“Lies My Teacher Told Me,” by James W. Loewen, emerged from the dust bunnies about two weeks ago when I assembled my collection of American history books and promised them that YES, now I would read them all. A rash commitment, but I made progress. Sort of.
At least I read the entire cover of Loewen’s work. Inside I found a sticky note I had written a long time ago, “Painful to read but too well-documented to ignore.” After 15 years, I feel the same. But now I know why.
Publicly accusing a teacher of lying “gets me where I live,” as my grandmother would describe certain insults. Did he mean this? Could he prove it? And even if his book is both true and well-written, so what?
Once past the flamboyant cover, I found that Loewen, instead of the usual Face Book rant, has written a careful study of why American history is so badly taught and even more badly learned in our nation’s high schools. The opinions are his, but he does present a formidable defense of all of them. His introduction, “Something Has Gone Very Wrong,” begins, in bold upper case letters, “HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS HATE HISTORY.”
Then he describes why. What drew me in was that he was describing my own experiences. And I was left with a dawning sense that perhaps this stormy chapter of my own secondary education might not have been all my fault.
It’s not a sensed need for some command of our own history that is missing; it is generally acknowledged to be important. It’s the textbooks. They’re boring. “The stories … are predictable; every problem has already been solved …”. Textbooks “exclude conflict or real suspense,” and omit “anything that might reflect badly on our national character.” Worst of all, they “keep students in the dark about the nature of history,” which is “furious debate informed by evidence and reason.”
Loewen has squared off against a formidable adversary, his writing at once courageous and combative. There is real urgency in his analysis, now going on sixteen years ago.
So who is this man, and how can he be qualified to make these statements?
James Loewen was born in 1942, graduated from high school in 1960 as a National Merit Scholar and received a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University. He spent two years at the Smithsonian Institute analyzing 12 American history books in wide-spread use at the time, that weighed an average of four and a half pounds and had 880 pages: “The American Adventure” (1975), “American Adventures”(1987), “American History” (1982), “American Pageant” (1991), “American Tradition” (1984), “American Way” (1979, “The Challenge of Freedom” (1990), “Discovering American History” (1974), “Land of Promise” (1983), “Life and Liberty” (1984), “Triumph of the American Nation” (1986) and “The United States: A History of the Republic (1991).
That should say much of his preparation for “Lies,” not to mention a rousing tribute to his stamina.
And if that weren’t enough, he wrote a 2008 updated and revised edition, which contained his analysis of six more textbooks: “The American Journey” (2000), “The American Pageant (2006), “The Americans” (2007), “America: Pathway to the Present” (2005), “A History of the United States” ((2005) and “Holt American Nation” (2003).
Whom do you know who has ever studied more than one? Or even that one for two years?
In 1974, Loewen coauthored an American history book, “Mississippi: Conflict and Change”. When the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board rejected it, Loewen successfully challenged their decision in
Loewen v. Turnipseed, a court decision that the American Library Association considers a historic First Amendment case.
My research found no creditable rebuttal to any of his work.
Maybe the biggest surprise is how few waves he has actually made. I would think that parents would be up in arms about his accusations, and would at least have launched a sincere investigation. I found neither. As for me, I plan to read the whole book, take notes, and probably write about it. I find it an extraordinary work, both scholarly and readable. I recommend it to anyone who believes in the importance of American history. And in the importance of America. I do.