High school students hate history, Loewen says, and there are many reasons why. Many students say that history is dull or useless. Additionally, minorities (especially African Americans and Native Americans) tend to be worse at learning history than their white counterparts, perhaps because high school teachers’ view of history is “too neat and rosy.” Another mark of how bad high school history classes have become is that in college, professors regularly criticize K-12 history classes, and in some ways prefer that their incoming students not have taken history in high school at all.
In the opening section of the book, Loewen establishes the problem that he’ll go on to analyze: the widespread unpopularity of history class in American high schools. Loewen conveys the extent of the problem by comparing history with other subjects, suggesting that there is something uniquely wrong with history—that is, something fundamentally wrong with the way it’s taught in American schools.
The strange thing about history is that even though high school history classes are widely perceived as boring and poorly taught, history itself is widely perceived as fascinating. Historical books and films routinely become blockbusters, and most people would agree that U.S. history is full of gripping stories. So we must ask ourselves: what has gone wrong with high school history classes?
Even though “history” is an unpopular subject in schools, Loewen argues that there’s nothing inherently boring or tedious about learning about the past—if there were, then nobody would go to a movie theater to watch a blockbuster historical epic.
To begin answering the question, Loewen says, it’s important to notice that history textbooks dominate high school history classes to a greater degree than the textbooks for any other subject. History textbooks are huge, colorful, and expensive. Students now have access to free information on the Internet, and yet textbook companies continue printing enormous textbooks, even though they’re growing obsolete.
Loewen proceeds in the manner of a sociologist (which he is), trying to determine what might be causing students to perceive history class as boring. In the age of the Internet, the history textbook is rapidly becoming obsolete—and yet publishers keep on printing them.
Students often complain that history textbooks are boring. In part, textbooks are boring because they rarely use the present to illuminate the past. For example, textbooks rarely ask students to think about the role of race in contemporary society as a way of studying the Civil Rights movement. Similarly, history textbooks tend to be overly optimistic and naïve in their view of society. They encourage students to “celebrate America’s heritage”—a message that understandably alienates African Americans, women, Native Americans, etc.
Loewen’s premise here is that a school subject is interesting largely because students can find some connection between the subject and their own lives. History becomes interesting, then, when students see a connection between their lives and the past. History textbooks are alienating for many American students, however, because they fail to address the darker aspects of America’s history (and present).
A more general reason why history textbooks are bad is that they’re influenced by nationalistic biases. History textbooks don’t just describe American history; they glorify America. Furthermore, the people who write textbooks are rarely top-flight historians; the most gifted historians usually focus on their own research. Finally, textbooks rarely give a sense for the controversy of historical interpretation. Even when a textbook offers more than one side of an issue, it tends to adopt a “godlike tone” that shuts down further discussion of the issue.
In this section, Loewen offers three especially important reasons for the poor quality of textbooks: 1) nationalist biases; 2) mediocre writers; 3) an unambiguous tone that suggests history is a settled issue not open to interpretation. Loewen will examine all three of these reasons in depth later on in the book.
Lies My Teachers To Me is an alternative history textbook that aims to present history as interesting, exciting, and deeply controversial. It includes several chapters on the causes and effects of history textbook usage. It aims, in short, to make history, the most “irrelevant” subject we’re taught, highly relevant.
For most of the book, Loewen will “lead by example,” sketching out a nuanced, lucid history of the U.S. that implicitly critiques the dry, dull style of most American history textbooks. In the final three chapters, he’ll look at some of the cultural and economic reasons for poor textbook quality.