Ennui in the home of the brave

Lies my Teacher Told Me:
April 7, 1995

Lies My Teacher Told Me is a lively critique of American high school history textbooks. James W. Loewen, a sociologist at the University of Vermont, has spent the past 11 years examining a dozen of these volumes, in an effort to discover why history is so unpopular today. "High school students hate history," he asserts on the very first page. "Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it." And the reason for this hatred, he contends, is the bland, simplistic treatment of history texts.

Loewen spent hours observing high school history classes and interviewing teachers in a number of states. A senior fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution provided him with further time to reflect. The result is a thoughtful, if overstated, account of the things textbooks do wrong.

Hero-making is the first issue he addresses. Textbooks, he charges, "turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest." Take the treatment of Helen Keller, for example. If mentioned at all, books acknowledge her triumph over blindness and deafness, without noting her radical socialism. Troublesome facts, he asserts, are far too often ignored.

Next Loewen devotes an entire chapter to Christopher Columbus. He attacks the tendency to present the navigator without precedent, and to portray him in heroic terms. Other seafarers seldom make it into the textbooks. Nor, he claims in the next chapter, do textbook authors pay much attention to the conflict of cultures that took place.

Sometimes Loewen's analysis is fascinating. Textbooks, he tells us, often mention the Indian Squanto who helped New England settlers. They dutifully note that Squanto had learned the newcomers' language and so was able to teach them how to plant pumpkins, corn, and squash. But why not tell us how he learned English, Loewen cries. Squanto had been seized and sold into slavery. He escaped, made his way from Spain to England, tried to get home via Newfoundland, and finally managed to join a trip to Cape Cod. This story makes the account far livelier for students.

The attacks continue. American racism, Loewen suggests, is largely ignored. Textbooks today, he is forced to admit, do better with the issue of slavery than they did in the past. But they still ignore the implications of racism in the North, the causes of racial friction, and the continuing force racism has in our lives today. Even worse, these books ignore the more general impact of ideas and ideology in American life. Loewen follows in the footsteps of author Frances FitzGerald, who studied college textbooks in her highly-regarded book America Revised in 1980, and claimed that in the works she examined, "American political life was completely mindless".

Finally, in one of his most compelling chapters, Loewen argues that today's high school texts pay no attention at all to class or social structure. The implications are serious: "The tendency of teachers and textbooks to avoid social class as if it were a dirty little secret only reinforces the reluctance of working-class families to talk about it." "Why is history taught like this?" Loewen asks in the title of one of his final chapters. And is the situation as dismal as it sounds?

The pressures of textbook publishing are partly to blame for the problems. Many states have adoption boards which demand that controversies be muted and radical analyses be ignored. Publishing has become a highly concentrated industry, with increasing attention to the bottom line. Yet teachers use books, Loewen argues, because they need the framework in their courses. And to a large degree they like the books the way they are.

Parts of Loewen's argument are persuasive. About two years ago, I co-authored a high school textbook and had the chance to read through many of the books he uses. In many cases, he is right. There is a numbing blandness in some treatments, a biased simplicity in others.

Yet sometimes he goes too far. He charges, rightly, that textbook authors should make mention of government skulduggery, when appropriate, though they need not mention every episode that has taken place in the past. But the thrust of his attack is to imply that books need to do much more than they currently do. From the title to the epilogue, his relentless argument, no matter how thoughtful, leaves the impression that the books he is examining have little merit at all. And that impression is overdrawn.

Equally important, Loewen oversimplifies the process of textbook writing, even though he has written a textbook himself. Original scholarship, published in essays, monographs, and synthetic accounts, provides the basis for textbook accounts. Interpretations change. We learn more about the past, whether we are studying episodes that took place 500 years ago or the day before yesterday. As Loewen himself acknowledges, the civil rights movement affected the way we look back at race relations in the past. Despite his awareness of this process, his account seems frozen, with too little attention to the impact of recent scholarship that does appear in the textbooks we now use.

Still, Loewen is correct in the essentials. There is a problem with history education in the United States. Two-thirds of American 17-year-olds cannot place the Civil War in the correct half-century. And Loewen should also be commended for his thoughtful analysis of the omissions he cites. He goes beyond simple attack. In virtually every case, he brings us up to date with contemporary scholarship, shows what we now understand was really going on, and so underscores his plea that this knowledge find its way into the texts.

The afterword is encouraging, too. Loewen recognises the power of publishers and textbook boards, but still has a number of useful suggestions. It is necessary, he declares, to "introduce fewer topics and examine them more thoroughly." It is important to allow students to confront controversy, and so learn how issues are hammered out. Finally, it is essential to teach students how to examine sources, ask questions about them, and assess their value.

Lies My Teacher Told Me is more than a breezy, anecdotal account. It is a useful inquiry into the ways we explain our past - and ourselves.

Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University of Ohio.

Lies my Teacher Told Me:: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Author - James W. Loewen
ISBN - 1 56584 100 X
Publisher - The New Press
Price - $24.95
Pages - 372pp

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