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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong {revised & updated} (2007)

by James W. Loewen

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6,354971,533 (3.98)13
Criticizes the way history is presented in current textbooks, and suggests a fresh and more accurate approach to teaching American history.
  1. 10
    How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr (pammab)
    pammab: Immerwahr focuses on history outside the continental US and how everyone in the world conveniently forgets how much US population and territory existed outside the mainland, through telling stories that never made it into the American canon. Immerwahr's book is a much better structured book to my mind than Lies My Teacher Told Me; it has an overarching thesis, and each of the chapters have a subthesis that is well-substantiated and argued. It goes beyond the thrust of Loewen's book, which felt to me like a collection of mostly unrelated facts strung together with nothing more than the idea of "filing off complexities".… (more)

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» See also 13 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 95 (next | show all)
People read it!
I am Russian. In my short lifetime (i'm 28 only) they have re-written Russian/Soviet history textbooks already two times, changing black to white arbitrarily, whatever suited the government better.
No nation wants to look bad. But producing fairy tales and lying to yourself is not a way out. And after acknowledging all sides of your heritage you are not going to be any worser. Quite the opposite, i think. ( )
  Den85 | Jan 3, 2024 |
I had actually heard a fair amount of the content of this book before (some of it from Guns, Germs, and Steel and some from sources like http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day), but this book was published before those, so I definitely appreciate the author's research. Reading and comparing all those awful textbooks was probably not a very fun task. If I'd been exposed to books like this when I was in school, I might've become more interested in history. As it was, I had the attitude the author describes in the book: I would cram to memorize the names and dates for the tests, then immediately forget them to make room for the next set of obscure facts, never taking in larger themes or making connections between events. My knowledge of history is still pretty spotty but I feel like I do have a bit better sense of some of the narratives that make up history now than I did in school, when I was supposedly studying it (mostly picked up from books like this, some historical fiction, and reading up on the history of individual countries that come up in the news when I'm embarrassed that I don't know anything about the context of a current conflict or issue in that country). ( )
  stardustwisdom | Dec 31, 2023 |
Good bits: the discussion of history and the textbooks themselves is highly readable and interesting even when I know most of it. The sheer audacity of reading, for example, that "chaos broke out" in Chile or Iran as the only explanation of any events going on there would be hilarious if it didn't have such serious real world consequences. Loewen tackles important myths that are at the root of American culture - ideas of an empty Americas, "civilising", uncritical ideas of "progress" in areas such as racism etc. He points out their status of "national myths". He opposes the process of heroification where all flaws are rubbed away, turning the past into a bunch of adonises with perfect foresight and intelligence. This is all important work and I'm glad he did it and did it *well*. His presentation of facts from the past is generally pretty excellent.

Worse bits: I find it very funny that people in the reviews section here reject the book for being "politically correct" or "socialist" or "laden with white guilt." Given that in his analysis he explictly rejects Marxist ideas and at all times upholds at least a minority of white people as a powerful force for good, these criticisms are hard to swallow. This is most notable in his treatment of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Lincoln becomes an unrepentant, stubborn abolitionist with strong anti-racist views. Earlier, when quoting the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he had shown that Lincoln was still white supremacist. Yet, as President, he becomes a hero. His statements about his focus on "saving the union" are rejected because "he was speaking to a certain audience." He states that a majority of whites were for Reconstruction and completely supported civil rights. The end to Reconstruction isn't really treated as anything more than unfortunate - a common theme. He never challenges ideas of the USA as somehow fundamentally "good". He talks about segregation and slavery somehow "discarding the ideals of the US" - despite devoting previous chapters to showing how the USA never held to such ideals in the first place, outside of maybe for white people! Ultimately this belief doesn't show through explicitly too often but it informs his analysis at all points. He states important - and to many world-shattering - facts and then concludes with something that defends America. His view is ultimately a typical liberal "progressive" one, regardless of the facts which make this view untenable.

Possibly the most ridiculous statement in the book is "Antiracism is one of America's great gifts to the world"!!!! Like, holy shit. Where to begin. He refers to movements for the empowerment of African-Americans as "reinvigorating our democratic spirit." He says that "from South Africa to Northern Ireland, movements of oppressed people continue to use tactics and words borrowed from our abolitionist and civil rights movements... Iranians used nonviolent methods borrowed from Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. to overthrow their hated shah... On Ho Chi Minh's desk in Hanoi ... lay a biography of John Brown." Abraham Lincoln "inspired" the students of Tienanmen Square. Despite his own good work attacking the ideas of Amerocentricism and obsession with America as some sort of "light" for the world, here he falls straight back into it. He should know full well that America was in fact a birthplace of *racism* as we know it today, as a form of oppression by white people. To let America take credit for not only ending the most hideous examples of a system they created *but the entire idea of anti racism* is absolutely ludicrous and denies the agency of the oppressed. This seems like one small example but I feel it is representative of an "America the great" ideology that pervades the book. A further small example that I feel is also in the spirit of anti-racism as a great gift bestowed by whites are when he talks about black nationalist movements in the same breath as the KKK! This completely ignores the realities of the power differential. We don't need "role models to turn people away from anti-white racism" as he suggests - we need to confront the *reality of why African Americans so often dislike or hate whites* (hint: it's not because of a lack of "good whites").

Another problem he refuses to really engage with is the idea of "telling both sides". He at several points uncritically suggests putting "both sides" in a history textbook so students can "decide for themselves" without considering the serious deficencies in this approach. There is *no way* a student can be expected to critically understand the differences between environmentalists and people who believe progress solves all environmental woes in, say, 4 quotes on a 2 page spread or similar (that sort of level of presentation is typical in my experience from textbooks). Thinking critically about things is important but how can students given an hour of lesson time or so in a history lesson reasonably analyse issues like this, with such woeful evidence to go on, especially when they require so much scientific knowledge to definitely come down on one side? Nowhere else does the issue become quite as ridiculous as it does here, but suggesting a "both sides" approach to serious historical and political problems ignores that not all sides are of equal validity, treats the only "valid" views as the most popular and is a failure in the supposed duty of an educator to tell the truth to the student - weak evidence is included in an effort to make each side seem equally believable. (Incidentally, he later rejects ideas that say that there is no objective truth. I can only put his failure to be consistent on this to him not wanting to think through the full consequences of his facts)

He concludes with ideas about changing things. I admit to being somewhat unclear on if he has a plan. I don't feel like he has. He in turn rejects the ideas that publishers, elites, teachers, state textbook committees can really be held responsible and instead turns to a nebulous "society" to take responsibility for history teaching problems. Again though, this isn't part of a wider criticism of society and still holds on to ideas of "democracy" and "informed citizenry" as motivations for change and indeed as a way that things can change - that by somehow being a proper "citizen" then things will change. Rather incredibly, he quotes Thomas Jefferson to back up his point on this - a person who he spent the second chapter demolishing the myth of. This is in a way symptomatic of the problems with the book - a refusal to follow through from the facts and attack the system of which history textbooks are only a part. In the modern politics sections, he ultimately resigns himself to talking about "increasing executive power", "lack of checks and balances" - typical liberal canards - to explain the actions of people like Nixon. His conclusion appears to be that failure in this respect - and every other one - can be explained by a failure of "citizens" to work well enough within the system. This is his only solution to every historical problem, it seems. Because of this, his analysis feels futile and does not reflect the facts as we know them. It's a shame because it starts out promisingly and hits a lot of good points along the way. ( )
  tombomp | Oct 31, 2023 |
Every American should read this book! Learn how your textbooks have been lying to you! Get interested in learning history, and especially anti-racist history, and if not? Why are you reading this? Read the book! ( )
  personalbookreviews | Sep 19, 2023 |
Stopped p.50

The screed against history textbooks in the introduction was a little off putting - not unwarranted, but a very strong choice. The critique of textbooks continued and I wasn't interested in that. I enjoyed learning about Keller and Wilson in the first chapter, but I feel like we've moved beyond this book; considering that it was published in 1995 that is great. If I had read this earlier in my re-learning journey, I would have continued.
  Bodagirl | Aug 6, 2023 |
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Dedicated to all American history teachers who teach against their textbooks (and their ranks keep growing)
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This chapter is about heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes.
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This LT Work is the completely revised and updated edition of James Loewen's book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (2007). Please do not combine it with either the original edition (1995) or the later new edition (2018). Thank you.
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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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