Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Bias Theme Icon
Ambiguity Theme Icon
The Power of the Individual Theme Icon
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The Role of Ideas in History Theme Icon
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Ambiguity Theme Icon

Perhaps the single biggest criticism that Loewen makes of high school history textbooks is that they present the past as a series of clear, non-negotiable facts. Yet history, Loewen argues, isn’t about memorizing lists of dates and names; it’s about understanding the debate and controversy that go into interpreting the past. In a word, history textbooks leave out a concept that should accompany any discussion of the past: ambiguity.

Throughout Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen teaches American history by giving a sense for the ambiguity of history—contrasting the uncertainty surrounding each historical event with the narrow-minded certainty of the average high school history textbook. At times, he shows, it’s difficult to interpret an historical event accurately because no evidence of the event has survived. For example, it’s entirely possible that West African explorers sailed to the Americas long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus; however, there isn’t enough evidence available to prove that such an event ever occurred. Instead of conveying the widespread uncertainty surrounding when and how humans first arrived in America, most history textbooks dogmatically insist that America was “discovered” in 1492 A.D. In addition to exposing the ambiguity inherent to long-ago historical events, Loewen conveys the ambiguity of individual people’s behavior. Too often, history textbooks offer thin, one-dimensional portraits of historical figures, labeling them either “heroes” or “villains.” By contrast, Loewen’s studies of the lives of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln (to name only two examples) convey a sense of their conflicting thoughts and desires, and the ways that these men changed over time. Even when dealing with relatively recent events, such as the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, Loewen shows that the “facts” are no clearer than they are for any other historical event: indeed, the economic, political, and cultural biases of the people who orchestrate such conflicts (many of whom are still alive) make it harder, not easier, for historians to reach any conclusions. In all, Loewen characterizes history as a continuous process of evidence-gathering and interpretation, in which even the most plausible conclusions are only approximations of the truth. A history textbook that doesn’t convey the role of ambiguity isn’t teaching real history at all.

Loewen acknowledges that some high school teachers are unwilling to introduce the concept of ambiguity in their history classes for fear of causing confusion, or giving their students the message that it’s all right to “question everything.” However, Lies My Teacher Told Me demonstrates that it’s possible to study history in a lucid, organized way, while still conveying the message that some historical interpretations are more certain than others. While discussing the history of the United States, Loewen gives a realistic sense for the uncertainty surrounding historical events. However, he does not send the message that all interpretations of history are equally plausible. Instead, Loewen shows his readers how to weigh different hypotheses and strengthen them by using all available evidence. For instance, Loewen argues that there is some evidence suggesting a West African presence in America before the era of Columbus, while there is much less evidence for a Celtic presence in America. Similarly, when discussing the legacy of Columbus, Loewen rejects the hypothesis that Columbus was a benevolent hero, citing Columbus’s own journal entries, among many other sources. At every step of the way, in short, Loewen shows that ambiguity and confusion are not the same. It is possible to be uncertain about the past, and yet have a reasonable, strong hypothesis, bolstered by evidence. Students, he argues, need to learn how to interpret history by weighing evidence and testing their hypotheses, rather than simply accepting the contents of their history textbooks as undeniable facts.

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Ambiguity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Ambiguity appears in each Chapter of Lies My Teacher Told Me. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Ambiguity Quotes in Lies My Teacher Told Me

Below you will find the important quotes in Lies My Teacher Told Me related to the theme of Ambiguity.
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 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

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 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.

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.

Chapter 12 Quotes

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.