' story line. I ended up just putting it down towards the end, I only give it stars cause it at least makes you question things

    8 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 12, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    TEACH YOUR KID RIGHT

    This book was recommended to me by a highly-respected professor who truly wanted his students to have a well-rounded understanding of our history. Textbooks make great outlines but leave out the juicy details of events that fueled the fire behind revolutions, revolts, etc. The book itself is revolutionary in reshaping history as we know it - as we were taught it - by presenting an unbiased perspective of world events (rather than pushing a thesis).

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2010

    Well written and very informative

    I found this book to be very informative and a must read for all high school students. I think this book illuminates the dark history that the United States has effectively hidden. I agree with the author that showing historical persons flaws along side their positive attributes is very important to show that they were actually humans. I can see that many might see Loewen's writings as slanted but that being said I still find the information in the book to be very valuable. Overall this book is a great read and very informative, it offers many solutions to huge problems in American History classes.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2004

    a disappointment

    I was required by my teacher to buy this book, to be used in seminars and debates. While some of what the author says IS enlightening, I found that I disagreed with much of it. But then again, that should be the purpose of a piece of literature, to get a person thinking. Just as a warning to anyone interested in reading this: IT IS VERY VERY BIASED to the complete other side of the spectrum. In fact, at times you would think he is anti-American.

    7 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 23, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Terrific

    "Lies My Teacher Told Me" shoots holes in several preachy myths about how great America is. This book speaks the truth.

    6 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2002

    Book is as Biased as Those it Criticizes

    The book contains some interesting points, but it is no more objective than the history textbooks it criticizes. The author implies that all white men are dishonest, stupid, greedy and cruel. This is as ludicrous as his complaints that European/Americans are depicted as universally virtuous. I believe the book is worth reading, but it should be read with with caution, and taken with more than a grain of salt. Virtue and vice are individual characteristics that have nothing to do with race, nationality, gender or economic postioning.

    6 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2008

    A Horrible Book

    This book is awful. I am a history teacher and a history major. Everything that he has in the book is wrong. He claims that people in history such as Woodrow Wilson a bad person. Why would he say that? What justifies that? All this book does is divide people among racial lines, and taint an already positive view of history.

    5 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2007

    A reviewer

    All in all, this book is a very enlightening piece--however, once it reached its end, I found that it became a bit too liberal for my taste. Quite frankly, I was very disappointed with the ending, because the rest of the book was clean, and UNTAINTED by liberal-ness. But, I would still recommend this book to any person who is interested in history (and, if you don't agree with it, you can read it to see what the 'other half' is saying).

    5 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 1999

    Nothing new from the Liberal press.

    This book provided no new information, just a bunch of 'Right Wing' conspiracy theories. The 'lies' Loewen presented are universally known to anyone with half a brain. It seems that Loewen's main intent is to point emphasis where it doesn't belong. All intelligent individuals are aware of the Liberal agenda which we are bombarded with in school. We are aware of the Government is good liberal slant we are taught, Loewen attempts to point the politally correctness teaching styles toward the right. Loewen had an opportunity to inform us as a society, instead he rehashes already known information and levels the Clinton's charge of a 'vast right wing conspiracy'

    5 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 2, 2009

    The American History Book I Shoulda Read First

    I sincerely recommend that every American of middle school age and above should read this book! Packed with facts and explanations about our country's history that puts into a proper perspective all that school textbooks at the secondary and college level get all twisted up with misinformation and way too much ethnocentricity to make it plausible, yet I know I perceived my history as I was taught in grades 1 to 12 and at college as the valid word. What an eye-opener on many historical topics. I particularly enjoyed the thorough research and bibliography which pointed me to other interesting history books which have given me what I now feel is a much more solid knowledge of my country's history, scars, scandals, and all. Bravo!

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Lies, lies, can't believe a word you say!

    I found this book to be extremely enlightening and somewhat scary. It's important for us to remember that so much of what we learn is what "someone" chose to teach us. I highly recommend reading it.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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