History with Attitude

Lies My Teacher Told Me is one of the funnest, most informative rants I’ve read in quite a while. James Loewen is ticked at the stupidity of American history high school textbooks, and he has reason to be.

One 1990-era textbook offered this whopper: “President Truman easily settled the Korean War by dropping the atomic bomb” (p. 320), which has so many errors in it I hardly know where to begin.

But there’s more. Lots more. The textbooks are wrong when they say that . . .

  • Most people during Columbus’s day thought the earth was flat. In fact most people, including Columbus and his sailors, knew it was round (p. 49).
  • When the English arrived at Plymouth Rock, Native Americans lived in predominantly nomadic societies and were rarely agrarian. The reverse was actually the case (p. 105).
  • Southern states left the Union because the federal government refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In fact, the law had been enforced (pp. 140-41). Interestingly, prior to the Civil War the Northern states invoked states’ rights to fight the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Southern states invoked federal authority to enforce it–their positions on states’ rights dramatically reversing in 1860.
  • Abolitionist John Brown was insane. This viewpoint originated after 1890 without any documentary evidence to support the claim (pp. 172-83).
  • Rather than the post-Civil War Reconstruction era (1865-1877) being a time when African Americans took over the governments of Southern states and ran them incompetently or corruptly, during Reconstruction all governors were white, almost all legislatures had white majorities and, for example, “Mississippi enjoyed less corrupt government during Reconstruction than in the decades immediately afterward” (p. 157).

There’s more still. The textbooks also neglect to inform students that

  • Columbus and his crew harshly enslaved the natives of Haiti (pp. 54-59).
  • Most of the presidents before Lincoln owned slaves (p. 146).
  • Woodrow Wilson intervened militarily in Latin American countries fifteen times, more than at any other time in U.S. history and long before Communism became an issue in the region (p. 16).
  • Helen Keller wanted to be remembered not for overcoming deafness and blindness but for being a radical socialist for more than sixty years (pp. 13-14).
  • International Telephone and Telegraph took the lead in prompting the U.S. government to destabilize the government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 (pp. 222, 231).

The vastness of the omissions, misrepresentations, myths and outright falsehoods that Loewen covers in the second edition of his book (published 2007) is staggering. But he’s even more incensed at the results of teaching American history as a mindless collection of dates and names, as a series of cardboard heroes, and as the story of a country that never did anything wrong. Not only does it make students dumber, it prevents them from being informed citizens who can help the country avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Worst of all, it makes history boring. When he teaches students what actually happened, they are fascinated and totally engaged.

Some may accuse Loewen of having an “anti-American” bias. But what he presents in the book is virtually identical to what is found in all college level texts where professors are constantly trying to help students unlearn what they were taught in high school. And if any of his facts are wrong, he’d only be delighted to have someone do the research to prove it.

Many readers will no doubt find Loewen’s tone tiring. He complains and complains and complains. As I said, it’s a rant. I usually tell authors not to write like this, actually; any intense tone (be it cheerful, sad, angry or optimistic) sustained over two, three or four hundred pages is just exhausting. It wearies the soul.

Nonetheless, given how much there is to complain about in Loewen’s subject matter, I understand why he does so much huffing and puffing. He probably feels that sometimes you need a two by four to get the mule’s attention. The wealth of informative correctives he offers throughout make it a very worthwhile knock on the head.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.