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

Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong - James W. Loewen Actually, this book is really about high school history textbooks, and only peripherally about things teachers say to students. I took a lot of notes while listening to this book, so this will be the first of a two-part review. Loewen looked at twelve major US History textbooks, and catalogued the ways they distort the historical record. Interestingly, he found that even when textbook authors were well-known for holding much more sophisticated opinions, and writing about them in historical monographs; when they turned their hands to the textbook something happened. All the complexity fell away, and the historians became little more than apologists for the status quo.“Textbooks stifle meaning,” Loewen says, “by suppressing causation.” That’s interesting. The omniscient narrator’s voice in the textbook insulates students from the actual (and much more powerful and interesting) voices of people in history. The reason the failures of these textbooks is important, Loewen continues, is that five sixths of all Americans never take a course in history beyond high school. So, most of us in America are not being exposed to the latest work by historians aiming to set the record straight or qualify older interpretations. This might come as a shock to many historians, and it certainly should have an impact on where we choose to spend our efforts when communicating with the public.Loewen’s first chapter deals with the process of heroification, which he says is like calcification in that it makes the characters unreal and therefor useless and irrelevant. Their lives become so distorted and decontextualized that they become meaningless. Loewen says that stories celebrating Helen Keller’s struggle to learn to speak have deliberately ignored what she said when she actually achieved her goal. This is especially ironic, because Keller came to believe that she was in fact very lucky to have been born into a family that had the means to care for her and give her the opportunity to learn. Not everyone, she said, has the chance to succeed in America. This is a point of view the textbooks want to avoid, according to Loewen. To encapsulate the sixty years of Keller’s adulthood with the term humanitarian, Loewen says, is to lie by omission. She was a socialist. A Wobblie! This is much more interesting than the bland image of her that comes down to us from the textbooks.Not only do textbooks leave out controversial facts, Loewen says, they literally lie about them. The 1914 invasion of Mexico, he says, is portrayed as a step Woodrow Wilson was uneasy about taking, even though the record shows he pushed it through an unwilling Congress, against the wishes of most Americans. Now clearly, there’s room for argument whether “most Americans” were for or against this invasion; the point is, the textbooks give us no space to argue, because they present this as a fact that is beyond interpretation. Frequently, Loewen says, textbooks give Wilson credit for ordering troops out of Mexico, while ignoring the fact that he’s also the guy who ordered them in.Woodrow Wilson’s racism is only mentioned by four of the twelve textbooks Loewen studied. None of them credit Wilson with segregating the federal government, and one actually creates a “happy ending,” in which “the forces of segregation” were finally beaten back by the end of Wilson’s administration. Loewen suggests that creating a false happy ending is worse than not mentioning the issue at all. Concealing the racism of the leadership, Loewen continues, makes the upsurge of racist violence and Klan activity in the 1920s incomprehensible; so that too must be written out of the story. Along the way, we lose an opportunity to learn something about the relationship between leaders and followers in American culture. Politics is indecipherable without true representations of these people. Loewen says the 1920 election, in which Republican “nonentity” Warren G. Harding crushed Democrat James M. Cox can only be understood as an expression of national animosity toward Wilson. The textbooks largely portray it as the nation’s “fatigue” with Progressivism, however, because they won’t say anything against the heroified Wilson. So Americans weren’t tired of the Sedition Act, or censorship…just “Progressivism.” Ironically, the issues that are left muddled for students were quite clear for Helen Keller, who called Wilson “The Greatest Disappointment the World has Known.” Loewen’s argument about heroes is that a lifelike representation of these people that exposed their humanity would actually give students realistic models to emulate. The inhuman perfection of the textbooks’ heroes makes them too distant, and works against the idea that the students can ever have a significant role in their society. Instead, we get a series of discoverers’ names to memorize, from Eric the Red to Neil Armstrong — and we’re asked to remember them not because of the social impact of their discoveries, but because they were white. After giving us a line-by-line debunking of the Columbus myth, Loewen suggests that these fabulous additions (the storms, the near mutiny) are not trivial. They support the archetype, and reinforce the argument that leaders are unlike the rest of us. They are smarter, braver, more resolute, and right. So we ought to obey them. “Somehow,” Loewen says, “we ended up with 4 million slaves in America, and no owners.” This is a pattern in textbooks, he says. Anything bad that happened, happened anonymously. “War broke out.” “Chaos ensued.” But he suggests an interesting way to look at the American response to the Haitian revolution: whether the President owned slaves. Washington supported the planters, Adams supported the slaves, and under Jefferson “the US retreated from its support of the Haitian revolutionaries.” Now, you could argue that there were political changes or other factors involved…if you were in a position to argue at all. Most of the textbooks don’t cover Haiti, though, so there’s no opportunity. “There are three great taboos in textbook publishing,” an editor at one of the major houses told Loewen: “sex, religion, and social class.” Only one of the textbooks Loewen reviewed mentioned class, and only in the early colonial period. The effect of not acknowledging class differences in history, Loewen says, is to reinforce the idea that anyone can rise in this “Land of Opportunity,” and if people don’t, it’s their own fault. This alienates all students who are not white, male, and affluent, Loewen says. Or worse, it plants the seeds of prejudice. One of the most ironic comparisons Loewen makes, is between After the Fact, Davidson & Lytle’s book about the work of academic historians (assigned in many grad surveys), and Davidson’s The American Nation. All of the complexity, interpretation, and interest is washed away, Loewen says; leaving a dry recital of facts no better than any of the others. Gordon Craig, Loewen says, claimed that the “duty of history is to restore to the past the options it once had.” Historians know this is their responsibility — except, it seems, when they write for high schoolers.