“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
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.
|Publisher:||New Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
James W. Loewen has won the American Book Award, the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, the Spirit of America Award from the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. He is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and lives in Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
Handicapped by History
The Process of Hero-making
What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors.
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner.., and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
W. E. B. Du Bois
By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves....We fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise.
Charles V. Willies
This Chapter is About Heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.
Many American history textbooks are studded with biographical vignettes of the very famous (Land of Promise devotes a box to each president) and the famous (The Challenge of Freedom provides "Did You Know?" boxes about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States, and Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, among many others). In themselves, vignettes are not a bad idea. They instruct by human example. They show diverse ways that people can make a difference. They allow textbooks to give space to characters such as Blackwell and Hansberry, who relieve what would otherwise be a monolithic parade of white male political leaders. Biographical vignettes also provoke reflection as to our purpose in teaching history: Is Chester A. Arthur more deserving of space than, say, Frank Lloyd Wright? Who influences us more today Wright, who invented the carport and transformed domestic architectural spaces, or Arthur, who, urn, signed the first Civil Service Act? Whose rise to prominence provides more drama Blackwell's or George Bush's (the latter born with a silver Senate seat in his mouth)? The choices are debatable, but surely textbooks should include some people based not only on what they achieved but also on the distance they traversed to achieve it.
We could go on to third- and fourth-guess the list of heroes in textbook pantheons. My concern here, however, is not who gets chosen, but rather what happens to the heroes when they are introduced into our history textbooks and our classrooms. Two twentieth-century Americans provide case studies of heroification: Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. Wilson was unarguably an important president, and he receives extensive textbook coverage. Keller, on the other hand, was a "little person" who pushed through no legislation, changed the course of no scientific discipline, declared no war. Only one of the twelve history textbooks I surveyed includes her photograph. But teachers love to talk about Keller and often show audiovisual materials or recommend biographies that present her life as exemplary. All this attention ensures that students retain something about both of these historical figures, but they may be no better off for it. Heroification so distorts the lives of Keller and Wilson (and many others) that we cannot think straight about them.
Teachers have held up Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren. Every fifth-grader knows the scene in which Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen's hand at the pump. At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on Keller's life. Each yields its version of the same clichE. A McGraw-Hill educational film concludes: "The gift of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make us is to help another reach true potential."
To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn from it. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history. The result is that we really don't know much about her.
Over the past ten years, I have asked dozens of college students who Helen Keller was and what she did. They all know that she was a blind and deaf girl. Most of them know that she was befriended by a teacher, Anne Sullivan, and learned to read and write and even to speak. Some students can recall rather minute details of Keller's early life: that she lived in Alabama, that she was unruly and without manners before Sullivan came along, and so forth. A few know that Keller graduated from college. But about what happened next, about the whole of her adult life, they are ignorant. A few students venture that Keller became a "public figure" or a "humanitarian," perhaps on behalf of the blind or deaf. "She wrote, didn't she?" or "she spoke" conjectures without content. Keller, who was born in 1880, graduated from Radcliffe in 1904 and died in 1968. To ignore the sixty-four years of her adult life or to encapsulate them with the single word humanitarian is to lie by omission.
The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist. She joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1909. She had become a social radical even before she graduated from Radcliffe, and not, she emphasized, because of any teachings available there. After the Russian Revolution, she sang the praises of the new communist nation: "In the East a new star is risen! With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new, and behold in the East a man-child is born! Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the coming dawn!" Keller hung a red flag over the desk in her study. Gradually she moved to the left of the Socialist party and became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson.
Keller's commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people's opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller's research was not just book-learning: "I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it."
At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller's "mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development."
Keller recalled having met this editor: "At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him." She went on, "Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent."
Keller, who devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, never wavered in her belief that our society needed radical change. Having herself fought so hard to speak, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union to fight for the free speech of others. She sent $100 to the NAACP with a letter of support that appeared in its magazine The Crisis a radical act for a white person from Alabama in the 1920s. She supported Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, in each of his campaigns for the presidency. She composed essays on the women's movement, on politics, on economics. Near the end of her life, she wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, leader of the American Communist party, who was then languishing in jail, a victim of the McCarthy era: "Loving birthday greetings, dear Elizabeth Flynn! May the sense of serving mankind bring strength and peace into your brave heart!"
One may not agree with Helen Keller's positions. Her praise of the USSR now seems naïve, embarrassing, to some even treasonous. But she was a radical a fact few Americans know, because our schooling and our mass media left it out.
What we did not learn about Woodrow Wilson is even more remarkable. When I ask my college students to tell me what they recall about President Wilson, they respond with enthusiasm. They say that Wilson led our country reluctantly into World War I and after the war led the struggle nationally and internationally to establish the League of Nations. They associate Wilson with progressive causes like women's suffrage. A handful of students recall the Wilson administration's Palmer Raids against left-wing unions. But my students seldom know or speak about two antidemocratic policies that Wilson carried out: his racial segregation of the federal government and his military interventions in foreign countries.
Under Wilson, the United States intervened in Latin America more often than at any other time in our history. We landed troops in Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and nine more times before the end of Wilson's presidency), Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918. Throughout his administration Wilson maintained forces in Nicaragua, using them to determine Nicaragua's president and to force passage of a treaty preferential to the United States.
In 1917 Woodrow Wilson took on a major power when he started sending secret monetary aid to the "White" side of the Russian civil war. In the summer of 1918 he authorized a naval blockade of the Soviet Union and sent expeditionary forces to Murmansk, Archangel, and Vladivostok to help overthrow the Russian Revolution. With the blessing of Britain and France, and in a joint command with Japanese soldiers, American forces penetrated westward from Vladivostok to Lake Baikal, supporting Czech and White Russian forces that had declared an anticommunist government headquartered at Omsk. After briefly maintaining front lines as far west as the Volga, the White Russian forces disintegrated by the end of 1919, and our troops finally left Vladivostok on April 1, 1920.
Few Americans who were not alive at the time know anything about our "unknown war with Russia," to quote the title of Robert Maddox's book on this fiasco. Not one of the twelve American history textbooks in my sample even mentions it. Russian history textbooks, on the other hand, give the episode considerable coverage. According to Maddox: "The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society. And there were longer-range implications. Bolshevik leaders had clear proof.., that the Western powers meant to destroy the Soviet government if given the chance."
This aggression fueled the suspicions that motivated the Soviets during the Cold War, and until its breakup the Soviet Union continued to claim damages for the invasion.
Wilson's invasions of Latin America are better known than his Russian adventure. Textbooks do cover some of them, and it is fascinating to watch textbook authors attempt to justify these episodes. Any accurate portrayal of the invasions could not possibly show Wilson or the United States in a favorable light. With hindsight we know that Wilson's interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua set the stage for the dictators Batista, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, and the Somozas, whose legacies still reverberate. Even in the 1910s, most of the invasions were unpopular in this country and provoked a torrent of criticism abroad. By the mid-1920s, Wilson's successors reversed his policies in Latin America. The authors of history textbooks know this, for a chapter or two after Wilson they laud our "Good Neighbor Policy," the renunciation of force in Latin America by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, which was extended by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Textbooks might (but don't) call Wilson's Latin American actions a "Bad Neighbor Policy" by comparison. Instead, faced with unpleasantries, textbooks wriggle to get the hero off the hook, as in this example from The Challenge of Freedom: "President Wilson wanted the United States to build friendships with the countries of Latin America. However, he found this difficult...."Some textbooks blame the invasions on the countries invaded: "Necessity was the mother of armed Caribbean intervention," states The American Pageant. Land of Promise is vague as to who caused the invasions but seems certain they were not Wilson's doing: "He soon discovered that because of forces he could not control, his ideas of morality and idealism had to give way to practical action." Promise goes on to assert Wilson's innocence: "Thus, though he believed it morally undesirable to send Marines into the Caribbean, he saw no way to avoid it." This passage is sheer invention. Unlike his secretary of the navy, who later complained that what Wilson "forced [me] to do in Haiti was a bitter pill for me," no documentary evidence suggests that Wilson suffered any such qualms about dispatching troops to the Caribbean.
All twelve of the textbooks I surveyed mention Wilson's 1914 invasion of Mexico, but they posit that the interventions were not Wilson's fault. "President Wilson was urged to send military forces into Mexico to protect American investments and to restore law and order," according to Triumph of the American Nation, whose authors emphasize that the president at first chose not to intervene. But "as the months passed, even President Wilson began to lose patience." Walter Karp has shown that this version contradicts the facts the invasion was Wilson's idea from the start, and it outraged Congress as well as the American people. According to Karp, Wilson's intervention was so outrageous that leaders of both sides of Mexico's ongoing civil war demanded that the U.S. forces leave; the pressure of public opinion in the United States and around the world finally influenced Wilson to recall the troops.
Textbook authors commonly use another device when describing our Mexican adventures: they identify Wilson as ordering our forces to withdraw, but nobody is specified as having ordered them in! Imparting information in a passive voice helps to insulate historical figures from their own unheroic or unethical deeds.
Some books go beyond omitting the actor and leave out the act itself. Half of the twelve textbooks do not even mention Wilson's takeover of Haiti. After U.S. marines invaded the country in 1915, they forced the Haitian legislature to select our preferred candidate as president. When Haiti refused to declare war on Germany after the United States did, we dissolved the Haitian legislature. Then the United States supervised a pseudo-referendum to approve a new Haitian constitution, less democratic than the constitution it replaced; the referendum passed by a hilarious 98,225 to 768. As Piero Gleijesus has noted, "It is not that Wilson failed in his earnest efforts to bring democracy to these little countries. He never tried. He intervened to impose hegemony, not democracy." The United States also attacked Haiti's proud tradition of individual ownership of small tracts of land, which dated back to the Haitian Revolution, in favor of the establishment of large plantations. American troops forced peasants in shackles to work on road construction crews. In 1919 Haitian citizens rose up and resisted U.S. occupation troops in a guerrilla war that cost more than 3,000 lives, most of them Haitian. Students who read Triumph of the American Nation learn this about Wilson's intervention in Haiti: "Neither the treaty nor the continued presence of American troops restored order completely. During the next four or five years, nearly 2,000 Haitians were killed in riots and other outbreaks of violence." This passive construction veils the circumstances about which George Barnett, a U.S. marine general, complained to his commander in Haiti: "Practically indiscriminate killing of natives has gone on for some time." Barnett termed this violent episode "the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps."
During the first two decades of this century, the United States effectively made colonies of Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and several other countries. Wilson's reaction to the Russian Revolution solidified the alignment of the United States with Europe's colonial powers. His was the first administration to be obsessed with the specter of communism, abroad and at home. Wilson was blunt about it. In Billings, Montana, stumping the West to seek support for the League of Nations, he warned, "There are apostles of Lenin in our own midst. I can not imagine what it means to be an apostle of Lenin. It means to be an apostle of the night, of chaos, of disorder." Even after the White Russian alternative collapsed, Wilson refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. He participated in barring Russia from the peace negotiations after World War I and helped oust Béla Kun, the communist leader who had risen to power in Hungary. Wilson's sentiment for self-determination and democracy never had a chance against his three bedrock "ism"s: colonialism, racism, and anticommunism. A young Ho Chi Minh appealed to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles for self-determination for Vietnam, but Ho had all three strikes against him. Wilson refused to listen, and France retained control of Indochina. It seems that Wilson regarded self-determination as all right for, say, Belgium, but not for the likes of Latin America or Southeast Asia.
At home, Wilson's racial policies disgraced the office he held. His Republican predecessors had routinely appointed blacks to important offices, including those of port collector for New Orleans and the District of Columbia and register of the treasury. Presidents sometimes appointed African Americans as postmasters, particularly in southern towns with large black populations. African Americans took part in the Republican Party's national conventions and enjoyed some access to the White House. Woodrow Wilson, for whom many African Americans voted in 1912, changed all that. A southerner, Wilson had been president of Princeton, the only major northern university that refused to admit blacks. He was an outspoken white supremacist his wife was even worse and told "darky" stories in cabinet meetings. His administration submitted a legislative program intended to curtail the civil rights of African Americans, but Congress would not pass it. Unfazed, Wilson used his power as chief executive to segregate the federal government. He appointed southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks. Wilson personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The one occasion on which Wilson met with African American leaders in the White House ended in a fiasco as the president virtually threw the visitors out of his office. Wilson's legacy was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government remained segregated into the 1950s and beyond. In 1916 the Colored Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee issued a statement on Wilson that, though partisan, was accurate: "No sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all colored citizens from representation in the Federal Government."
Of the twelve history textbooks I reviewed, only four accurately describe Wilson's racial policies. Land of Promise does the best job:
Woodrow Wilson's administration was openly hostile to black people. Wilson was an outspoken white supremacist who believed that black people were inferior. During his campaign for the presidency, Wilson promised to press for civil rights. But once in office he forgot his promises. Instead, Wilson ordered that white and black workers in federal government jobs be segregated from one another. This was the first time such segregation had existed since Reconstruction! When black federal employees in Southern cities protested the order, Wilson had the protesters fired. In November, 1914, a black delegation asked the President to reverse his policies. Wilson was rude and hostile and refused their demands.
Unfortunately, except for one other textbook, The United States A History of the Republic, Promise stands alone. Most of the textbooks that treat Wilson's racism give it only a sentence or two. Five of the books never even mention this "black mark" on Wilson's presidency. One that does, The American Way, does something even more astonishing: it invents a happy ending! "Those in favor of segregation finally lost support in the administration. Their policies gradually were ended." This is simply not true.
Omitting or absolving Wilson's racism goes beyond concealing a character blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective. The coverup denies all students the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between the leader and the led. White Americans engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson's presidency. The tone set by the administration was one cause. Another was the release of America's first epic motion picture.
The filmmaker David W. Griffith quoted Wilson's two-volume history of the United States, now notorious for its racist view of Reconstruction, in his infamous masterpiece The Clansman, a paean to the Ku Klux Klan for its role in putting down "black-dominated" Republican state governments during Reconstruction. Griffith based the movie on a book by Wilson's former classmate, Thomas Dixon, whose obsession with race was "unrivaled until Mein Kampf." At a private White House showing, Wilson saw the movie, now retitled Birth of a Nation, and returned Griffith's compliment: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true." Griffith would go on to use this quotation in successfully defending his film against NAACP charges that it was racially inflammatory.
This landmark of American cinema was not only the best technical production of its time but also probably the most racist major movie of all time. Dixon intended "to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!...And make no mistake about it we are doing just that." Dixon did not overstate by much. Spurred by Birth of a Nation, William Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan. The racism seeping down from the White House encouraged this Klan, distinguishing it from its Reconstruction predecessor, which President Grant had succeeded in virtually eliminating in one state (South Carolina) and discouraging nationally for a time. The new KKK quickly became a national phenomenon. It grew to dominate the Democratic Party in many southern states, as well as in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. During Wilson's second term, a wave of antiblack race riots swept the country. Whites lynched blacks as far north as Duluth.
If Americans had learned from the Wilson era the connection between racist presidential leadership and like-minded public response, they might not have put up with a reprise on a far smaller scale during the Reagan-Bush years. To accomplish such education, however, textbooks would have to make plain the relationship between cause and effect, between hero and followers. Instead, they reflexively ascribe noble intentions to the hero and invoke "the people" to excuse questionable actions and policies. According to Triumph of the American Nation: "As President, Wilson seemed to agree with most white Americans that segregation was in the best interests of black as well as white Americans."
Wilson was not only antiblack; he was also far and away our most nativist president, repeatedly questioning the loyalty of those he called "hyphenated Americans." "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him," said Wilson, "carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready." The American people responded to Wilson's lead with a wave of repression of white ethnic groups; again, most textbooks blame the people, not Wilson. The American Tradition admits that "President Wilson set up" the Creel Committee on Public Information, which saturated the United States with propaganda linking Germans to barbarism. But Tradition hastens to shield Wilson from the ensuing domestic fallout: "Although President Wilson had been careful in his war message to state that most Americans of German descent were 'true and loyal citizens,' the anti-German propaganda often caused them suffering."
Wilson displayed little regard for the rights of anyone whose opinions differed from his own. But textbooks take pains to insulate him from wrongdoing. "Congress," not Wilson, is credited with having passed the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of the following year, probably the most serious attacks on the civil liberties of Americans since the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In fact, Wilson tried to strengthen the Espionage Act with a provision giving broad censorship powers directly to the president. Moreover, with Wilson's approval, his postmaster general used his new censorship powers to suppress all mail that was socialist, anti-British, pro-Irish, or that in any other way might, in his view, have threatened the war effort. Robert Goldstein served ten years in prison for producing The Spirit of '76, a film about the Revolutionary War that depicted the British, who were now our allies, unfavorably. Textbook authors suggest that wartime pressures excuse Wilson's suppression of civil liberties, but in 1920, when World War I was long over, Wilson vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage and Sedition acts. Textbook authors blame the anticommunist and anti-labor union witch hunts of Wilson's second term on his illness and on an attorney general run amok. No evidence supports this view. Indeed, Attorney General Palmer asked Wilson in his last days as president to pardon Eugene V. Debs, who was serving time for a speech attributing World War I to economic interests and denouncing the Espionage Act as undemocratic. The president replied, "Never!" and Debs languished in prison until Warren Harding pardoned him. The American Way adopts perhaps the most innovative approach to absolving Wilson of wrongdoing: Way simply moves the "red scare" to the 1920s, after Wilson had left office!
Because heroification prevents textbooks from showing Wilson's shortcomings, textbooks are hard pressed to explain the results of the 1920 election. James Cox, the Democratic candidate who was Wilson's would-be successor, was crushed by the nonentity Warren G. Harding, who never even campaigned. In the biggest landslide in the history of American presidential politics, Harding got almost 64 percent of the major-party votes. The people were "tired," textbooks suggest, and just wanted a "return to normalcy." The possibility that the electorate knew what it was doing in rejecting Wilson never occurs to our authors. It occurred to Helen Keller, however. She called Wilson "the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!"
It isn't only high school history courses that heroify Wilson. Textbooks such as Land of Promise, which discusses Wilson's racism, have to battle uphill, for they struggle against the archetypal Woodrow Wilson commemorated in so many history museums, public television documentaries, and historical novels.
For some years now, Michael Frisch has been conducting an experiment in social archetypes at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He asks his first-year college students for "the first ten names that you think of" in American history before the Civil War. When Frisch found that his students listed the same political and military figures year after year, replicating the privileged positions afforded them in high school textbooks, he added the proviso, "excluding presidents, generals, statesmen, etc." Frisch still gets a stable list, but one less predictable on the basis of history textbooks. Seven years out of eight, Betsy Ross has led the list. (Paul Revere usually comes in second.)
Table of Contents
Introduction: Something Has Gone Very Wrong
1 Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making
2 1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus
5 The Truth about the First Thanksgiving
4 Red Eyes
5 "Gone with the Wind": The Invisibility of Racism in American History Textbooks
6 John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: The Invisibility of Antiracism in American History Textbooks
7 The Land of Opportunity
8 Watching Big Brother: What Textbooks Teach about the Federal Government
9 Down the Memory Hole: The Disappearance of the Recent Past
10 Progress Is Our Most Important Product
11 Why Is History Taught Like This?
12 What Is the Result of Teaching History Like This?
Afterword: The Future Lies Ahead and What to Do about Them
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
When I first began reading this book I was very intrigued. It seemed as if every line the author wrote made me pause and question what I have known as truth all my life. It made me wonder if it was actually possible for history itself to be so distorted by white ideas and American supremacy. But as the book progressed I began to feel as if maybe this book was slightly distorted by another set of ideas. The seemingly redundant and often pointless points made against common U.S. history continued, and the book quickly began to lose my trust and enjoyment. It soon became clear that all questions would not be evaluated from both sides, and that this book would be totally on the opposition of every-day fact. It almost seems as if the author is trying to force the reader to revolt and disbelieve American history on every other line, and the countless and meaningless facts he brings up seem to just fill up page space and make the book more difficult for the every day reader to understand. This book would have been a better read if it would have actually examined all angles and opinions, and covered the topic with only hard facts and little speculation. Instead it seems that the author speculates many figures in history¿s opinions and state of mind during history changing events. It seems like he tries to imprint in your head what he feels happened. Now don¿t get me wrong, the author does make some points and cause you to ask yourself some serious questions. Examples of these would be the sections on Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson. But then you get to a section like the one on Helen Keller, and it makes you wonder why he has any reason to change the way she was viewed. Also in one of the sections he examines a roadside marker that briefly describes the movement of Union troops along a road, calls it a complete lie and then begins to tell the exact same story the road mark told, but this time includes that a few people from the town helped. Why does the roadside marker need to include this extra useless fact? It is very obvious that he has done a lot of research, but again it seems as if he has taken the most obscure and least documented accounts of history as being ¿what actually happened¿. For all he knows those could be total lies and scandals set up by a person trying to distort a rivals place in history. But again that¿s just me speculating. Overall the book didn¿t turn out the way I have expected and never quite covered both sides or provided all the evidence I would have liked to read. I am impressed with the obvious amount of research and time the author spent on this book but would like to see him provide a less biased and more neutral look on possible falsities in history.
I was expecting more out of a book with this title. The author did have valid points but became overly redundant while trying to stress them. Alot of what is written the author tells is common knowledge for most who are into history. I am giving it 2 stars because the book does make a few thought provoking questions.
Everything wrong in the world is the whitemans fault.He also commits the same aggregous acts of omission that he accuses the authors of textbooks of doing , which seemed to be his reason for writing this book in the first place , also very condescending in tone when 'enlightining us to privileged info or heretofore unknown facts' gee thanks for the heads up on basic info and irrelevant b.s.
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.
In my view one of the most important books for lay people to read. Loewen chronicles the exaggerations, distortions, and lies that pack of history text books. This issue was truly brought to the fore recently when the Texas book selectors (and let's be clear, many of the problems start with this crew) revised the Texas history curriculum to include Newt Gingrich but not the Civil Rights Act.In reality, however, political distortions are not the most important issues Loewen unearths. Rather, his systematic analysis addresses issues like race, labor, foreign policy, patriotism, and militarism with cool dispassion. While you can tell the Loewen is profoundly disturbed by what he finds in American textbooks, he is careful to confine his criticism to factual errors and clear instances in which the authors sought to minimize or rub out differences of opinion.Most countries clean up their history for textbooks, the better to grow young patriots and law abiding citizens. Loewen's thesis is the US History is relentlessly whitewashed -- more so than that of many other countries. Whether that is true or not is beyond my knowledge. But to me his most sage observation is that US textbooks frequently explain opinion as fact, and as a result we know little of controversy or differences of opinion. One of the consequences of this, he points out, is that history is widely considered the msot boring of subjects by students. Because as it is told in black and white, distorted textbooks, it IS boring. Whereas when Loewen tells the same stories, they are anything but boring.
Heard about this book in one of my college-level history classes, and decided almost on a whim to purchase it. It told me SO much, both about aspects of history that I had never heard of, AND the reasoning behind WHY history textbooks are the way they are. Also, this book helped me realize how GOOD my history teacher my junior and senior years of high school was. Many of the things that Loewen says many history teachers avoid (ie. the attack on My Lai during the Vietnam War) my teacher went out of her way to make sure we read about and questioned and THOUGHT about. I e-mailed her to recommend the book, only to find out she'd already read it--no WONDER she's so good! I would recommend this book to anyone, especially high school students.
I completely could not finish this book. I am a complete history nut, and of course I do not believe what my teachers told me about history. When my kids come home from history class and want to discuss, I tell them what their teacher got wrong and try to provide a balanced view of the events. I tried to read this book, pumped that this would be a major boon to my library, and that it would end up being one of my favorites. Although I agree with the author on a lot of things, such as the process of herofication and what a detriment it is, there are many more things that I cannot agree with. He commits a lot of the same blunders that he accuses textbook authors of making. A lot of this is pathetically one sided, and the only message that I really felt was that white people should be ashamed of themselves for all of society's ills. What he doesn't even bother to do is separate the white races, except for one small sentence where he states that some Irish and Italians might have had a hard time in coming to America. There is still 1/4th of this book that I will not read.
I got this book when it came out in 1995 and stuck it on a shelf. I was in middle school at the time and my teacher recommended, but it was way more than I was up for. Thirteen years and a masters degree later, I finally read it and I was not disappointed. Loewen covers ten specific components of American History to describe how they differ from what a sample of twelve widely-used high school textbooks describe. No textbook comes out as a winner from this evaluation. My high school text, The American Pageant didn't fair well, but I kept hoping it would pull through in the end.In the end, Loewen seeks to discover the underlying reason why textbooks portray history inaccurately--what motivates authors, teachers, editors, publishers, parents, and society to act this way? An intriguing read that is well worth the effort and has given me some food for thought as I contemplate parenthood in the not-to-distant future.
In an effort to please everyone and not offend anyone, and in an effort to maintain the myths of American History, textbooks have managed to make history a dry and boring subject instead of a dynamic subject that we can still learn lessons from. Loewen reminds the reader that just because a person is beloved and lauded in the history books doesn't make that person perfect or infallable. In an effort to teach children set lessons about a historical figure, the complexities of that person are often whitewashed. Instead of teaching students to think about history and consider it, we have to package it and musn't teach anything other than the party line. Of course, since Loewen emphisizes reading history with a critical eye to understand bias or towing the party line, I read this book with an equally jaded eye, noting his biases (yes, he leans to the left sometimes, but sometimes seems to lean a little right, too) and wanting to go out and check all his sources. He does something that history books often fail to do-he got me interested in American history and wanting to learn more.
This book is extremely enlightening, and the author's tone is both witty and informative.
This book was very interesting. It frustrated me that I did not know the "truth" about so much of history. It also is very frustrating that students are not learning the truth and the fact that so many students accept the written word as gospel. It is a horrible disservice that our textbooks aren't better researched and more accurate.
This is an amazing read. Some of the corrections of myths of American History I had read beforebut there was much more here to ponder. I as a non American, especially appreciated the chapter on US foreign policy. Some of Haiti's current earthquake crisis goes back the US treatment fo them in another time.
This book is a must read for any American. I have lent my copy out to numerous people, all are shocked by its contents, but then they each when on to verify the "new stories" that they had been told, only to discover that these stories are history and their history class had been fiction. It is an eye opening experience.
Searing indictment of the American History textbooks used in American high schools at the time (1996) the book was written. The author examines 12 textbooks (with publication dates ranging from 1975-1981) to see how the image they present of key events and personalities compare with the reality. The results are worse than appalling. With rare exceptions, the books present highly sanitized versions in order to instill a sense of "America is the greatest country in the world" to children who are on the cusp of becoming voting citizens.He goes on to explain how publishers force authors to whitewash or even omit any events that might tarnish iconic images so that the books will meet the approval of the powerful bodies that set state educational standards.Not only are students fed misinformation, few of the texts make more than a token effort to introduce students to start thinking critically for themselves. And critical thinking is far more important in the digital age than it was 15 years ago.