Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Touchstone edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me published in 2007.
Introduction Quotes

Textbooks encourage students to believe that history is facts to be learned. "We have not avoided controversial issues," announces one set of textbook authors; "instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments" on them—thus removing the controversy! Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them.

Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Loewen’s most important criticisms of the modern American history textbook is that it gives no sense for the controversy or the ambiguity of interpreting history. Here, Loewen quotes from one popular American history textbook, which purports to have “simplified” controversial issues to make history more palatable for high school students. Loewen argues that textbooks shouldn’t simplify information or eliminate controversy; rather, their role should be to convey these things to students.

As Loewen shows in his book, history is largely about interpreting and questioning different kinds of sources. There is, indeed, no such thing as a “godlike” source—every document should be questioned and tested for bias. A good student of history, then, will learn how to study different forms of bias in order to approximate the truth. Therefore, by presenting history as a certain succession of names, facts, and dates, rather than an ambiguous, controversial process, history textbooks don’t truly teach history at all.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

In the case of Woodrow Wilson, textbooks actually participate in creating the social archetype. Wilson is portrayed as “good,” “idealist,” “for self-determination, not colonial intervention,” “foiled by an isolationist Senate,” and “ahead of his time.”

Related Characters: President Woodrow Wilson
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Loewen studies the life of President Woodrow Wilson, who is often remembered for leading the U.S. during World War I, or for spearheading a series of progressive changes in American society. Wilson is, in short, remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. But, as Loewen points out, Wilson was also one of America’s most actively racist presidents, and one of its most imperialist and interventionist presidents, regularly interfering with other countries’ democratically elected governments.

Loewen’s theory for why, exactly, Wilson is remembered as a hero, not a tyrannical racist, is that people want to believe the best of historical figures. Thus, people want to believe that Wilson was the archetypal good leader—a strong, idealistic, democratic president. Instead of challenging people’s expectations about Wilson (and any number of other historical figures), textbooks seem to reinforce these expectations, painting a rosy picture of Wilson and his career. The passage is particularly important because it alludes to the fact that the general public—not just textbook publishers and writers—are complicit in preserving Americans’ ignorance of the past: in other words, history textbooks are biased because ordinary people are biased, too.

Chapter 2 Quotes

We live with this arms race still. But the West's advantage in military technology over the rest of the world, jealously maintained from the 1400s on, remains very much contested. Just as the thirteen British colonies tried to outlaw the sale of guns to Native Americans, the United Sates now tries to outlaw the sale of nuclear technology to Third World countries. A key point of George W. Bush’s foreign policy has been to deny nuclear weapons and other "weapons of mass destruction" to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea and keep them out of the hands of terrorists like al-Qaeda.

Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen discusses the historical factors that led the Spanish government to send Christopher Columbus on an expedition to explore the Americas. While many textbooks argue that Columbus went to America because of a collective “burst of curiosity” in Europe, Loewen offers a much simpler and more believable explanation: 15th century European rulers were investing huge amounts of money in military technology (including ships, swords, and armor), and therefore had surplus equipment to send on expeditions.

Loewen goes even further in the passage, analogizing the strategy of 15th century European rulers to the foreign policy of modern leaders like George W. Bush. Bush’s strategy was simple: stockpile military technology and prevent everyone else from doing the same. In this way, America has maintained its status as global superpower for more than a century. Loewen’s comparison between 15th century monarchs and a 21st century, democratically elected president might surprise or even offend some readers. And yet Loewen argues that bold, century-spanning comparisons of the kind he makes here are vital to the study of history. Students need to learn how to compare the events of the past with those of the present—otherwise, history is just a collection of boring facts with no relevance to the modern world.

The textbooks concede that Columbus did not start from scratch. Every textbook account of the European exploration of the Americas begins with Prince Henry the Navigator, of Portugal, between 1415 and 1460. Henry is portrayed as discovering Madeira and the Azores and sending out ships to circumnavigate Africa for the first time. The textbook authors seem unaware that ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians sailed at least as far as Ireland and England.

Related Characters: Christopher Columbus , Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen analyzes textbooks’ treatment of the European exploration of the Americas. History textbooks make the mistake of saying that Europeans—such as Prince Henry the Navigator, an important Portuguese monarch and maritime pioneer—were the “first” people to undertake important maritime expeditions across the world, ignoring the achievements of the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and many other ancient, non-Western societies.

The further implication of history textbooks’ Eurocentric view of world exploration is that, absurd as it sounds, Europe “invented technology.” Instead of celebrating other cultures for contributing to European science, mathematics, and technology, the average American history textbook implies that white, Western Europeans (including Americans, many of whom are descended from white Europeans) developed virtually all the key technologies of the modern world. By ignoring the non-Western predecessors to European exploration, textbooks reinforce the idea that Europe pioneered world exploration, and the technology to go with it, single-handedly.

Europe's fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an "opposite" to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no "Europe" before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no "white" people in Europe before l492.

Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen discusses one of the most important legacies of the Europeans’ “discovery” of America; the presence of Native Americans led Europeans to think of themselves as Europeans for the first time in history. In a similar sense, Europeans began to define themselves according to their race, deliberate contrasting themselves with the peoples of the “New World.”

Loewen takes a dialectical view of identity: as he sees it, every group (whether it be racial, national, or cultural) is defined in contrast to its opposite. Thus, Europeans didn’t think of themselves as the bearers of a single cultural or racial identity until they’d encountered a new group—Native Americans—against which to contrast themselves. The passage is particularly important because it supports the point that Europeans’ discovery of the Americas was a two-way cultural exchange, contrary to what most textbooks assume. The passage also signals the importance of ideas and ideology in American history—a theme Loewen will return to in a later chapter.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The "navigation error" story lacks plausibility: the one parameter of ocean travel that sailors could and did measure accurately in that era was latitude—distance north or south from the equator. The "storms" excuse is perhaps still less plausible, for if a storm blew them off course, when the weather cleared they could have turned southward again, sailing out to sea to bypass any shoals. They had plenty of food and beer, after all. But storms and pilot error leave the Pilgrims pure of heart, which may explain why most textbooks choose one of the two.

Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage analyzes some of the different explanations that history textbooks provide for how English pilgrims came to live in New England in 1620. It’s an established fact that a group of pilgrims (along with many non-religious members) sailed for Virginia in 1620—however, their ship may have been swept north by a storm. It’s also possible that some members of the ship led a mutiny and steered the ship away from Virginia, toward New England. As Loewen points out, textbooks ignore the legitimate possibility that the settlers may have turned on themselves during their voyage to America, for such an explanation would characterize the “pilgrims” as violent or unruly. Instead of advocating for the “mutiny theory”—or acknowledging any controversy or ambiguity—textbooks claim with certainty that the pilgrims ended up in New England because of storms or navigational errors.

Why would a textbook want to portray the pilgrims as orderly, calm, and generally non-mutinous? Because, Loewen speculates, history textbooks aren’t just factual records of the past: when describing the New England pilgrims, history textbooks essentially provide students with an American “creation myth”—an idealized account of how America came to be. Textbooks want to present the country’s founders in the best possible light; thus, they ignore historical ambiguity or the possibility of mutiny altogether.

The archetypes associated with Thanksgiving—God on our side, civilization wrested from wilderness, order from disorder, through hard work and good Pilgrim character—continue to radiate from our history textbooks.

Related Symbols: The First Thanksgiving
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen offers the story of the “first Thanksgiving” as a classic example of a creation myth disguised as history. While history textbooks claim that there was a literal first Thanksgiving, during which the civilized pilgrims of New England invited the wild, half-naked Native Americans to dine with them, Loewen suggests that the truth was very different. If there was a first Thanksgiving at all, then the Native Americans would have hosted the pilgrims and provided them with food—not the other way around.

Loewen makes an important point about history: history textbooks don’t necessarily offer false information about the pilgrims, but they distort and exaggerate the facts to paint a semi-mythical picture of the “first Americans.” In theory, the only purpose of history should be to report on the past. However, Loewen shows that the purpose of the first Thanksgiving story is much broader and more abstract: to reinforce certain ethnocentric ideas about the superiority of Western, European culture, and to celebrate, in an almost ritualistic sense, the colonization of America.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Textbook authors seem not to have encountered the trick question, “which came first, civilization or the wilderness?” The answer is civilization, for only the “civilized” mind could define the world of Native farmers, fishers, and gatherers and hunters, coexisting with forests, crops, and animals, as a “wilderness.” Calling the area beyond secure European control frontier or wilderness makes it subtly alien. Such a viewpoint is intrinsically Eurocentric and marginalizes the actions of nonurban people, both Native and non-Native.

Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, about the history of European Americans’ perception of Native Americans, Loewen argues that contemporary history textbooks reflect the strong ethnocentric bias in American society. There are various small ways to measure the bias of history textbooks. For example, most textbooks un-ironically characterize America as European settlers found it as a “wilderness.” As Loewen points out, the word “wilderness” connotes the existence of a “civilization,” against which wilderness can be measured and understood. In such a sense, textbooks’ use of the word “wilderness” confirms their assumption that Native Americans were somehow un-civilized or primitive.

The truth about the Native Americans, as Loewen takes great pains to point out, is that they weren’t primitive in any sense of the word. The Native Americans had sophisticated navigational methods, stories, cooking methods, and music. While it’s true that many Native Americans had no agriculture, and coexisted with the natural world, Loewen argues that non-agricultural societies are not necessarily any more “primitive” than agricultural societies (and they may even be less violent). Instead of blindly repeating the usual dogma about Native American inferiority, history textbooks need to challenge the idea that European settlers were innately superior to the Native Americans, or that they had the right to colonize the continent.

The answer to minimizing the Indian wars is not maximizing them. Telling Indian history as a parade of white villains might be feel-good history for those who want to wallow in the inference that America or whites are bad. What happened is more complex than that, however, so the history we tell must be more complex.

Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter Four, Loewen makes some important points about how history should be written. While it’s true that European settlers conducted a series of treacherous and even genocidal policies that aimed to wipe out the Native American population, it would be wrong to characterize the European project of colonization as inherently “evil,” just as current history textbooks are wrong to characterize the project as inherently good. There is much to criticize but also much to admire about Europeans’ relations with Native Americans. A good history textbook should give some sense of the complexity of European-Native American relations, instead of glorifying or demonizing the European settlers.

What, exactly, does Loewen mean by “complexity?” In part, he suggests that history textbooks should give a better sense of the reciprocal relationship between European settlers and the Native Americans. For instance, Loewen shows how Europeans were inspired to fight for democracy and equality in part because of their admiration for the structure of Native American tribes. In some ways, there was a lengthy, fruitful cultural exchange between Europeans and Native Americans, which went on for many centuries. By studying this cultural exchange, history textbooks could give a more realistic, complex account of early American history.

Chapter 5 Quotes

U.S. territorial expansion between 1787 and 1855 was owed in large part to slavers' influence. The largest pressure group behind the War of 1812 was slaveholders who coveted Indian and Spanish land and wanted to drive Indian societies farther away from the slaveholding states to prevent slave escapes.

Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

When textbooks discuss the history of slavery in America, they often portray it as an isolated, obsolete practice that wasn’t really a major part of American culture—only of Southern culture, and even then, only for a relatively short time. But as the passage suggests, slavery and the ideology that justified it, white supremacy, played a major role in shaping the United States in its early years. Consider, for example, that almost all the early American presidents were slave owners, or, as the passage suggests, that the U.S. expanded westward because powerful slave owners influenced the government to support expansionist policies.

In short, slavery was not a trivial or incidental part of American history, contrary to what many textbooks claim—slavery profoundly impacted the history of the United States. It is characteristic of high school history class that it tries to marginalize the role of slavery, painting a cheerier view of the past.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Taking ideas seriously does not fit with the rhetorical style of textbooks, which presents events so as to make them seem foreordained along a line of constant progress. Including ideas would make history contingent: things could go either way, and have on occasion. The "right" people, armed with the "right" ideas, have not always won. When they didn’t, the authors would be in the embarrassing position of having to disapprove of an outcome in the past. Including ideas would introduce uncertainty. This is not textbook style. Textbooks unfold history without real drama or suspense, only melodrama.

Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Six, Loewen argues that history textbooks need to do a better job of addressing the role of ideas in history. It’s undeniable that ideas motivate humans to make big, historical decisions (for instance, the pilgrims might never have journeyed to America had it not been for their religious convictions). And yet, history textbooks rarely spend a lot of time talking about what historical figures believed; instead, all the emphasis lies on what historical figures did.

Why don’t textbooks study historical ideas more thoroughly? Loewen argues that textbooks take a teleological view of history; in other words, they imply that history was “meant” to happen, and that the “right people” have always triumphed (perhaps unintentionally confirming the old saying that history is written by the winners). If they discussed ideas, textbooks would have to admit that history is not a predestined process; it is, on the contrary, an uncertain struggle in which opposing sides clash, exchanging and absorbing ideas. Another reason that textbooks ignore the role of ideas, which Loewen offers later on in the book, is that it’s easier for teachers to present history as a series of facts and dates—introducing ideas into the mix would make history much subtler and thus, much harder to teach.

Chapter 7 Quotes

In the most recent American Pageant, for example, social class goes unmentioned in the twentieth century. Many teachers compound the problem by avoiding talking about social class in the twenty-first. A study of history and social studies teachers “revealed that they had a much broader knowledge of the economy, both academically and experientially, than they admitted in class.” Teachers “expressed fear that students might find out about the injustices and inadequacies of their economic and political institutions.” By never blaming the system, American history courses thus present Republican history.

Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

Another glaring hole in American history textbooks, Loewen argues, is class. Class is undeniably a huge part of life—one’s class largely determines one’s options in life, one’s culture, and more. Furthermore, American history is, to no small extent, a history of class conflict. In the late 19th century, for example, unions, made up of working-class laborers, fought for shorter workdays and better pay, often sacrificing their lives to do so. Amazingly, history textbooks omit most of the information about union history—or about class in general.

As Loewen argues in the passage, history textbooks—such as The American Pageant—are perpetuating an overly idealized view of American society, in which all people, regardless of their social standing, have the same opportunities for success and wealth. When he mentions “Republican history,” Loewen doesn’t just refer to the Republican Party of the United States (although he makes no secret of his distaste for Republicans); rather, he also seems to mean “Republican history” in the sense of a version of history that is overly flattering to the federal government and the structure of American society (i.e., the “republic”). Textbooks should be bolder in criticizing “the system” of American society, which ensures that some Americans will be poor, regardless of their talent.

Chapter 8 Quotes

High school American history textbooks do not, of course, adopt or even hint at the American colossus view. Unfortunately, they also omit the realpolitik approach. Instead, they take a strikingly different tack. They see our policies as part of a morality play in which the United States typically acts on behalf of human rights, democracy, and “the American way.”

Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 8, Loewen discusses history textbooks’ analysis of American foreign policy, and comes to some disturbing conclusions. He begins by looking at the way professional historians think of American foreign policy. For the most part, historians divide into two main camps: the school of thought that argues that America is an aggressive, self-interested country that exploits the rest of the world for its own benefit (the “colossus view”), and the school of thought that argues that America, while certainly flawed, has generally acted for the “greater good” of democracy and equality (even if this greater good necessitates some short-term human rights violations). Instead of adopting either one of these views (let alone leaving readers to choose between them), textbooks offer the naïve idea that America is a benevolent, democratic country that intervenes in the rest of the world only to promote peace and equality.

The only way that textbooks can endorse such an obviously untrue belief, Loewen goes on to say, is by deliberately omitting almost all discussion of the American government’s specific foreign policy decisions. Textbooks don’t get into the assassination of Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, or the dozens of assassination attempts on Fidel Castro—all of which were partly or entirely engineered by the federal government of the United States.

In telling of Watergate, textbooks blame Richard Nixon, as they should. But they go no deeper. Faced with this undeniable instance of governmental wrongdoing, they manage to retain their uniformly rosy view of the government.

Related Characters: President Richard Nixon
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen discusses history textbooks’ treatment of President Richard Nixon—one of the few figures in American history whom textbooks depict as a fairly unambiguous “villain.” While it’s undeniably true that Richard Nixon was a corrupt politician who violated his contract with the American people in many capacities (waging secret, illegal wars in other countries; breaking into the Watergate Hotel to interfere with prominent members of the Democratic party; attempting to sabotage various “enemies”), Loewen’s point is that Nixon isn’t uniquely corrupt or villainous. On the contrary, other politicians engaged in much of the same behavior as Nixon—Nixon’s mistake was to “push the envelope” too far.

In effect, Loewen argues that history textbooks treat Richard Nixon as a scapegoat for the crimes of the federal government as a whole. The implication of textbooks’ account of Nixon is that, after Nixon was forced to resign from the White House, all problems with federal corruption were permanently solved. But the truth, as Loewen shows elsewhere in Lies My Teacher Told Me, is that federal corruption neither began nor ended with Nixon—the federal government has betrayed its contract with the people for almost as long as it’s been in existence.

By taking the government’s side, textbooks encourage students to conclude that criticism is incompatible with citizenship. And by presenting government actions in a vacuum, rather than as responses to such institutions as multinational corporations and civil rights organizations, textbooks mystify the creative tension between the people and their leaders. All this encourages students to throw up their hands in the belief that the government determines everything anyway, so why bother, especially if its actions are usually so benign.

Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter 8, Loewen studies some of the effects of textbooks’ lackluster analyses of the federal government. By omitting almost all mentions of federal corruption or immorality (with the notable exception of Richard Nixon, whom textbooks treat as a scapegoat), textbooks imply that the American government has always acted in the best interests of its people. A further implication is that ordinary people need not worry themselves with fighting for their rights—since the benevolent American government will surely protect these rights.

In short, history textbooks teach the opposite of the lesson they should be teaching. As Loewen shows, American history is full of inspiring stories of ordinary citizens who worked together to fight for the right to vote, work, marry whomever they loved, etc. Lobbying the government and exercising one’s rights to freedom, speech, press, and assembly, is a critical part of being an American citizen—but disturbingly, history textbooks fail to communicate such a point.

Chapter 10 Quotes

The contrast between the 1892 and 1992 celebrations of Columbus’s first voyage again shows the effect of different vantage points. As Anaïs Nin put it, we see things as we are, and “we” changed between 1892 and 1992.

Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen makes an important point about historiography, the study of how history has shifted and subtly changed over time. At different points in time, the public (and even or especially, professional historians) interpret the past in different ways, according to biases of class, race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. For example, Woodrow Wilson became a much more popular figure in the 1950s than he’d been even twenty years previously—in part because Americans in the 1950s were locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and needed to believe in an idealistic, heroic leader who had “made the world safe for democracy.” Or, as the passage mentions, we can look to the U.S.’s celebrations of Columbus’s discovery of America in 1892 compared to 1992—the former was a more overtly jingoistic celebration of America’s own power, while the latter was heavily influenced by political correctness and Native American protests.

In short, history is as much about the people writing history—with their unique biases—as it is about the historical facts themselves. By presenting history as a series of undeniable facts, textbooks utterly fail to give students a sense for the nuances of historical interpretation.

The initial U.S. response to 9 /11 was to attack the Taliban government in Afghanistan in October 2001. Like Hussein, this fundamentalist Muslim regime had initially been supported by our CIA because they opposed the previous Communist regime in Afghanistan, which was backed by the Soviet Union.

Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of this chapter, Loewen discusses America’s involvement in the Middle East following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. After 9/11, the Bush administration sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq, with the stated goals of protecting Americans from dangerous terrorists, and of installing democratic regimes in those nations. As Loewen points out, the Bush administration failed to mention that the U.S.’s opponents in both Afghanistan and Iraq (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, respectively), had once been American allies, backed by the CIA. In the 1980s, the American government armed Hussein and the Taliban in order to strengthen its position in the Middle East against Soviet encroachment. Twenty years later, America’s military strategy came back to haunt it, as its former allies turned against it.

Loewen’s point is that that history textbooks have an obligation to write about the relationship between the Taliban, the American government, and the Cold War—in general, textbooks need to do a better job of conveying the connections between America’s foreign policy decisions at different times in its history. However, because America’s connection with the Taliban is embarrassing for the government (and, in the years since Lies My Teacher Told Me was published, many conservative figures have attacked Loewen for criticizing the government), textbooks omit the truth.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Even most textbooks that don't end with their titles close with the same vapid cheer. “The American spirit surged with vitality as the nation headed toward the close of the twentieth century,” the authors of The American Pageant assured us in 1991, ignoring opinion polls that suggested the opposite.

Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 11, Loewen studies the tone of optimism on which nearly all high school history textbooks end. For Loewen, this blind optimism is a sign of how out of touch textbooks are with the realities of American life. The simple fact is that America faces some serious problems as it moves through the 21st century; furthermore, the majority of Americans recognize that their country faces many challenges, as reflected by the opinion polls that suggest that most Americans look to the future with anxiety.

By conveying blind optimism instead of truth, Loewen argues, textbooks fail their most basic obligation to young students: to teach them how the study of the past can be used to solve the problems of the future. Instead, textbooks convey the idea that history “just happens”—in other words, that individual people can’t do anything to alter America’s inevitable greatness, and thus should remain passive.

Authors should have shown trends in the past that suggest we face catastrophe and other trends that suggest solutions. Doing so would encourage students to use evidence from history to reach their own conclusions. Instead, authors assured us that everything will come out right in the end, so we need not worry much about where we are going. Their endorsement of progress was as shallow as General Electric's, a company that claims, “Progress is our most important product,” but whose ecological irresponsibility has repeatedly earned it a place on Fortune's list of the ten worst corporate environmental offenders. No longer do I suggest this evenhanded approach. Even though Simon is right and capitalism is supple, in at least two ways our current crisis is new and cannot be solved by capitalism alone.

Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Loewen discusses some potential ways to teach children about environmentalism. In earlier years (and earlier editions of the book), Loewen took a characteristically balanced view of environmental education. He believed that teachers should expose their students to two competing views, and encourage them to make up their minds: first, the view that America’s energy consumption will bring about a global catastrophe; second, the view that Americans will be able to continue consuming energy because capitalism and technology will find ways of staving off global catastrophe. Writing in the new edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me, however, Loewen now insists that teachers must take a “harder” view of environmentalism; they must stress that capitalism and technology are not enough to solve the world’s environmental problems. Loewen then proceeds to talk about why capitalism is insufficient for solving environmental problems—in part, because it encourages people and businesses to think in the short term, when environmental issues necessitate long-term thinking.

Throughout his book, Loewen has argued for an open-ended form of education, in which students are encouraged to choose between different interpretations of the past. But when it comes to the environment, Loewen concludes that open-endedness is not enough—the stakes of environmental degradation are so enormous that students need to be made aware of the problem, and must not be deluded into believing that “everything will be all right.”

In that year, to take a small but symbolic example, A. T. Morgan, a white state senator from Hinds County, Mississippi, married Carrie Highgate, a black woman from New York, and was reelected. Today this probably could not happen, not in Hinds County, Mississippi, or in many counties throughout the United States. Nonetheless, the archetype of progress prompts many white Americans to conclude that black Americans have no legitimate claim on our attention today because the problem of race relations has surely been ameliorated.

Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

Loewen argues that the study of history at the high school level has brought about a powerful form of bias: bias against the past. In other words, high school history students are trained to assume that things get better over time: wealthier, happier, more democratic, and more equitable. One need only read the final page of a high school history textbook to see how history classes create such a bias; textbooks always close with the message that life will continue to improve in America, as it has throughout the past.

To counter textbooks’ bias, Loewen offers an obscure historical anecdote about a 19th century white politician in Mississippi who married a black woman, and yet was reelected (a situation that, per Loewen, would be unlikely to happen in Mississippi in the 21st century). The fact that such an anecdote seems untrue is a mark of our bias against the past: we’ve been trained to think that the 21st century is more tolerant and open-minded than the 19th, despite some strong evidence to the contrary. Studying history—real history, not the bland, neutered version of history that textbooks offer—must be the cure for Americans’ bias against the past.

Chapter 12 Quotes

It’s not just these two books that suffer from anonymous writing. Editors tell me that recent chapters of American history textbooks are “typically” written by freelance writers.

Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 12, Loewen studies the secret practices of textbook writing and publishing. In this passage, he discusses one of his most surprising discoveries: in the textbook world, it’s common practice for publishing companies to hire huge teams of ghostwriters to compose a textbook, and then slap a famous historian’s name on the final product. The result is that standard American history textbooks, supposedly written by famous historians but actually written by people without much knowledge of history at all, contain serious misinterpretations of the past, and even some factual misinformation.

How is it possible for publishing companies to get away with hiring ghostwriters? In part, Loewen shows, famous historians don’t mind when publishing companies use their names on textbooks, because the historical community itself doesn’t take textbooks seriously—for example, history journals never publish reviews of textbooks. Furthermore, writing a history textbook is a massive undertaking, even for an established historian—it’s easier for all concerned if multiple ghostwriters compose the text. The result, however, is that the textbooks themselves con students out of a good history education.

Since textbooks employ a rhetoric of certainty, it is hard for teachers to introduce either controversy or uncertainty into the classroom without deviating from the usual standards of discourse. Teachers rarely say "I don't know" in class and rarely discuss how one might then find the answer. "I don’t know" violates a norm. The teacher, like the textbook, is supposed to know. Students, for their part, are supposed to learn what teachers and textbook authors already know. It is hard for teachers to teach open-endedly. They are afraid not to be in control of the answer, afraid of losing their authority over the class.

Page Number: 328
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Loewen argues that historians and publishing companies are largely to blame for the bad quality of history textbooks, he also argues that history teachers are partly to blame. It is easier for history teachers to teach history in a way that leaves no room for ambiguity or even discussion. One reason this is true is that high school students can be loud and unruly—by teaching history as a series of facts, teachers can maintain authority over their classes.

Loewen stresses that teachers shouldn’t be demonized for failing to leave room for open-endedness and ambiguity in their history classes. For the most part, teachers are overworked and underpaid, meaning that they have precious few incentives to teach history in a more interesting fashion. Indeed, Loewen makes it clear that no single group of people—publishers, teachers, parents, etc.—can be blamed for the poor quality of textbooks; instead, everyone is at least partly to blame.

After all, if the textbooks aren’t true, they leave us with no grounds for defending the courses based on them when students charge that American history is a waste of time. Why should children believe what they learn in American history if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies? Why should they bother to learn it?

Page Number: 339
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Loewen sums up the message of his entire book. Most people understand that there’s something deeply wrong with history as it’s taught in public high schools in the United States. Most people would like to blame high school students for the poor quality of history classes—supposedly, students are lazy, disaffected, cynical, foolish, and generally bad at being students. Loewen’s response, however, is that students aren’t the problem: the problem is that history textbooks are poorly written, full of misinformed opinions and biased interpretations. Who, for example, could blame an African American student for “failing” to be excited by a textbook’s racially skewed interpretation of Reconstruction? As Loewen puts it, “Why should they bother to learn it?”

Chapter 13 Quotes

Allegiance and socialization, however, are intrinsic to the role of schooling in our society or any hierarchical society. […] Education … encourages students not to think about society but merely to trust that it is good.

Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 13, Loewen studies some of the effects of bad history education on the American people. In this passage he argues that, in some ways, education makes American citizens less curious and free-thinking, not more so. When we study the demographics of Vietnam War support in the early 1970s, we notice a surprising trend: there is an inverse correlation between education and support for the war (in other words, the less education you had, the more likely you were to be against the war). Loewen’s (controversial) explanation is that education—in no small part, history education—conditions people to trust the establishment, accept whatever the government does, and generally refrain from questioning the state of the world.

Loewen’s conclusion might seem overgeneralized, but in a way, the entirety of Lies My Teacher Told Me is a support of his thesis. After years and years of studying biased versions of history, the average American student is subtly taught to trust the government and the establishment. Notice that Loewen is not saying that education necessarily dulls students’ curiosity and distrust for society; in the right hands, real education could be used to encourage students to question society and bravely protest the government when it abuses its power.

Afterword Quotes

The answer is not to expand Lies My Teacher Told Me to cover every distortion and error in history as traditionally taught, to say nothing of the future lies yet to be developed. That approach would make me the arbitrator—I who surely still unknowingly accept all manner of hoary legends as historical fact.

Page Number: 356
Explanation and Analysis:

Loewen begins the Afterword to Lies My Teacher Told Me with an important clarification: even though his book contains a lot of good history, it’s not a textbook. Loewen has no intention of making Lies into an authoritative history of the country. His intention is to offer short histories of race, colonization, and foreign policy in America as examples of how poor existing American history textbooks have become.

The other, perhaps even more interesting point that Loewen makes in this section is that, if Lies My Teacher Told Me were to become a history textbook, then one would need to question its content in the same way that Loewen questions the content of existing history textbooks. Loewen has spent many hundreds of pages questioning the biases of textbook authors—and here, in the final pages of the book, he implicitly encourages readers to question his own biases (as many of Loewen’s detractors did, in fact). Lies frequently condemns the authoritative, “godlike” tone of the average history textbook—thus, by encouraging readers to question his own biases, Loewen avoids adopting the same godlike tone.

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