In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen studies the biases of high school American history class. He begins by noting a strange problem: even though Americans love history (as evidenced by the popularity of historical novels and Hollywood movies), American students hate history classes. The source of the problem, he decides, is the history textbook itself: textbooks give a dull, culturally biased account of the past, often alienating readers (particularly Native American, African American, Latino, and female readers).
One of the key problems with textbooks is their willingness to gloss over unsavory details of historical figures’ lives in order to paint a more optimistic picture. For example, textbooks usually portray President Woodrow Wilson as an idealistic leader who fought for democracy and peace. Almost no textbooks note that Wilson was an unqualified racist and an aggressive imperialist. Similarly, textbooks tend to skirt controversy of any kind when discussing an historical figure’s life. For instance, textbooks always note that Helen Keller heroically learned how to read and write as a child, but no textbook mentions that for most of her life, she was a socialist activist.
Another important bias in textbooks is their tendency to glorify the history of America’s colonization—a history full of betrayal, theft, and genocide. In the process, history textbooks present a view of history that focuses on the role of white Europeans. When discussing the history of America’s “discovery,” for example, textbooks almost always argue that Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World,” despite some evidence that Viking, Irish, and African explorers settled there first. Textbooks condescendingly suggest that the Native Americans—who had colonized America millennia before—stumbled upon the continent “accidentally.” Textbooks also gloss over Columbus’s genocidal colonial policies: they ignore the fact that he kidnapped and enslaved thousands of Native Americans, tortured them, and forced them to work in mines.
When discussing the English settlers who explored Virginia and New England in the 17th century, most textbooks ignore the fact that these settlers brought deadly diseases like influenza and smallpox, which destroyed the vast majority of the Native American population. Indeed, when discussing the history of New England, textbooks seem to be offering a “creation myth” rather than a clear, factual account of the past. Furthermore, textbooks omit the full history of the cultural exchange that took place between Native Americans and European settlers in the centuries leading up to the Revolutionary War. Despite the fact that Europeans learned a tremendous amount about cooking and hunting from the Native Americans, and may have borrowed some of their democratic ideals from native tribes, textbooks give the impression that Europeans changed Native American culture—but not the other way around. In all, history textbooks implicitly portray white Europeans as heroic, “fully formed” figures, while marginalizing the legitimate contributions of non-Europeans.
Perhaps the most unfortunate error in history textbooks is their omission of an honest discussion of the history of racism in the U.S. While textbooks are unanimous in their condemnation of slavery itself, they don’t discuss the racial ideology that made slavery possible in the first place—an ideology that is still alive and well in America. In this way, textbooks give the impression that slavery was a quaint historical practice, with no real relevance to the present. Equally offensive is textbooks’ rosy account of the Reconstruction era. While Reconstruction was undeniably an organizational failure, textbooks imply that it failed because newly appointed black leaders didn’t know how to govern. The truth is that Reconstruction failed because of the racism of white Southerners, who continued to hold nearly all the power. Loewen suggests that, in part, the reason why African Americans in the 21st century continue to lag behind their white peers is that—thanks, in part, to their history classes—they’ve been taught to believe that they’re weak, inferior, and incapable of governing themselves.
History textbooks spend little to no time talking about key American ideas, such as democracy, white supremacy, or socialism—instead, they present history as a random collection of people and dates. For example, when dealing with John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, textbooks present them as, respectively, a religious fanatic and a pragmatic politician, despite evidence that both Brown and Lincoln were two of America’s greatest thinkers on race and equality. Similarly, textbooks refuse to have an honest discussion about class inequality in America. Instead, they peddle the myth that America is the “land of opportunity,” where anyone can succeed with enough talent and drive. In perpetuating this illusion, textbooks encourage students to blame the poor for their own suffering—since, surely, in America, only lazy people could be poor.
Textbooks also omit an honest discussion of American government. Despite the fact that, during the 20th century, the federal government 1) practiced an aggressive foreign policy that involved toppling democratically elected governments and replacing them with dictatorships, and 2) tried to destroy the civil rights movement, textbooks suggest that the government is devoted to promoting peace, democracy, and equality. As a result of these omissions, today’s students are shockingly ignorant of recent American history. When talking about the Vietnam War or the War in Iraq, students know little to nothing about the causes of these wars, and seem not to recognize the possibility that the government may have become involved in both wars for immoral reasons.
In the final chapters of the book, Loewen talks about the causes and effects of bad history textbooks. He shows that most history textbooks—despite supposedly being authored by renowned historians—are, in effect, written by ghostwriters, who may have relatively little knowledge of history. Publishing houses and teachers have their own reasons for releasing and using poor textbooks: doing so results in more revenue and fewer complaints from parents. Perhaps the most important reason why textbooks are so bad is that ordinary people are content to believe in a biased, ethnocentric view of history. After years of being conditioned to believe in history of this kind, most American students come to think of history as something beyond their control—something that just happens, thanks to a few heroic figures, or perhaps the actions of the benevolent government. Students seem blissfully unaware of the massive problems facing their society: in particular, nuclear proliferation and climate change. Textbooks need to do a better job of giving their readers a sense of engagement and activism, so that, in effect, students can become “their own historians.” In doing so, textbooks could inspire young people to change the world, instead of subtly manipulating them to remain passive, ignorant, and bored.