In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen makes the provocative argument that most American high school history textbooks are not, contrary to what they claim, objective accounts of the past. Rather, history textbooks distort history—omitting certain details, exaggerating others, and occasionally offering factually incorrect information—in order to present a biased view of history. In particularly, history textbooks’ view of the past tends to present white, wealthy, Christian groups in a favorable light while presenting other demographics as marginal or of secondary importance to history.
Throughout his book, Loewen tries to explain why history textbooks are biased toward certain cultures, religions, and classes, and offers several explanations. In part, history textbooks seem to be biased because they’re mostly written by white, privileged historians who may be genuinely ignorant of the truth. However, Loewen also entertains the possibility that the white, privileged people who write and publish textbooks are well-aware of their privileged position in society, and are trying to maintain their position by keeping the general public ignorant of the past. Finally, Loewen hypothesizes that history textbooks are biased because their writers and publishers are afraid of creating controversy. For example, a history textbook that told the truth about the genocidal policies of Christopher Columbus might come under criticism for traumatizing children, meaning that, in effect, textbook publishers omit the truth about Columbus in order to keep parents satisfied and maximize their revenue. Loewen does not argue for any single explanation for textbook bias; instead, he suggests that history textbooks are biased against certain demographic groups because of a combination of all three factors.
The bulk of Lies My Teacher Told Me is spent analyzing the various subtle ways that history textbooks perpetuate different forms of cultural bias. One of the key ways that textbooks perpetuate bias is by omitting certain facts that paint a particular group in a bad light. For example, despite the fact that the American government orchestrated the overthrow of democratically-elected governments in Chile, the Congo, and many other countries, Loewen notes that history textbooks tend to omit almost any mention of American foreign policy—thereby preserving the illusion that the U.S. government is a benevolent, democratic force. Similarly, textbooks tend to focus on cherry-picked facts or examples that distort our view of a trend or historical process. Most history textbooks discuss the history of immigration, for instance, but they do so by focusing on the experiences of a few lucky immigrants who succeeded in becoming wealthy in America—ignoring the millions of immigrants who were penniless when they arrived in America and remained penniless until they died. In this way, textbooks preserve the illusion that America is a “Land of Opportunity”—and, more implicitly, that the people who don’t succeed in the U.S. must be weak or lazy. Another important trick that textbooks use to perpetuate bias is to offer a subjective interpretation of a particular event or era that neglects a marginalized group’s experience. For example, dozens of history textbooks characterized the 1890s as a “gay,” optimistic era in American history, in spite of the fact that the 1890s represented arguably one of the lowest points of African American history. It’s crucial to recognize that, for the most part, Loewen isn’t suggesting that history textbooks offer factually incorrect information. Rather, textbooks create a biased view of history by offering distortions of the truth, which are subtler and more difficult to identify, and therefore more difficult for readers to defend themselves against.
In addition to discussing why textbooks are so culturally biased, and how they exhibit their biases in practice, Loewen argues that the main effect of textbook bias is to condition American students to confuse bias with the truth: in other words, to believe (or suspect) that the American government is a benevolent force; that white people are superior to other races; and that poor people deserve to be poor. Whether accidentally or on purpose, textbooks are designed to convey an ethnocentric, classist, and nationalistic message to their readers, and after years of absorbing such a message, students may come to believe it. Even if students are conscious of believing that all races are equal, the government shouldn’t be trusted all the time, etc., their time in history class may train them to act on their biases reflexively, even if they “know” better. Loewen’s critique of the textbook industry caused a stir when Lies My Teacher Told Me appeared in 1995—so much so that, since that time, some textbook companies have made an effort to eliminate racial and cultural bias from their textbooks. Nevertheless, Loewen has continued to criticize textbook bias, suggesting that there’s still a lot of work to be done before textbooks present a nuanced, unbiased account of history.
Bias 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.
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.”
We live with this arms race still. But the West's advantage in military technology over the rest of the world, jealously maintained from the 1400s on, remains very much contested. Just as the thirteen British colonies tried to outlaw the sale of guns to Native Americans, the United Sates now tries to outlaw the sale of nuclear technology to Third World countries. A key point of George W. Bush’s foreign policy has been to deny nuclear weapons and other "weapons of mass destruction" to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea and keep them out of the hands of terrorists like al-Qaeda.
The textbooks concede that Columbus did not start from scratch. Every textbook account of the European exploration of the Americas begins with Prince Henry the Navigator, of Portugal, between 1415 and 1460. Henry is portrayed as discovering Madeira and the Azores and sending out ships to circumnavigate Africa for the first time. The textbook authors seem unaware that ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians sailed at least as far as Ireland and England.
Europe's fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an "opposite" to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no "Europe" before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no "white" people in Europe before l492.
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.
Textbook authors seem not to have encountered the trick question, “which came first, civilization or the wilderness?” The answer is civilization, for only the “civilized” mind could define the world of Native farmers, fishers, and gatherers and hunters, coexisting with forests, crops, and animals, as a “wilderness.” Calling the area beyond secure European control frontier or wilderness makes it subtly alien. Such a viewpoint is intrinsically Eurocentric and marginalizes the actions of nonurban people, both Native and non-Native.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In that year, to take a small but symbolic example, A. T. Morgan, a white state senator from Hinds County, Mississippi, married Carrie Highgate, a black woman from New York, and was reelected. Today this probably could not happen, not in Hinds County, Mississippi, or in many counties throughout the United States. Nonetheless, the archetype of progress prompts many white Americans to conclude that black Americans have no legitimate claim on our attention today because the problem of race relations has surely been ameliorated.
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.