Loewen admits that Lies My Teacher Told Me is an incomplete book. It doesn’t address the experience of Latin Americans, Catholics, or many other key American minorities. The ultimate purpose of Loewen’s book, however, isn’t to provide an all-encompassing “alternative history” of the United States; its purpose is to expose the biases of traditional history textbooks. In this chapter, Loewen will offer a few recommendations for how to improve history education in the U.S.
As we’ve seen already, Loewen’s book is an interesting work of history, but it’s not primarily a textbook—there are significant gaps in its account of American history, meaning that, in many ways, Lies My Teacher Told Me is primarily a “meta-study” of history textbooks and how they can be improved.
Loewen argues that history classes need to address fewer topics and examine them more thoroughly. Instead of providing students with a massive list of historical figures and dates, teachers need to give their students a better sense of key historical ideas and the “larger picture.” By focusing on fewer topics, classes will leave more space for students to voice their own opinions and debate over historical issues—a crucial part of any good history class.
In most public school history classes, there is little time for discussion or debate, because there’s barely enough time for the teachers to cover all the material. By cutting down on dates, terms, and names, history classes would potentially reduce the amount of memorization but increase the amount of learning.
Even if teachers continue using bad textbooks, they can improve their classes by encouraging students to critique the textbook. Loewen remembers a sixth grade teacher who told her students that, contrary to the textbook’s claims, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. The teacher organized a project in which students conducted some of their own research on early presidents. Such assignments teach children another vital lesson: discussing, debating, and correcting history is part of the definition of history.
Students need to learn how to critique their textbook, instead of instinctively trusting that “the textbook is always right.” In this section, Loewen shows that, contrary to what many teachers might assume, it is possible to teach an organized, informative history class in which the students also question their textbook.
Textbooks need to do a better job of teaching students how to analyze primary sources. Students should be able to read quotes from historical figures and analyze the quotes in terms of the figures’ economic, political, religious, and racial biases. They should learn to compare different accounts of the same historical event. When textbooks and teachers show students how to analyze sources, students will cease to see history as a dull, inarguable list of “what happened” and begin to see it as a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation.
In addition to critiquing their textbook, students need to learn how to interpret sources of all kinds. Students should be familiar with the concept of bias, and should be able to understand how people’s religions, cultures, ethnicities, etc., inform their view of the world. In doing so, students will begin to see history as a dynamic process, rather than a boring list of “some stuff that happened.”
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that American citizens must become “their own historians.” After spending more than eleven years writing Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen has come to agree with Jefferson. Americans must study their history critically and carefully. Moreover, they must recognize—as Loewen has—that history is an ongoing process of learning about the truth.
It’s interesting that Loewen closes the book by quoting Thomas Jefferson, a man whom he’d previously criticized for being a slave owner. One of Loewen’s most important points has been that students shouldn’t be trained to think of most historical figures as either heroes or villains—they need to respect historical figures’ strengths and weaknesses. Thus, Loewen invokes Jefferson to make the point that being an historian is an important part of being an American: good citizens must take an active part in interpreting the past.