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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your…
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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got…

by James W. Loewen

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I have long been fascinated with historiography -- the biases in versions of history that appear over time. The notion that history is a factual recitation of objective truths about the past is just not true. There are many cultural, societal and ideological influences that shape and slant interpretations of history. I recall from my youth, going to high school in the south as I did, the view of Reconstruction that emphasized the corruption of northern "carpetbaggers" and their southern "scalawag" conspirators to manipulate naive and ignorant blacks over the control of political affairs. We understand now that the influence of white supremacy in the post-reconstruction era produced a strikingly distorted picture than what really happened.

Loewen utilizes his review of more than a dozen high school history textbooks to demonstrate just how dangerous practice can be to educating students about the past, and, importantly, on their ability to critically assess our past for its implications on the present and future. Utilizing many themes in American history (Columbus, the centuries of conflict with the native population, slavery, etc.) Loewen shows how textbooks utterly fail to open the power of critical anaysis in students. He says that the "heroification" of figures and events of our past wildly distorts the deeper and significant meanings of their actions. For instance, he says that the myth of Columbus as the explorer who opened the savage cultures of the Americas to the benefits of European advancements completely leaves out the devastation that Europeans brought to the florishing societies existing throughout the Americas. In this analysis, and others in his book, he shows how totally "Eurocentric" is most of American history still in our time. He presents a fascinating chapter on John Brown and Lincoln in which he shows the manipulation by historians of images and appraisals of both figures to fit packaged conceptions of their views on slavery and race. As well, on slavery, Loewen posits convincingly that our histories portray slavery as a "tragedy" that just happened -- that no one was really responsible for it. He reminds us of the time in history that slavery as the root cause of the Civil War was shunted into th background by emphasis on other esoteric fctors: "states' rights", economic imbalances between the regions, etc. He does similar analysis on the conceptions of social/economic class throughout our country's history.

He says that in the bland and neutral historical treatment of America as a world power we are usually shown to be international "good guys" with the betterment all of humanity as our motivating force. Any complete examination of the facts and outcomes of our actions show that this was very often far from our motivating impulses, e.g. the war in the Phillipines, Vietnam and more. Much of American history written for high school students seeks to show our country as a place where higher and higher attainment of our morally superior ethos is what makes us distinctive; there is little place in the texts for criticism that might make us challenge ourselves and forestall repeating mistakes of the past.

Textbooks are written for certain influential audiences, namely political forces, state and local approval committees, parents -- anyone other than the students they should be serving. They are commerically-driven ventures whose profits are best insured by not risking anything that would generate controversy. Loewen describes his conversations with "big name" historians whose names appear as authors of widely distributed textbooks. When he points out certain passages of highly questionable accuracy, these "authors" convey shock at the content; they evidently have been paid only to append their names and prestige for marketing value the publishers hope for. They have not only not written, they have not read the works it is claimed they authored. He says that quite a lot of the content is written by anonymous jobbers who almost never do research in primary and secondary sources.

What Loewen criticizes and laments most is the missed opportunity to use history in ways that stimulate critical thinking; in stultifying high school students' interest and ability to analyze and challenge, to dig deeper beneath the surface of neatly packaged versions of our past. Thus, that students are bored with, and turned off by, history should not come as a surprise, but regretablly leaves them with a disregard for the potential for history to become a useful element in their civic lives as adults. ( )
  stevesmits | Nov 22, 2014 |
This was an absolutely fascinating read for the summer of 2012. Loewen examines a dozen or so American history textbooks for accuracy, and finds a lot of evasions, half-truths, misconceptions, lies, damned lies, and statistics. The story of the American nation, as we teach it to our children, is slanted to a nationalistic, Eurocentric, self-righteous angle. To protect our kids from unpleasant stories, we whitewash historical events. To avoid annoying vocal political groups, we soften stories to remove elements of racism, sexism, and greed. To inspire our children, we present our national heroes as perfect, unblemished souls--worthy, but impossible to emulate. Loewen makes the argument that by hiding controversy and teaching history three times removed from primary sources, we rob our children of the truth, and of the opportunity to think critically about forces in our nation today.

Do pick up this book. While you read, keep your Twitter stream open on the left, and follow all the conversations about the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations. Check the newspaper and news websites for stories on teacher proficiency, and remember that all these poor saps who want to pay their mortgages are going to have to teach to whatever test will determine their teaching "quality." The content of the test is going to drive what's in the textbooks. And what's in the textbooks will drive what Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith is teaching. Most likely, the test, the textbook, teacher licensure, and the professional development the teacher receives are coming from big companies like Pearson. Even if teachers and school boards want students to have a more realistic understanding of American history, the odds are against them.

In those news items, watch for the insidious presence of corporate backers, union bashers, and conservative politicians who want want to tell history "the right way." And remember that Texas--the state with the GOP platform that proclaims critical thinking is dangerous because it might lead children to question entrenched beliefs--is pretty much the most important force in textbook approval in the nation.

Then ask yourself if anything is going to change. ( )
1 vote Turrean | Feb 15, 2014 |
Lies My Teacher Told Me came to my attention years ago, and I've always had it in the back of my mind as something I might get around to one day. Recently, I read Guns, Germs, and Steel and got on a history kick (even if I don't have much esteem for Diamond), so it seemed a good time for Lies. Both books are often brought up when talking about how history gets whitewashed and simplified/"prettified" for the popular memory.

I specifically looked for the revised version of Lies because it discusses events as recent as 2007, and has amended earlier sections to reflect more recent research and newer textbooks which are more similar to those I had in high school. I found it somewhat difficult to see exactly what the differences in the versions are, though. I wasn't sure if it was just the recent history that was added or not - but in reading Lies, I discovered that the entire book had been rewritten to reflect the new information.

However, there are still several spots where the statements Loewen makes felt a bit dated. I don't think it's because the history or view of it has changed, but rather because he's making generalizations that haven't held up over the years. And, also, I think I tend to travel in fairly progressive circles but Loewen is attempting to write a book that will appeal to a much broader swath than my groups would fit into.

For the most part, Loewen did not tell me anything new, but I did recognize a lot of things that I "learned" in my history classes, and then I tried to figure out where I learned the "real" facts that Loewen gives (and often failed! yet somehow these things have been made known to me). It was also amusing, as a fan of Disney and Walt Disney World, where I visited almost monthly as a kid, to see so many "lies" and how they're represented in the Disney Patriotism that has always felt cloying, overly sentimental, and too focused on a pretty, feel-good ideal.

I found myself appreciating the way Loewen points out the political and cultural reasons for why certain facts of history are glossed over or ignored entirely. That and some finer details added to my general understanding of US history, and should help me articulate things better in the future. Also, I have always been terribly confused by the Vietnam War and events following in the '70s and '80s, no doubt caused by lack of discussion in my history classes in the late '90s. Loewen's discussions of the period helped a lot - I felt a bit like lightbulbs were going off over my head with each page.

So, on the whole, I do like Lies and think it was well worth a read. But I have some reservations.

My first reservation is that Loewen explicitly refers to Jared Diamond twice, both times in a positive tone. This made me much more skeptical of Lies, because I have very little trust in Diamond thanks to Guns, Germs, and Steel and likewise am skeptical of anyone who refers to Diamond's books as good scholarship.

The other reservation is in Loewen's generalizations and descriptions of how "people" think or feel. They often felt a little bit off or overly generalized, as though he was doing much of what he claims the textbooks do in order to make facts and data better fit his narrative thesis. Now, they didn't strike me as super wrong, but just a little too easy. On the whole, I think he's right, and I have no problem with the facts and figures that he presents. But usually if he starts in on "this is how people felt" or "this is what X society was really doing", it struck me as overstating his case. ( )
1 vote keristars | May 26, 2013 |
I bought this at the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial visitor center. I was on my grand tour of the U.S. visiting the sites of abo genocide and Japanese internment camps among others. It gave me insight into what you Americans probably never learned in your schools but which non-Americans are more aware of. Read it and weep - literally ( )
1 vote ElectricKoolAid | Jan 5, 2013 |
I read the first edition of this book around the time I graduated high school, and I was surprised, no shocked, by how much American history I didn't know. And that was just the stuff I thought I knew. Glossing over complex topics in a history textbook is one thing, but the real offense is when the facts presented are simply wrong. This happens far more often than you think.

The author is spot-on about high school history courses being unforgivably boring. Teaching history well means teaching controversy, and that means upsetting a lot of people—a nearly impossible task to sustain in a publicly-funded institution. ( )
1 vote Daniel.Estes | Dec 31, 2012 |
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The original book was published in 1995. In 2007, a new edition "Completely revised and updated"(--P. [1] of cover. ) was published with the ISBN 9780743296281 / 0743296281. Do not combine with the original edition.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743296281, Paperback)

Americans have lost touch with their history, and in Lies My Teacher Told Me Professor James Loewen shows why. After surveying eighteen leading high school American history texts, he has concluded that not one does a decent job of making history interesting or memorable. Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.

In this revised edition, packed with updated material, Loewen explores how historical myths continue to be perpetuated in today's climate and adds an eye-opening chapter on the lies surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq War. From the truth about Columbus's historic voyages to an honest evaluation of our national leaders, Loewen revives our history, restoring the vitality and relevance it truly possesses.

Thought provoking, nonpartisan, and often shocking, Loewen unveils the real America in this iconoclastic classic beloved by high school teachers, history buffs, and enlightened citizens across the country.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:41 -0400)

Criticizes the way history is presented in current textbooks, and suggests a fresh and more accurate approach to teaching American history.

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