Lies My Teacher Told Me


James Loewen

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Lies My Teacher Told Me makes teaching easy.

The Role of Ideas in History Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Bias Theme Icon
Ambiguity Theme Icon
The Power of the Individual Theme Icon
Textbook Production Theme Icon
The Role of Ideas in History Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Lies My Teacher Told Me, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Role of Ideas in History Theme Icon

As Loewen sees it, one of the most striking problems with history textbooks is that they largely exclude ideas. They present history as an endless series of events, figures, and dates, but give no sense for the religions, philosophies, and cultural trends that often motivate people’s behavior. Loewen argues that it is critical that students of history have some sense for the role of ideas, for a number of reasons. First, ideas exert a profound influence over individual people’s actions; second, ideas humanize the people of the past by showing that they were complex and changed their minds over time; third, ideas provide students of history with a sense for the “flow” of history, and show students that history is relevant in their own lives.

At the most basic level, Loewen argues, it is important for students to understand ideas when they study history, because ideas motivate the bulk of human behavior. Ideas can inspire human beings to act against their own rational interests, and even sacrifice their lives for a cause. During the Civil War, for instance, there were many idealistic young soldiers and activists who laid down their lives because they were passionate believers in the abolitionist cause. It is a mark of the absence of ideas from high school history textbooks that John Brown—the abolitionist activist who was executed for raiding Harpers Ferry—is almost always characterized as a religious fanatic or a madman, when there is considerable evidence that Brown was a deeply thoughtful man who chose to sacrifice himself in order to free as many slaves as possible. Because textbooks don’t engage with Brown’s writings and speeches, they have no way of understanding why he would endanger himself—and therefore, they have no choice but to characterize him as a mere “madman.”

The life of John Brown raises an important point about the role of ideas in history: when students study historical figures’ ideas, they begin to see that historical figures aren’t so different from the people of the present. Studying the ideas of important historical figures, such as John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, it’s clear that both men were deeply conflicted about their own beliefs, and spent their entire lives coming to terms with issues of race and citizenship. As Loewen argues, one of the major problems with textbooks is that they characterize historical figures as one-dimensional and larger-than-life. Thus, studying historical figures’ ideas (rather than just their actions) provides some much-needed nuance. With the help of ideas, then, high school students can learn that the people of the past were just like the people of the present: they were flawed, deeply conflicted, and—crucially—they changed their minds over time. Furthermore, when students start to see historical figures as complex, three-dimensional human beings, they begin to feel a connection between their own lives and those of the historical figures, and history as a subject becomes less boring.

In the same sense that studying historical figures’ ideas makes those figures seem more lifelike and complex, studying the role of ideas in history overall makes history seem like a coherent process, with great relevance to the present. As it’s usually taught in high school classrooms, Loewen argues, history is just “one thing after another.” However, when students think of history as the study of different ideas, it’s easier for them to draw parallels between the past and the present. For instance, most history textbooks talk about slavery as a historical phenomenon, without addressing the racist ideas that legitimized slavery. Loewen argues that by using a discussion of racism—an ideology which is alive and well in the 21st century—to contextualize slavery, history textbooks would make the events of the antebellum South seem much more relevant to 21st century students’ lives. In general, Loewen argues, when history textbooks address the role of ideas, history becomes a fascinating, relevant subject for students, rather than a mere catalogue of events that happened a long time ago.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

The Role of Ideas in History ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Role of Ideas in History appears in each chapter of Lies My Teacher Told Me. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Lies My Teacher Told Me LitChart as a printable PDF.
Lies My Teacher Told Me PDF

The Role of Ideas in History Quotes in Lies My Teacher Told Me

Below you will find the important quotes in Lies My Teacher Told Me related to the theme of The Role of Ideas in History.
Introduction Quotes

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.

Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: The First Thanksgiving
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: President Richard Nixon
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

Authors should have shown trends in the past that suggest we face catastrophe and other trends that suggest solutions. Doing so would encourage students to use evidence from history to reach their own conclusions. Instead, authors assured us that everything will come out right in the end, so we need not worry much about where we are going. Their endorsement of progress was as shallow as General Electric's, a company that claims, “Progress is our most important product,” but whose ecological irresponsibility has repeatedly earned it a place on Fortune's list of the ten worst corporate environmental offenders. No longer do I suggest this evenhanded approach. Even though Simon is right and capitalism is supple, in at least two ways our current crisis is new and cannot be solved by capitalism alone.

Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 328
Explanation and Analysis:

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?

Page Number: 339
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis: