I recently read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. Like many people, I was intrigued by its title (my textbooks got everything wrong? That’s quite a claim!). I knew it was very popular when it was published, and I love history, so I thought I’d give it a try.
I really wanted to like this book. It was very disappointing.
The beginning was promising. In the introduction, Loewen describes many of the problems with the teaching of American history in our schools. The majority of students remember very little of the history they learn in school, and feel history is boring and irrelevant. History textbooks are bland and often vague, with no description of cause and effect. Events happen in a vacuum. This prevents students from achieving any kind of critical thinking. Even more troubling, textbooks often present outright falsehoods, often for the sake of our egos.
Loewen elaborates on this last point in the first chapter, which describes the heroification that changes complex human stories into simplistic morality tales. One person he focuses on is Helen Keller. Most likely you learned the rosy story of how she learned to communicate with others and become a functioning member of society through the help of a determined teacher, Anne Sullivan.
But did you learn anything about Keller’s adult life? I didn’t either. She became a radical socialist activist, after becoming disenchanted with the poverty she saw around the country. Whether or not you agree with socialism, it seems rather dishonest to leave it out.
The next chapter begins with a discussion of Columbus. I was very happy to see a debunking of the flat Earth myth. (Spoiler: Europeans didn’t believe the Earth was flat. Most people had known the Earth was round for a very, very long time. The flat Earth myth was invented by Washington Irving, writer of such stories as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”) Later on, in his discussion of Squanto, Loewen shows that inventing details is not necessary to create an interesting story; history has plenty of interesting events and people to discuss!
Loewen continues the next couple chapters with a detailed discussion of the Native Americans, beginning with atrocities Columbus and other Europeans perpetrated against the Native Americans. (Loewen uses the term “Indians,” but I prefer “Native Americans” for the sake of clarity.) There are some questionable assertions in this chapter (such as blaming Pilgrims for wiping out Native Americans through disease, before Pilgrims even got there! To be completely fair, he amends this later. A completely baseless assertion of his is that Native American philosophies inspired Thomas More, Lock, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau). But, he also provides a lot of information I did not previously know, and a lot of food for thought.
For example, the annihilation of Native American tribes was not always a forgone conclusion; had people and governments behaved differently, Native Americans could have remained a sovereign entity, or been admitted to the United States as equal citizens. Textbooks, however, present all history as inevitable, omitting conflict and controversy.
He also rightfully asserts that the purpose of telling the truth about what was done to Native Americans is to learn from the past, not to wallow in white guilt. That all changes in the chapters about slavery, racism, and the Civil War.
The next two chapters contain very little besides wallowing in white guilt. Rather than teaching history that is neglected in school, he more or less reiterates exactly what I was taught in high school and college: white people are bad because they enslaved black people, and, even after slavery ended, lynched them and denied them their civil rights. (Granted, this book was written almost 20 years ago, so perhaps public school education changed during that time because of people like Loewen harping on white guilt.)
Obviously, slavery was a very great wrong and caused more suffering than you and I can really understand. However, I think we are mature enough to have a more nuanced discussion of slavery and the Civil War than “white people are bad!”
Loewen refuses to take what our Founding Fathers said about slavery seriously. Many people like to consider themselves superior to them by stating the obvious, that slavery is incompatible with our founding ideal that all men are created equal. Of course the Founding Fathers knew this! Many of them discussed the incompatibility of the Christian faith with slavery. In fact, Virginia had repeatedly appealed to the British crown to end the slave trade, but each time they were rebuffed. (This, by the way, is an example of Britain ignoring the desires of the colonies, which abuses led to the Revolutionary War.)
However, what the abolitionists, and Loewen, overlooked, was the economic repercussions of emancipation. This is part of why Reconstruction was such a fiasco. The slave population was largely uneducated and unskilled.
Loewen also completely dismisses all assertions that states rights had anything to do with the Civil War. Never mind that sectional differences between the North and South date back to the Revolutionary War. During the Revolution, southern states begged Congress for more troops. Congress ignored these requests and demanded more conscripts for fighting in the north. After the Revolutionary War, Congress tried to trade all rights to trade on the Mississippi River to Spain. Guess who would be benefited by this deal? Northern states. Who would get shafted? Southern states. The south had legitimate grievances against the federal government. They rightly feared that Congress would ultimately be no better than King George.
In his chapter about Reconstruction, Loewen objects to textbooks’ use of “carpetbaggers” to refer to Northerners who went South as part of Reconstruction. He says that this loaded term subtly biases students against the northerners. And yet, later one, he refers to capitalists and conservatives by other names, such as “scalawags.” If he really wants textbooks to use unbiased terminology, why is he resorting to name-calling?
Interestingly, he cites a poll stating “…for the first time in this century, young white adults have less tolerant attitudes toward black Americans than those over thirty.” He says the reason is they are largely ignorant of the history of racism in this country.
I’m inclined to think it has something to do with the “check your privilege” attitude: whites are told that their achievements are due to white privilege and not their own merits, and that they have no right to an opinion on all things controversial because they are white. Plus, even if you think you’re not racist, you probably are! (Conversely, I’m also concerned about the message young African Americans are receiving that say they can’t accomplish anything because of white privilege. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy! Let’s not limit them by telling them they are helpless.)
In summary, I have to conclude that James W. Loewen is a hypocrite. He repeatedly does the very things he accuses textbooks of doing to further his own agenda.
All that said, I strongly encourage you to read history books from a variety of authors and different points of view. I listed a few that I have read and found valuable in the “sources” section below. (Those are also my citations; hence the lack of website links.)
Have you read Lies My Teacher Told Me? What did you think of it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, by Thomas S. Kidd
Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, by Woody Holton
Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington