Perhaps the single biggest criticism that Loewen makes of high school history textbooks is that they present the past as a series of clear, non-negotiable facts. Yet history, Loewen argues, isn’t about memorizing lists of dates and names; it’s about understanding the debate and controversy that go into interpreting the past. In a word, history textbooks leave out a concept that should accompany any discussion of the past: ambiguity.
Throughout Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen teaches American history by giving a sense for the ambiguity of history—contrasting the uncertainty surrounding each historical event with the narrow-minded certainty of the average high school history textbook. At times, he shows, it’s difficult to interpret an historical event accurately because no evidence of the event has survived. For example, it’s entirely possible that West African explorers sailed to the Americas long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus; however, there isn’t enough evidence available to prove that such an event ever occurred. Instead of conveying the widespread uncertainty surrounding when and how humans first arrived in America, most history textbooks dogmatically insist that America was “discovered” in 1492 A.D. In addition to exposing the ambiguity inherent to long-ago historical events, Loewen conveys the ambiguity of individual people’s behavior. Too often, history textbooks offer thin, one-dimensional portraits of historical figures, labeling them either “heroes” or “villains.” By contrast, Loewen’s studies of the lives of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln (to name only two examples) convey a sense of their conflicting thoughts and desires, and the ways that these men changed over time. Even when dealing with relatively recent events, such as the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, Loewen shows that the “facts” are no clearer than they are for any other historical event: indeed, the economic, political, and cultural biases of the people who orchestrate such conflicts (many of whom are still alive) make it harder, not easier, for historians to reach any conclusions. In all, Loewen characterizes history as a continuous process of evidence-gathering and interpretation, in which even the most plausible conclusions are only approximations of the truth. A history textbook that doesn’t convey the role of ambiguity isn’t teaching real history at all.
Loewen acknowledges that some high school teachers are unwilling to introduce the concept of ambiguity in their history classes for fear of causing confusion, or giving their students the message that it’s all right to “question everything.” However, Lies My Teacher Told Me demonstrates that it’s possible to study history in a lucid, organized way, while still conveying the message that some historical interpretations are more certain than others. While discussing the history of the United States, Loewen gives a realistic sense for the uncertainty surrounding historical events. However, he does not send the message that all interpretations of history are equally plausible. Instead, Loewen shows his readers how to weigh different hypotheses and strengthen them by using all available evidence. For instance, Loewen argues that there is some evidence suggesting a West African presence in America before the era of Columbus, while there is much less evidence for a Celtic presence in America. Similarly, when discussing the legacy of Columbus, Loewen rejects the hypothesis that Columbus was a benevolent hero, citing Columbus’s own journal entries, among many other sources. At every step of the way, in short, Loewen shows that ambiguity and confusion are not the same. It is possible to be uncertain about the past, and yet have a reasonable, strong hypothesis, bolstered by evidence. Students, he argues, need to learn how to interpret history by weighing evidence and testing their hypotheses, rather than simply accepting the contents of their history textbooks as undeniable facts.
Ambiguity Quotes in Lies My Teacher Told Me
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.
The "navigation error" story lacks plausibility: the one parameter of ocean travel that sailors could and did measure accurately in that era was latitude—distance north or south from the equator. The "storms" excuse is perhaps still less plausible, for if a storm blew them off course, when the weather cleared they could have turned southward again, sailing out to sea to bypass any shoals. They had plenty of food and beer, after all. But storms and pilot error leave the Pilgrims pure of heart, which may explain why most textbooks choose one of the two.
The archetypes associated with Thanksgiving—God on our side, civilization wrested from wilderness, order from disorder, through hard work and good Pilgrim character—continue to radiate from our history textbooks.
The answer to minimizing the Indian wars is not maximizing them. Telling Indian history as a parade of white villains might be feel-good history for those who want to wallow in the inference that America or whites are bad. What happened is more complex than that, however, so the history we tell must be more complex.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The contrast between the 1892 and 1992 celebrations of Columbus’s first voyage again shows the effect of different vantage points. As Anaïs Nin put it, we see things as we are, and “we” changed between 1892 and 1992.
The initial U.S. response to 9 /11 was to attack the Taliban government in Afghanistan in October 2001. Like Hussein, this fundamentalist Muslim regime had initially been supported by our CIA because they opposed the previous Communist regime in Afghanistan, which was backed by the Soviet Union.
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.
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.
After all, if the textbooks aren’t true, they leave us with no grounds for defending the courses based on them when students charge that American history is a waste of time. Why should children believe what they learn in American history if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies? Why should they bother to learn it?
Allegiance and socialization, however, are intrinsic to the role of schooling in our society or any hierarchical society. […] Education … encourages students not to think about society but merely to trust that it is good.
The answer is not to expand Lies My Teacher Told Me to cover every distortion and error in history as traditionally taught, to say nothing of the future lies yet to be developed. That approach would make me the arbitrator—I who surely still unknowingly accept all manner of hoary legends as historical fact.