James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
American attitudes toward history are deeply contradictory. On the one hand, we reverence our past and make demigods of our Founding Fathers. On the other, we’re frequently altogether mistaken, even flat damn wrong, about what they actually did. Demagogues use this factually muddled reverence to manipulate us toward ends we don’t want and scarcely understand. How did we reach this point, and how can we combat it?
Harvard-educated historian James W. Loewen became a celebrity within education circles in 1980, when Mississippi rejected a state history textbook he co-wrote, on the grounds that it focused too heavily on racial matters. He challenged this decision in court, and his victory became a landmark in First Amendment battles: states cannot reject textbooks simply because they dislike the content. This philosophy underlies much of Loewen’s later writings.
Who were the Native Americans? Was John Brown, the violent abolitionist who attacked Harper’s Ferry, insane? Who took the lead in the Civil Rights Movement? And what, really, happened in Vietnam? Your answers to these questions probably reflect how these topics were taught, or frequently avoided, in your high school American History class. They probably inform how you think and vote today. And, Loewen demonstrates, they may be wrong.
Loewen begins this, his most famous book, with twin anecdotes about how two figures, Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, get described in high school-level American History textbooks. Keller, a longtime labor activist who believed capitalism threatened American values, gets reduced to a child who triumphed over adversity. Wilson, a racist who invaded several countries on specious pretexts, gets elevated to a progressive icon whose economic policies delayed the Great Depression.
|James W. Loewen|
Textbook history, Loewen finds, have a tendency to present history has a succession of heroes advancing American greatness, pushing us toward ever-better displays of virtue. Students get no sense of setbacks, struggles, and the difficulty we still face achieving America’s stated principles. Thus, many citizens believe the present somehow represents a decline from a storied past, and today’s controversies as irrevocably cluttered and dangerous. Which they’re not.
This sometimes requires Loewen debunking specific myths. The virtual erasure of both racial and economic factors from history textbooks leaves Americans believing the controversies over these topics are somehow recent. Even slavery gets divorced from race. Yet when Loewen reprints a pre-Civil War campaign song, “Nigger Doodle Dandy,” used to split poor white voters from blacks, for instance, America’s long history of race- and class-based divisions becomes glaringly obvious.
Other times, Loewen eschews specific myths, preferring to focus on the myth-making process holistically. How did the First Thanksgiving become a sort of American Genesis myth, one to which Native Americans are mere guests? How did poverty and want vanish from history texts? Why is the entire Twentieth Century often addressed in under fifty pages, as though textbooks fear to approach the recent past? How did so much get omitted?
Multiple explanations exist. Textbook authors write, not for students, but for textbook committees, which often don’t involve educated historians. Education departments fear the wrath of powerful private interests, which would often rather have students loyal and patriotic than open-minded. Many high schools hire history teachers to coach athletics, and they have only a cursory background in their discipline. And these are only some of Loewen’s diverse, scary explanations.
Partway through this book, Loewen says one thing I cannot support: he insists that history, alone among disciplines, is so badly taught in high school that college professors must spend entire semesters breaking students from oft-regurgitated myths. But that’s not so: Paul Lockhart says something almost identical about math, and Gerald Graff says that about English. Sadly, much higher education involves students unlearning ignorance propounded in public schools.
In a democracy, history matters to how citizens approach the present. Citizens who don’t understand that history is both contingent, and ongoing, can’t make informed decisions about their government. The failure to understand history’s themes often colors our tendency to approach the present with either outrage or helplessness. If schools won’t educate Americans, we must educate ourselves. Loewen provides the tools to begin that dangerous process.