Lies My Teacher Told Me

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The Power of the Individual Theme Analysis

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The Power of the Individual Theme Icon
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The Role of Ideas in History Theme Icon
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James Loewen criticizes history textbooks for subtly implying that ordinary, individual people have almost no control over history. As textbooks describe it, history is just “one thing after another”—a series of random events, which often lack clearly defined causes. When textbooks do explore the causes of historical events, these causes are usually either the actions of an implausibly heroic historical figure or the magnanimity of a benevolent government. By presenting history in this way, textbooks create the illusion that history is a strange, foreign process, which readers can observe but never participate in.

When textbooks analyze the causes of important historical events, their analysis is likely to alienate students and give them the impression that ordinary, everyday people have no role in history. Textbooks frequently take the point of view that history is “made” by heroic figures, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Woodrow Wilson. Instead of depicting these figures as realistic, flawed individuals, textbooks tend to “heroify” them, eliminating their flaws and playing up their strengths. For example, most history textbooks neglect to mention that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, or that Wilson was an outspoken racist. As a result, high school history students get the impression that history is in the hands of virtuous, larger-than-life figures who are unlike them in every way. By contrast, American history textbooks rarely discuss populist movements—in other words, concrete, real-life examples of ordinary people changing the world—at great length. Textbooks largely omit information about the union and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To the extent that they study the civil rights movement of the 1960s, textbooks are more inclined to credit the federal government with improving life for African Americans than the millions of everyday people who fought for freedom—despite the fact that, in many ways, the federal government tried to destroy the civil rights movement. The result is that high school history textbooks condition students to believe that they have little power to change society—when, in fact, most changes in American society resulted from ordinary, everyday people working together, rather than from the federal government or a few exceptional people.

Another strategy that history textbooks use to make high school students feel passive is to create a distance between the past, the present, and the future: in other words, they deemphasize the ways that the past brings about the present, and the ways that current events and trends will influence the future. In general, textbooks portray the historical events of the past as having little relevance to the present day. For example, textbooks depict slavery as a barbaric but now antiquated practice, rather than talking about the ideas—racism and white supremacy—that made slavery possible, and which survive in the 21st century. Similarly, history textbooks tend to end on a bland, optimistic note, arguing that America has always been the greatest country in the world, and will, hopefully, continue to be. Absent from the final pages of history textbooks, Loewen notes, is any discussion of the serious problems that face future generations—including climate change and nuclear proliferation—let alone a discussion of how to end these problems. The implication is that history has nothing of substance to teach today’s students about how to solve the world’s problems—in other words, the opposite of the lesson that students should be learning in history class.

Ultimately, the reason that students find history classes “boring” isn’t because students are lazy, but rather because history classes are in some ways designed to be boring. As Loewen argues, history textbooks are designed to make readers feel powerless and insignificant, and to make them believe that nothing they do can have any broad effect on the world.

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The Power of the Individual ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Power of the Individual 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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The Power of the Individual 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 The Power of the Individual.
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 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 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.”