Eric D. Snider

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Eric Recommends: ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’

It’s only been a few years since I discovered I love American history, and one of the more interesting books I’ve read on the topic is “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” by James W. Loewen.

Now, I don’t like the title. The title is a turn-off. It makes you think this is going to be one of those liberal-guilt history-revisionist things, where all of a sudden the Civil War was fought over things other than slavery, and where every hero in American history was actually a bad guy.

What the book actually is, is an indictment of high school history textbooks. Loewen scrutinized a dozen of the most widely used ones and found they all have some things in common: They’re boring, they whitewash everything, and they get a lot of things wrong. The result is that most American students cite history as one of their least favorite subjects, and much of what the average American citizen “knows” about our country’s past isn’t true (or is true but is only the tip of the iceberg).

The things Loewen reveals about American history aren’t generally disputed among historians (and his plentiful footnotes say so when they are). It’s not like the facts are hidden; they’re right there in source materials, biographies, and even in college history textbooks. The problem is, most people never take a college history class. And so most of what we know about U.S. history is what we learned in high school — from the lousy books Loewen is railing against.

He chooses a handful of major topics (Christopher Columbus and early explorers, the first Thanksgiving, the Civil War, racism, others), summarizes what the high school textbooks teach on those subjects, and then shows all the things they got wrong.

For example, we learned in elementary school that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. Then in high school, we were old enough to understand that there were actually a lot of other factors involved, that it wasn’t JUST about slavery. But it turns out our elementary school education was right: As Loewen demonstrates, if you asked the people in 1863 what they were fighting about, or read the letters, speeches, and newspapers of that time, you’d get one answer: slavery. Period. That was THE issue, THE cause of the Civil War. The idea that it was other things came about much later, probably due to our psychological aversion to slavery and a subconscious desire to downplay its significance in our nation’s history.

“Lies My Teacher Told Me” is full of eye-opening dissertations on America’s influence overseas, our interaction with the Indians, the Civil Rights movement, and a host of others. Loewen cites his sources carefully and writes in an accessible, non-textbook tone. Some of his more socially liberals ideas, as found in the chapter on America’s class system, are a bit hard to swallow — but they’re only his interpretations of the data. When he’s sticking to the actual facts of history, it’s an enlightening read from start to finish.

12 Responses to “Eric Recommends: ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’”

  1. Dan Says:

    Sounds interesting – since I am a cheapskate, I went and put it on hold at the library

  2. Firebyrd Says:

    That’s funny that you found the title to be a turn-off. I actually took it to mean that it was an indictment of liberal-guilt history-revision, because that seems to be what’s taught in schools nowadays. Anyway, read the book, loved the book, and second the recommendation.

  3. Jesse Harris Says:

    I got this book as a gift many years ago (I think 8+) and very much enjoyed it. I can’t figure out how it is that college texts get so much right and high school texts get so much wrong. I fear that I’m going to have to do a lot of correcting with my future children.

  4. John Doe Says:

    The problem with history is you can’t look at all sources. History books are written by those who won/are the majority. You can get a bunch of different history books and there will be some consensus, but there will also be tons of contradictions. History is limited by A)what we have and B) our values. We use what we like, and discard the contradictory stuff because there can only be one right answer, so why not pick the one that agrees with you?

    Americans claim to have won WWII. Yet my Canadian friend will tell you, in no uncertain terms and with tons of evidence, that Canada won WWII. I met a girl from Russia who proved to me that Russia won WWII. So whatever point of view you have decides who was good/bad and who won/lost. Everything can be spun.

  5. RandyTayler Says:

    Eh, Canada, Russia, whatever. If they get too uppity we can just NUKE THEM WITH THE BOMBS WE USED TO END THE WAR.

  6. Steven Gardner Says:

    I forgot that I had once read this book. I liked the book for a while, but just like “Freakanomics” I got tired of it before finishing. Despite that, I’d recommend them both for their ability to shake conventional wisdom. I’d also recommend “Blink” and “The Tipping Point.”

  7. Sideshow Says:

    After double checking to make sure Eric read the same book I did, I thought I’d let you know that I don’t think it’s nearly as great. It sure is interesting, and it starts well, but it gets less interesting and (coincidentally?) objective the further you read.

    I would still recommend it because it is useful. I hope Eric puts up an Amazon link — pay attention to the comments about the bias, because the author pretty clearly has an agenda and set of beliefs that aren’t completely supported by the facts he refers to. It’s too bad; a book on this topic is a great idea, and shouldn’t be just another chance for someone to tell us something they want us to believe that may not be as true as they’d like. Isn’t that one of the major problems with the high school history books in the first place?

  8. Deirdre Says:

    My undergraduate degree is iin History. I was always “against discrimination” in a vague, liberal sort of way, until I went to law school. Then I learned about things that really happened in this country, some of them not so long ago.

    I don’t know what percentage of people ever get to law school, but I do know it’s much smaller than the percentage who need to know about whole towns full of people being massacred, whole racial groups being barred from citizenship, and Americans being thrown into prison camps, all within living memory, and all perfectly legal.

  9. heg Says:

    James Loewen also wrote Lies Across America about historical markers in this country and inaccuracies. It is not as good as Lies Across America, but it is worth a read.

  10. Amy Says:

    Eric, if you were homeschooled, you might have grown up reading real books about history instead of textbooks.

  11. Tern Says:

    Deirdre, whole towns full of people being massacred? I must be missing that one in my law school curriculum.

  12. Dave Says:

    I’m Canadian, lived in Canada my entire life, went to school in Canada, learned history in Canada, and this is the first time I ever heard of anyone claiming that Canada won WWII.

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