James Loewen

To describe this work overall is rather a monumental task because there aren’t many other books out there like this one.  Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen takes on really two tasks.  One is to question and answer the concept of why students dislike history classes.  The second is to prove the idea that much of what students learn in American history classes is wrong and that there are many omissions.  The author can be described as a teacher who challenges the role of revisionist history in American schools.

He says that much of American history alienates children of color by ignoring the fact that many of the people who contributed greatly to this country were indeed, non-white.  Because of the nature of textbooks in American high schools, much of college history classes are taken up “fixing” the subject matter that students have learned in high school history classes.

Being a college history professor, he asserts this with confidence.  Loewen does not deny the importance of knowing history for one minute, but he does question what we know.  Loewen is a university professor of history at the University of Vermont, and his study in preparation for writing this book consisted of studying twelve textbooks covering a range in American history.  He set about to “analyze the process of textbook creation and adoption to explain what causes textbooks to be as bad as they are” and the effects of using them.

So, why is history boring according to Loewen?  History is made up of nothing but stories which should not be boring, but textbook companies have left out anything that “might reflect badly upon our national character” (Loewen).  As Loewen says, there is no sense of drama in history taught in schools, and there is every sense that things will work out in the end.  This alone makes history boring.  It is also boring because “textbooks almost never use the present to illuminate the past” (Loewen).  Therefore, students have a difficult time understanding the relevance to their daily lives.

History is portrayed as a “morality play,” in which the touchy areas are never taught or discussed.  Publishers tend not to acknowledge problems of today or use the past to shed some light.  They also never speak of the factors that contributed to problems; rather a “blame the victim” approach is used.  As Loewen says, “While there is nothing wrong with optimism, it does become something of a burden for students of color, children of working class parents, girls who notice an absence of women who made history, or any group that has not already been outstandingly successful” (Loewen).  This “burden” turns students off to history because it does not accurately address any of these things nor does it tell the full stories.

Textbooks ignore many historical realities for a variety of reasons.  The biggest reason is that publishers believe that students must develop a sense of nationalism or patriotism.  To acknowledge troubling areas in our nation’s history is to run the risk that patriotism will not be developed.  A “happy” view of history leads Americans to believe that everything is okay, so students are not troubled.  This view of history embraces the American idea of individualism rather than looking at the many factors that affected lack of equal opportunity.  Textbooks make us believe that equal opportunity was and is an option for all.

As for other reasons, Loewen does a thorough job pointing these out.  Facts are presented “as one damn thing after another” (Loewen).  Books “suppress causation” (Loewen).  In fact, many of the facts included are flat out wrong and many of the books are clones of each other, which means the facts are wrong over and over again.  They rarely include primary source documents, which Loewen compares to students taking a course in poetry without reading a poem.  Plus the books are just so darn big that students hate carrying them and reading them.

In his Table of Contents he discusses all the false information or omissions based on his study of textbooks, such as the study of Christopher Columbus, Thanksgiving, Native Americans, the invisibility of racism, the absence of social class, the disappearance of the recent past, and the myth of progress to name a few.  These chapters contain much needed information about the true stories.

The results of his study conclude that students are bored with or alienated from history or both.  They are also not able to use the past in order to think about the future.  He proposes this book partly in order to discuss how to assess all the various sources of knowledge about history and to help teachers think about how to learn history more accurately.

As he ponders the idea of “truth” in revisionist history in every chapter, I will use one chapter as an example.  In the chapter entitled hero Making Heroes, examples are given of how textbooks leave important ideas or at least controversial ones out of the books.  For example, Loewen tells us that Helen Keller was a radical socialist.  Books leave out all mention of Woodrow Wilson’s racism and the fact that there was a new surge of racial violence in this country after his presidency.

And last but not least, discussion of Christopher Columbus has been totally slanted.  He took land from the Native Americans and engaged in slave trade or forced labor.  He alone destroyed entire nations of Native Americans.  Only six of twelve textbooks even mentioned the idea of forced labor at all.  And yet, most of what is taught does none of these things.

Loewen concludes with the statement that “students will start learning history when they see the point of doing so, when it seems interesting and important to them, and when they believe history might relate to their lives and futures” (Loewen).

I believe the author does accomplish his goals.  He absolutely adequately sums up why students hate history.  The study of history seems all about facts and dates that have no relation to each other or to our lives.  History books are chock full of names and dates but not material that challenges the student to really think about and analyze history.  These facts are expected to be taken at face value and not to be questioned.  Any controversy is left out of books.  Students need to be taught history in a more meaningful way so that they can use the past to illuminate the future or even the future to illuminate the past.

To me, understanding is the only reason to teach anything, not rote memorization of facts that aren’t even true.  I understand that standardized testing puts a lot of pressure on history teachers, but American schools should at least be able to find a way to present both sides of issues.  Students could truly be more interested in history that way.  Teaching only the wonderful qualities in American history and ignoring the disturbing parts is not a way to push students to become leaders of tomorrow.  If one truly wants to fix problems, one must first identify what the problems are.  For example, in terms of equal opportunity, it is important for students to realize that phrase was always a dream propagated by white people.

People of color in this country have never had even a remote chance to thrive the way white people have.  Therefore, current practices like affirmative action might not seem so terrible if they understand the history all the way down the line.  There has always been affirmative action; it was just only for white people.  Now that we give it a name and make it policy to benefit nonwhite people, society is up in arms.  Teaching about the historical laws and rules that made it impossible to receive a fair chance if one was non-white is at least a step in the right direction.  Maybe that would help illuminate the present by using the past.  It would also highlight high level skills like synthesis and critical thinking.

I detest the idea of revisionist history.  I understand that there are places where a thorough understanding is just not possible.  For example, teaching about our genocide of the Native Americans to elementary students is not a good idea.  However, we can teach about such things from primary source documents.  Falsities do not have to be taught.  We certainly do not need to reinforce the idea that Indians have all vanished or that they live in teepees still.  If all else fails, leave the study of these people or events out of history classes where students are too young to understand the ramifications.

Loewen would not propose this as it would be yet another omission.  Loewen’s book should be required reading for any person planning on teaching anything.  Loewen gives a very thorough account of the many inaccuracies and omissions that are currently taught.  A lot of people have not had enough history after high school to even realize that this is the case or to put all the information together, to synthesize it in such a way that the light bulb finally comes on.

And while it is much easier to take the safe route, that one is rarely the best.  In this culture we need more critical thinkers, not more people who can memorize facts.  In this information age, it is more crucial than ever to teach others how to think, not what to think.  Any fact we will ever need is at our fingertips on the Internet.  What we aren’t taught is how to analyze and evaluate or how to come to a conclusion based on thorough understanding of both sides (informed decisions).  In addition, teaching the truth of some of these historical inaccuracies might go a long way in helping racial inequities or other avenues where we “blame the victim” in our culture.  Certainly we would change our definition of America, but we might be more apt to become part of the solution.

Works Cited

Loewen, James, Lies My Teacher Told Me, Simon and Schuster, 1995.