Lies Your Teacher Told You



So yesterday’s post set the stage for James W. Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me. It was first published in 1995 and then updated in 2007. Loewen points out a lot of the same things I mentioned in yesterday’s post. In addition, he found that high school students generally rank history as the least relevant subject, even less relevant and interesting than algebra. (No offence, math teachers.)

He argues that high school history textbooks are the source of the problem. In some states, the state school board decides which textbooks are used in its high schools. In some states it’s decided by the local school boards. School boards. Not a committee of historians or even history teachers.

Imagine being a publisher of textbooks. You want your history textbook to be the one used in as many states as possible. We’re talking millions of books. So you want to make as many people happy as possible. That’s why school boards not only have the power to decide which textbooks are chosen for the schools; they actually get to determine the content of said textbooks.

It just so happens that Texas is the second largest purchaser of textbooks in the country at 48 million a year. It’s also one of the most conservative states. The 2012 Texas Republican Platform is pretty clear what it wants education to look like. It supports:

“school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.”

And it wants to see Knowledge-Based Education (read: just the facts): 

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

The Texas textbook board states that “textbooks shall not contain material which serves to undermine authority” (LMTTM p. 312). Though one of the most influential, Texas isn’t the only state to influence history textbooks so blatantly. For a long time, Southern states made history textbook publishers refer  to the Civil War as the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence.

Loewen states that American high school history education has always been about teaching patriotism more than about teaching history. So, in order to sell their textbooks to as many school districts as possible, not only do textbook publishers avoid anything that could offend anyone anywhere in the country, they have to include information that is not necessarily of national importance, but which one or two states might find important.

Nothing controversial is discussed and the books end up being a series of endless “facts” and small, unimportant details. Loewen calls this “twig history”, where the focus is on these often irrelevant details to the point that–never mind the tree, let alone the forest–students don’t even see the limbs for the twigs.

No wonder American History is considered such a boring and irrelevant subject by high school students.

How do you even write about history without offending anyone, without pointing out the different ideas that were prevalent at any given time,without accidentally making the students think and without anything negative that would not be conducive to pumping the students full of patriotism?

Loewen compared twelve major high school history textbooks and found the following:

Ideas are simply not discussed. Hence Americans’ ignorance about ideas like socialism, communism, national socialism, etc. This way nobody can be offended by the way their particular favorite philosophy is treated, but it also avoids any controversy, because all the students get is facts about what happened (except where the facts aren’t even that), not anything about the choices people and governments were confronted with at the time and why one direction was taken instead of another, and whether it was the best direction, in hindsight.

History as faits accomplis,  with no room or need to use any critical thinking skillsSo when treating America’s intervention in other countries, you’ll see sentences like, “War broke out (wherever) and America stepped in. Peace was soon restored.” Yeah, really.

Since instilling patriotism is the main goal, not teaching history, the textbooks avoid mentioning anything that indicates that America’s history is not always progressing forward. The Reconstruction, for instance, is often barely mentioned if not left out. Reconstruction was the period of about a decade after the Civil War when the federal government ran the Southern states to ensure that the rights of former slaves were being implemented. During this time blacks were mayors, congressmen, baseball players, etc. But the reconstruction didn’t last. The South reverted back to the old ways in all but actual slavery and blacks lost all their rights. This wasn’t progress, so it’s ignored, and history books tell of the first black congressman after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and Jackie Robinson being the first professional black baseball player.

Feel-good history. So if you can’t properly treat actual history, you focus on individuals. And here, too, you take away anything that might be controversial or critical or in other ways flawed. So what you’re left with is lots of vignettes about famous people who seem perfect. Loewen calls this heroification.

Not only do perfect people not exist, they’re boring as hell.  The message ends up being that you can do anything you set your mind to. Take so-and-so for instance–look what he accomplished. So if you are not accomplishing great things, if your family can barely even make it from day to day, you and yours are losers. Or conversely, it gives the impression that history is made only by these perfect heroes, without any help from regular people. Thus the civil rights movement was run by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and the hundred-thousands of regular black people who took to the streets and who practiced civil disobedience are ignored. Because you wouldn’t want to anger the Texas Republicans and “undermine authority” by giving students any ideas.

I mentioned above that history textbooks don’t offend anyone, but that’s not actually true. They don’t offend any white Judeo-Christians, in part because history is usually written by the victors, and in part because school boards like the one in Texas clearly state that they want history books that “emphasize Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded”.

So Christopher Columbus is a hero, the Pilgrims founded America, the gradual disappearance of entire nations of Native Americans–or at least their way of living–was the inevitable result of “progress”, there is no mention of the fact that several of the founding fathers weren’t religious and slavery wasn’t all that bad.

Based on the content of American high school history textbooks, you’d think that America has no decent historians. Nothing is further from the truth, but historians don’t deign to write the textbooks. They are professors in universities, where they teach American history all over again, this time including controversies, imperfect people and instances in which America took some steps back instead of forward.

So the students brought up on the patriotic rubbish that passes for history in high school are absolutely shocked. What?! America not founded by the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower? America putting dictators in charge in South America? And what’s this Vietnam War? That America lost? This isn’t what they heard! America is the greatest country in the world, everybody knows that! There’s only one explanation–the professors are all damn liberal commie socialist nazis!

As Loewen goes into all the aspects of American high school history textbooks, he also writes about a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it into the books. Did you know, for instance, that Woodrow Wilson financially aided the white side in the Russian Revolution and that he authorized a naval blockade of the USSR and sent troops into Russia to overthrow the revolutionary leaders? (LMTTM p. 16) Or that of the 102 “settlers” on the Mayflower, only 35 were pilgrims?(LMTTM p. 81).

I can’t cover everything Loewen discusses in Lies My Teacher Told Me, but believe me, it’s all fascinating. This book is a must-read for everyone who got their knowledge of history from American high school history textbooks and anyone who is as flabbergasted as I always am about so many aspects of American society. It explains pretty much everything.


6 responses to “Lies Your Teacher Told You

  1. Wow. I love history. I write historical fiction. If I wasn’t outraged before, I am now. I’m getting my hands on a copy of Loewen’s book right away.


  2. That explains a lot!
    I just requested the book at my library; should be a good read on Thanksgiving.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Barbara! With you review of this book you explained the lacking historical knowledge. This rigid teaching you explained means that everyone could teach history, that is something which goes under the name history. I find it scary because it did open a Pandora’s box. That of an world power with a view on history that is bias, gullible for every undemocratic, xenofobic and theocratic idea and enforcing those ideas on everyone.
    What scares me even more that the USA, a world power, has many people in public places, making decisions based in………? The image comes to mind of people pushing the international buttons. They do that without any well founded knowledge of the countries history, culture, politics of the countries involved and full of American Exceptionalism. A toxic and dangerous mix.


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