Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me was a fascinating read. The author sets out to examine twelve school textbooks for their accuracy, completeness, and use in school settings and then write about different ways that the history in these textbooks and ones like them have failed us.

History in a school setting is often uninspiring, incomplete, and in some cases flat out wrong. It should, according to Loewen, invite questions and debates. It should encourage students to think about the past and how the past relates to their lives or informs the current situation. History should be an excellent way to develop the critical thinking skills that engaged citizens need. Instead, history is taught in a way to develop allegiance and blind patriotism—as if one cannot be patriot and also critical of or question the actions of one’s government.

All of these points are well taken. I don’t remember particularly liking history or social studies in school, but I didn’t particularly hate it. However, as an adult, I love history because of the very things that Loewen mentions—the sense of perspective it gives, an understanding of current events, and the development of critical thinking skills.

Throughout the book, Loewen shows time and time again the lies we were told about history and then explains the damage and consequences that resulted from these lies. It is all a bit disheartening. He unpacks the erroneous history about several events or subjects: hero-making, Columbus, Thanksgiving, Native Americans, the invisibility of racism AND anti-racism, the myth of opportunity, the federal government always on the side of good, the lack of recent history, and the myth of progress.

I enjoyed learning from the examples that Loewen provides about how we were misled and mistaught in school. I had no idea about Helen Keller’s adult life. I merely kind of thought (without questioning it) that her life ended in a figurative sense after Ann Sullivan taught her how to interact with the world. Instead, I learned about her rich life as a social activist for class rights and women’s rights.

And President Wilson, whom I suspected was not the squeaky-clean hero that he is portrayed to be, turned out to have been quite the racist and military interventionist. By learning about his actions in the early 20th century, I can see more clearly see the antecedents of the path the US went down in race relations. I can also see the roots of chaos in Latin America—all thanks to the wars we engaged in and the democratic governments we overthrew. By seeing the past, I see the consequences of these actions in the present.

Such knowledge is invaluable. How the US acts affects the future. Why aren’t our early 20th century actions in Iran taken into account when dealing with Iran today? We have collective amnesia or more aptly, we are all collectively ignorant of the fact that we created the Iran that we vehemently oppose today.

As Loewen works through the history that we were taught and unpacks misconceptions, he describes several archetypes. One is hero-fication. Individuals must be presented in a good light as defined by current norms. No blemishes. No complexity. Ignore the slave ownership of founding fathers or their contradictory statements on the issue.

Another archetype or assumption is the arch of progress. Loewen unveils this lie and the blame it causes. If everything is getting better and better, but they aren’t for you, then you are the problem. Those reaping the benefits of so-called progress see it as the result of their abilities. Those not reaping the benefits blame themselves.

Besides the blame heaped on those not in the privileged position, this myth of progress also encourages passivity. There is no impetus to change anything. No need to fight or condemn racist conditions. After all, things are better than they were and will continue to get better. Only we know from history that isn’t the case. After the progress made for blacks during Reconstruction, a dark period descended on the country and gains that blacks made were lost.

Another myth is one that insists that more education leads to tolerance. In fact, Loewen unveils this lie through information on who backed the Vietnam War at the time and who we think backed the Vietnam War, as well as our rationalism about our current interpretation. It is fascinating though disturbing work to unveil unseen myths and assumptions. Education is a socializing tool. The more educated you are, the more you tend to support the system. (There was a reason why re-education was/is used in the USSR and China. They knew that education can lead to allegiance to the state and the status quo.)

Couple allegiance with the myth that the state only does good and you have a populace that will support anything the state does, including wars. Loewen mentions that the college-educated tend to be Republican and the uneducated Democrat, though I wonder what he would make of our current climate where everything seems to be upside down and nothing in politics operates as normal.

After unpacking the lies we were taught, Loewen discusses why history is taught like this and proposes ways it should be taught. In brief, the answers about why are money and ideology, and the how is engaging students in projects to show how the past affects their lives now. Unlike other subjects, history is treated as subjective. We all have different perspectives on events and do not want our children to be taught potentially opposing views. As a nation that doesn’t foster debate, we do not want to foster debate in the classroom or teach our children to think. If they are to think, it is to think how we think, whether how we think is correct about an historical event or not, whether we think critically or not.

Without a critical understanding of the past, we cannot understand where we are and we cannot move forward to propose solutions to societal ills. We miss out on seeing the causes of racism and then cannot begin to recognize racism among us, let alone address it. The same can be said about social class and poverty. Or marginalized groups. Without critically examining the past and knowing what the past really is, we miss out on understanding the present and remedying long festering situations. Things do not get better with ignorance or misunderstanding (or even time). Instead, they get worse through perpetuation.

Loewen taught me about some of the mishistory I knew and some history that I didn’t know about. He also challenged me to question what I read, what I am told, and what I am taught. He proposes that students ask questions about sources of information:

  • Why was the source written or spoken? Contextualize it by placing it in the social structure and the agenda of the speaker or writer.
  • Whose viewpoint is presented? What interests does it serve? What viewpoints are omitted?
  • Is the account believable? Are there contradictions?
  • Is the account backed up by other sources? How is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented? Look at the choice of words and images used.

I would propose, especial in the age of fake news, that these sorts of questions and this sort of critical thinking is what we should apply to all aspects of information, historical or current. I would also add that we should ask ourselves: what assumptions does this interpretation of events make? What assumptions am I making? Fish rarely realize the water they swim in. To see the water we swim in is to see reality. To see the assumptions that we and society make helps strip away interpretations so we can better understand and effect change when needed.

Loewen’s work on historical education came out of his time teaching in Mississippi. He was shocked to hear the erroneous views his students had about Reconstruction and how harmful these beliefs were to them. As a means of social control and white supremacy over blacks, Reconstruction had been reinvented as a time when blacks were in power throughout the south, made a mess out of it, and whites had to step back in to fix things. None of this is true but if this is the narrative you are told as a black American, what does this do to your beliefs about black Americans, their abilities, and yourself? In reaction, Loewen wrote a history textbook. He had to sue the state to get it on the state’s list of approved textbooks.

I bet Mississippi: Conflict and Change would make a fascinating read and follow-up after Lies My Teacher Told Me.


Asking questions


“Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” ~ Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I tend to ask lots of questions in an effort to understand things. But I’ve discovered that a cohort of people really, really dislike being asked questions (and the people who ask them). Happily, there is another cohort of people who really, really like being asked questions and sharing their knowledge. I’d prefer to live in a world populated by the latter folks.