Mel. Sheffler's Book Review

Lies My Teacher Told Me
By James W. Loewen. Touchstone. 318 pages.
$14.

According to James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, American students enter college less knowledgeable about their own history than any other subject. American history is the least liked and worst remembered subject in American curricula. Loewen argues that history is the only subject one has to unlearn in college because high school presents inaccurate information to students. Who is to blame? Despite the indicting title, James Loewen does not appear to be blaming only teachers for student ignorance. Loewen blames textbooks, publishers, and instructors for students knowing too little accurate information, too much inaccurate information, and not caring about any information.

Loewen states the main cause for students’ lack of awareness is textbooks. Written to meet strict requirements of page length, design, and content, it has become practically impossible to write a history textbook that is interesting and acceptable to a national audience. Loewen proves that between authors, publishers, school boards, approval boards, and undereducated/overworked teachers, American textbooks have become a parade of uncontroversial, boring bites of information to be memorized and then quickly forgotten.

The general trend in history, Loewen says, is overwhelmingly positive. That is the problem. Loewen examined twelve textbooks in circulation during 1994, and every conflict in American history has been boiled down to: there were some problems, but great (white and wealthy) Americans overcame. In an effort to make American history uplifting for modern students and Texas textbook review boards, textbooks have taken agency and history away from American Indians, African Americans, Helen Keller, Lincoln, or anyone else who might have questioned conservative white rule in America. According to textbooks, no one in all of American history did anything because they thought things through, questioned the status quo, or made wrong choices—even the enemy! People simply win because they are American, or loose because they are in the way of freedom’s progress.

The amount of suspense left out of current textbooks was not as surprising as the outright lies that went in! Following textbook-like time order, Loewen focuses on several major events/people in our history that are inaccurately portrayed: Columbus, Thanksgiving, slavery, Lincoln, and the Vietnam War to name a few. Columbus, for example, still leaves Spain to prove the world round, though his contemporaries knew the world was round! What a pointless excursion. Loewen says Columbus’s real purpose for leaving Spain (other than discovery) is always left unclear. I think the closest I heard in school was, “he was looking for the Indies.” No one tells students Columbus was looking for gold and slaves, just what he took from the new world.

Columbus is not the only textbook-favored pillager. Pilgrims, who textbooks say “started from scratch,” really started with a fully functional American Indian village previously emptied by European plagues (90). Loewen then quotes primary sources that say after Pilgrims settled, they then proceeded to dig graves to find whatever else they needed! These lies about our fledgling colonies are not small, and Loewen states these examples as reasons for African American and Native Americans’ lower test scores in History. After all, it is hard enough for students to remember lists of facts; forcing facts into their minds that they know from their family history to be incorrect and racist is difficult as well as immoral. Textbooks creators, however, are not interested in difficult. They want whatever will sell textbooks.

Pleasing the majority sells textbooks. In an effort to pacify those who still prefer to remember events like the Vietnam War in a positive light, Loewen says textbooks water down history. Each textbook chapter covered by Loewen leads high school students closer to the present, which should be more detailed and interesting, since we have more information on the recent past than on our founding fathers. Instead, history becomes more blurred. In a chapter called “Down the Memory Hole,” Loewen cites non-confrontational pictures used to illustrate the Vietnam War. Instead of using pictures that made an impact on American culture, war illustrations depict President LBJ chatting up the troops (246), which is not only uncontroversial, but also uninteresting. That does not mean textbooks need full-color bloody spreads of photos, but something more than a presidential handshake will be required to catch students’ attention and make them think.

Textbooks also exclude interesting protests and important phrases like “Hell, no; we won’t go!” Loewen reminds us that leaving recent history out of textbooks not only separates youth from truth, but also youth from an interest in the previous generation. All of the information students’ parents thought of as common knowledge is lost as popular culture, thereby giving the next generation fewer ways to relate to their elders. One can easily to identify with that. I remember reading MAD books from the 1960’s and 70’s during high school in the 1990’s and not understanding various anti-war jokes. I also remember finding Forest Gump war scenes half as dramatic as people who lived through Gump’s era. There is a lack of recent history taught in schools, and students do feel this lack of connection to information. If they do not connect with the information, Loewen would argue, they will have problems learning it. However, this may be a mute point for the Vietnam War. As Loewen jokes at the beginning of his tenth chapter, no one ever makes it to the end of the textbook. If schools in America cannot even get past the nineteenth century, the Vietnam War certainly will not receive much of a showing. Having accurate and interesting information available, however, is still important.

Well documented and researched, Lies My Teacher Told Me is astounding. I could never dream of covering all the topics Loewen discusses in his book, and on every topic Loewen not only states what is wrong with the text (i.e. Native Americans were wiped out rather than befriended at Thanksgiving), but also argues why having the facts right is important (i.e. the truth gives Native Americans some exigency and everyone learns accurate knowledge). Lies is an example of what a high school textbook should be: interesting, informative, well documented, and detailed. Loewen clearly has a passion for history that comes through in his work, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in America’s true history.