Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

As several of you have commented on, I make a point of reviewing the textbooks I’m forced to given the opportunity to read. It’s something I only started this past school year, so I never did review my textbook for United States’ History, The American Pageant, but I can assure you it would not have garnished high marks from me. Loewen seems to have the same idea; The American Pageant is one of the twelve most popular textbooks Loewen uses in his survey of how we teach children American history. Loewen maintains the inaccuracies used in textbooks to glorify the U.S. are not only teaching Americans a watered down version of history, but also helps to further the idea that America is ALWAYS right. (I’ll give you a moment to finish laughing.)

  • “Citizens who embrace the textbook view would presumably support any intervention, armed or otherwise, and any policy, protective of our legitimate national interventions are on behalf of humanitarian aims. They could never credit our enemies with equal humanity.” (pg. 229)
  • “Nonetheless, no textbook ever mentions the influence of multinationals on U.S. policy. This is the case not necessarily because textbook authors are afraid of offending multinationals, but because they never discuss any influence on U.S. policy. Rather, they present our governmental policies as rational humanitarian responses to trying situations, and they do no seek to penetrate the surface of the government’s own explanations of its actions.” (pg. 220)
  • “The largest single difference between our two main political parties lies in how their members think about social class: 55 percent of Republicans blamed the poor for their poverty, while only 13 percent blamed the system for it; 68 percent of Democrats, on the hand, blamed the system, while only 5 percent blamed the poor.” (pg. 205)
  • “The United States, on the other hand, has been blessed with dissenters. Some of these dissenters have had to flee the country. Since 1776 Canada has provided a refuge for Americans who disagreed with policies of the U.S. government, from Tories who fled harassment during and after the Revolution, to free blacks who sought haven from the Dred Scott ruling, to young men of draftable age who opposed the Vietnam War. No textbook mentions this Canadian role, because no textbook portrays a U.S. government that might ever merit such principled opposition.” (pg. 236)
  • The American Pageant records the steep increase (flattening in about 1980) in number of automobiles in the United States, percentage of American homes with television sets, and the like. No textbook charts phenomena that might be negative, such as frequent of air pollution alerts, increased reliance on imported oil, or declining real wages.” (pg. 257)

Loewen’s critiques loose some of their support, though, because he refuses to (a) stay on topic, (b) account of teachers who don’t rely solely on the text, and (c) he’s too broad. Rather than grounding them in historical fact, he uses “theories” that don’t make much sense to explain why a publisher may write a book to show history incorrectly. In addition, he’s critical of how students view history as “boring,” but I wouldn’t classify his writing as an improvement. There were bits and pieces that were funny, and there was a reason why this book languished on my shelf for so long. Finally, while it was refreshing to read American history in its “correct” form, I already knew quite a bit of the information because I had history teachers (and parents) who didn’t just stick to the book.

Book Mentioned:

  • Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Print. 384 pgs. ISBN: 9780684818863. Source: Purchased.

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