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.