Book Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Have you ever wondered whether history books were telling the truth? James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me sheds some new light on American history – and how high school textbooks are getting it wrong. Loewen speaks on misconceptions about slavery and the Underground Railroad on Thursday, July 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library.

Professor Loewen, a race relations expert and author of five books, opens Lies my Teacher Told Me with a simple assertion: "High school students hate history." From the students' perspective, he argues, history is both too complicated and too simple. Loewen finds that high school textbooks offer a dizzying array of information, with books averaging 4.5 pounds and 888 pages. At the same time, the stories presented in textbooks all feature neat, clean facts imparted with bland patriotism. This method, Loewen argues, reduces history to "a gray emotional landscape of pious duty" rather than a dramatic landscape of interrelated stories and events.

Using material from 18 top textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me highlights some of the most glaring omissions from educational texts. These are events, for the most part, that define who we are as a nation more than what Loewen calls the "Disney version of history" presented in classrooms. And the true stories are almost always more interesting than their whitewashed counterparts.

For example, President Woodrow Wilson is remembered for his efforts to unite the world in a League of Nations following U.S. entry into World War I. Loewen argues that Wilson was an "outspoken white supremacist" who "used his power ... to segregate the federal government." The Vietnam War, too, is a dodgy issue for textbooks. By shining a light on facts such as how the military dropped more bombs in Vietnam than in all theatres of World War II combined, Loewen shows how authors ignore conflicts that tarnish the U.S.'s image. In fact, Loewen cites observations that nearly 25 percent of students think the Vietnam War was fought between North and South Korea, revealing a profound disparity in educational standards.

Readers learn how Christopher Columbus was the largest individual slave trader in history, how Helen Keller advocated socialism, and, to use an example closer to home, how Kansas abolotionist John Brown wasn't always regarded as a lunatic.

Brown is a case study in how school textbooks leave out important abolitionists and shy away from idealism – but when idealists are included, they are portrayed as crazed fanatics. Many high school history books label Brown as a madman, despite evidence from primary source documents that, according to Loewen, proves Brown's contemporaries regarded him as a composed, perceptive man.

Two different images of John Brown
Two different images of John Brown

The illustration to the right shows radically different images of Brown. The left is a daguerreotype taken in 1850; the right is a detail from John Steuart Curry's famous mural, Tragic Prelude, depicting Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.

Loewen contends that one of the foremost problems with current history textbooks is the glaring omission of racism. Slavery, in particular, was the driving force behind defining events like the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War. Loewen points out that "as long as history textbooks make white racism invisible, neither they nor their students who use them will be able to analyze race relations intelligently."

Moreover, Loewen's claim, "Feel-good history for affluent white males inevitably amounts to feel-bad history for everyone else," appears to be true: minorities consistently lag behind white students in history classes.

For another example, here's Loewen dissecting the historical record behind a Confederate monument:

Lies My Teacher Told Me is not without controversy, however; check out the reviews on Amazon or GoodReads to see readers raising questions about its objectivity. Lies has received critical acclaim as the winner of the 1996 American Book Award and the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship. Since its publication in 1995, it has sold over one million copies.

Want to see more lies exposed? Can you handle the truth about history? Come find out when James Loewen reveals lies about slavery and the Underground Railroad in an original presentation at the Central Library on Thursday, July 29, at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the presentation. RSVP online or call 816-701-3407. Free parking is available at the Library District Parking Garage at 10th & Baltimore.

-- Jennifer Brussow