Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This non-fiction book is about the sad state of American History textbooks, which for a variety of reasons are not doing a decent job of teaching American History to high-school students. I very much enjoyed reading the book, but I will make note that I read the Tenth Anniversary Edition, which contains a Preface; one needs to read the Preface last, after reading the rest of the book. My copy of the book was also signed by the author, which I did not realize until I started doing this Book Review.

The author is a sociology professor, and for this book (first published in 1995) he reviewed twelve American History textbooks. By and large, these books are boring to read, because they take selected facts and string them into a narrative that proves that America has always been great and good, is now great and good, and will continue to be great and good. In doing this they include errors of fact (Columbus knew full well that the earth was round), exclude vital information (the settlers at Jamestown and Plymouth made out so well, in part, because the Native Americans had been exposed to European diseases beforehand, and 95% of them had died), and ignore social problems in America (Reconstruction after the Civil War was not to teach and uplift the former slaves, but to prevent the white populace from killing and terrorizing the former slaves, and virulent racism was the norm in America from about 1870 through 1960).

American textbooks also avoid all controversy, mostly as defined by the textbook approval committees of Texas and California; one learns about Helen Keller, but not that she was a noted socialist in later life; one learns about Woodrow Wilson, but not about how he removed all black employees from federal government, except in custodial positions; one learns about John Brown (the textbooks from 1870 through 1960 all said he was insane; he apparently regained his sanity after Civil Rights); one learns about the Douglas-Lincoln debates, but not what the men actually said (the history books prefer to focus on Douglas’ small stature as compared to Lincoln); and one learns that the only reason America has ever intervened in the affairs of foreign countries is out of the goodness of our hearts. Textbooks by and large only note the accompliments of white males, and far be it from a textbook to point out that the determining factor in one’s individual success is not being in America and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, but social class.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, and I am glad that I made sure that my own kids knew that there was more to history than what was in their textbooks.

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