Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Themes and Colors
Bias Theme Icon
Ambiguity Theme Icon
The Power of the Individual Theme Icon
Textbook Production Theme Icon
The Role of Ideas in History Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Lies My Teacher Told Me, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Textbook Production Theme Icon

The bulk of Lies My Teacher Told Me examines the biases in contemporary textbooks’ accounts of American history. However, some of the book is also about the ins and outs of the textbook industry. In order to understand why history textbooks are so naïve and uninteresting, Loewen looks at the financial incentives of major publishing houses, coming to the conclusion that, in no small part, textbooks are bad because publishing houses are businesses that need to maximize revenue.

Loewen begins with the premise that publishing houses, just like any other American business, have a strong incentive to make money. Conceived in this way, publishing houses are businesses, and their product is the textbook itself. Like good businesses, publishing houses try to appeal to as many customers as possible by making their “product” flashy, eye-catching, and fun—qualities that have very little relevance to, and may even interfere with, the historical accuracy of the textbook. In order to sell textbooks, publishing companies must appeal to school boards and selection committees, many of which are given only three months to choose a history textbook from a list of dozens. To stand out from other textbooks, publishers use gimmicks, such as visual aids, maps, reading outlines, and chapter summaries. Textbooks that include such features are most likely to appeal to selection committees, because they suggest that the textbook itself is easy to read and appealing to students. However, publishing gimmicks actually make the textbook harder to read and more alienating for high school students: as Loewen argues, excessive outlines and summaries make history seem like a chaotic jumble of facts and dates, rather than a strong, cohesive narrative. In short, publishing houses have become adept at fooling textbook selection committees into thinking that their textbooks are easier to read and more substantive when, in fact, they’re just flashier and more gimmicky than the competition.

While they spend millions of dollars making textbooks seem good, publishing companies often neglect the quality of the actual historical text. During the course of his research, Loewen learned that, despite advertising that their textbooks are written by famous historians, many publishing companies hire ghostwriters to write the content of their textbooks, and then “slap a famous historian’s name” on the cover. Writing a thousand-page history textbook is extremely difficult, even for a great historian—thus, it’s easier for both the historian and the publishing company to outsource the process to a team of ghostwriters. (Furthermore, the historian in question is unlike to face any consequences, since other professional historians pay little, if any, attention to high school textbooks.) The problem, however, is that these ghostwriters may not be experts on American history. In this way, history textbooks maintain the illusion of competence and authoritativeness, even though their true authors often lack any complex understanding of American history. In all, Loewen shows how the need to make money leads textbook publishers to focus their attention on “flash” and neglect content, resulting in brightly-colored but poorly written textbooks.

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Textbook Production ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Textbook Production 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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Textbook Production 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 Textbook Production.
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 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 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.