James W. Loewen is a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. Born in Decatur, Illinois, his father was a doctor and his mother was a housewife and junior high school librarian. He is co-author of the first integrated state-history textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, and creator of The Truth About Columbus: A Subversively True Poster Book for a Dubiously Celebratory Occasion.
Loewen taught for many year at Tougaloo College, a college in Mississippi that is predominantly African-American. When he was there, he was troubled about what his students believed was Reconstruction. They thought that Reconstruction was the time period when blacks took over the government of the Southern states right after the Civil War, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they messed up and whites had to take control again. What really happened was that the Southern states were governed by a black-white coalition led by whites. Many of the Southern states, particularly Mississippi, had good government during Reconstruction. In Mississippi, the state government during that time period started the public schools for whites as well as blacks, wrote a superb new constitution, and did many other non-segregated or discriminatory things. Loewen was shocked that the one time that they were on the center of stage in American history, they did not even know what truly happened. Loewen realized that the only reason why these bright students thought that was because it was what their high school state history books said. Thus, the faculty, students, and he wrote a new history of Mississippi called Mississippi: Conflict and Change.
After he moved to Vermont, Loewen realized that the majority of history books left out key events, twisted facts and stories around to leave out anything that might reflect badly upon national character, and even told lies. This prompted and motivated Loewen to write the national bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me. Also, eighty-three percent of students who graduate from high school never take another history course, which includes people who don t go to college as well as those who go to college. The main reason for that is because of the boring nature of the extremely fat textbooks. Even though the books swell with facts, events, and detail, teachers and textbooks still leave out most of what students need to know about the American past. Some of the factoids presented are wrong and even lies. After surveying twelve leading high school American history texts for eleven years, Loewen s novel provides the truth about some misconceptions in American history.
Though some wonderful and some ghastly, Lies My Teacher Told Me includes ten chapters of amazing stories in American history. Arranged in roughly chronological order, these chapters do not relate mere details but events and processes with important consequences.
Since the book is about the truth about events that are well-known in history, it is non-fiction and there is no set setting. It begins with the early 1900s when Helen Keller was a radical socialist and Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist. It then moves back in time to the late 1400s, early 1500s, when Columbus supposedly discovered America, when in truth the Africans did. Next, it moves on to the early 1600s to when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts and had the First Thanksgiving. Next, the book jumps to the mid 1700s to early 1800s to tell about the Native Americans and their struggle with Whites for their ancestral land. This leads to the mid and late1800s, when slavery was a key issue and people like John Brown and Abraham Lincoln were alive. The book ends in the 1900s, explaining how social class affects everyone and also about the Vietnam War.
Loewen provides the reader with an introduction to the book, explaining the reason why he wrote this book. He explains to us his thesis about how history textbooks alter what really happened and even sometimes make up inaccurate detail to make the story or even sound better. His last two chapters of the book uses all the amazing stories that he told in the preceding chapters to further support his thesis. Chapter Eleven explains how textbooks are created to explain what causes them to be so bad. Chapter Twelve explains the results of using standard American history textbooks and how they can actually make students stupid.
At the beginning of each chapter, Loewen used three or four powerful quotes to foreshadow what the chapter is about. They also help the reader to establish what mood Loewen would like us to feel and to keep in mind while reading the chapter. Also, throughout the chapter, Loewen also uses quotes and passages from people, but mainly from textbooks. These passages are used to help the author show how vague textbooks are and even to show how textbook authors twist stories around what really happened. In addition, captivating pictures and charts are also included to illustrate some images and events that happened.
In this book, Loewen examines twelve United States History textbooks that "averaged four and a half pounds in weight and 888 pages in length." (p. 3) The underlying message in Lies My Teacher Told Me is that one can not trust their history books or their teachers because they [textbooks] are a security to teachers, manipulate our feelings, glorify heroes, and provide erroneous information and detail.
First, relying on textbooks makes it easier for both the teachers and students to put forth minimal effort. Many think that textbooks countless lists of main ideas, key terms, people to remember, dates, review identifications are the main things students should learn and memorize. Also, "teaching against a textbook can also be scary. Textbooks offer security. Teachers can hide behind them when principals, parents, or students challenge them to defend their work." (p. 284) They are also afraid of being put on the spot and not knowing the answer to they students questions. Therefore, textbooks provide them with all they think they need to know and to teach.
Textbooks also manipulate our feelings and ideas to form our views accordingly and to make us fell more sympathy towards a certain side. For example, "the civil rights movement has allowed us to rethink our history. Having watched Northerners, black and white, go south to help black win civil rights in the 1960 s, today s textbook authors display more sympathy for Northerners who worked with Southern blacks during Reconstruction." (p. 190) Textbooks most likely downplay all this because they do not want to offend white Southerners today.
The first chapter is about heroes, such as Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, and what textbooks do to these heroes. Many do not know that Keller was a radical socialist and Wilson was a white supremacist because textbook authors choose to leave out these facts. "As part of the process of herofication, textbook authors treat America itself as a hero, indeed as the hero of their books, so they remove the wars." (p. 206) America needs heroes, so textbooks try to make them as sympathetic as possible sometimes omitting blemishes and even making up stories to make it sound more heroic. Though many think Christopher Columbus was a great hero for discovering America, which he did not, he was actually a cruel, barbaric man, who raped women and chopped of the hand of those who did not obey his commands. And, America was not even first discovered by the Europeans, but by the Africans. "The possibility of African discovery of America has never been a tempting one for American historians." (p.37) Thus, many textbooks and teachers fail to tell us this when we deserve the right to know.
Next, textbooks provide irrelevant and even erroneous detail failing to provide readers with pivotal information and facts. An example is Christopher Columbus because his very life is made up in the textbooks. Though textbooks say that he was born in Genoa of poor parents who in the end died poor and penniless, none of that is certain. (p. 54) Also, contrary to the popular belief and what we learn in textbooks, Native Americans and Whites worked together and even sometimes lived together. Thanks to the Natives, their influence on food, words, names, farming methods, and other contributions have made a lasting impact on all our lives. But, because of the many wars over land the Native Americans were thought as a conflict partner and Americans eventually forgot everything they had once taught them. (pp. 110 124)
Textbooks: Though not a person, they were a key issue and topic dealt with throughout the whole book.
Helen Keller: Became a radical socialist after she over came her disabilities.
Woodrow Wilson: President of the United States during World War I, who was also a white supremacist.
Christopher Columbus: Received all the credit for founding America when the Africans actually did. Was also a cruel and inhumane man who helped established slavery.
Squato: After escaping slavery and returning back to his village where everyone was dead from a disease, he helped the Pilgrims.
Native Americans: Due to the Whites desire to expand and possess more land, the Native Americans fell victim to White imperialism and were pushed out of their ancestral homelands and relocated further and further west.
Europeans: They were the "bringers of civilization." They believed that their culture alone was superior to all others and that all other cultures should follow in their greatness.
African Americans: They were quickly converted into slaves due to discriminatory beliefs of their race and color.
John Brown: the most radical white abolitionist of the Civil War era, who did what he could to help free the slaves even though he was crazy until his unfortunate death, which he was hung.
Abraham Lincoln: President during the Civil War era who helped emancipate slaves through his heroic actions and speeches.
Loewen s first chapter is about heroes, such as Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, and what textbooks do to these heroes. To many, Helen Keller is the famous blind and deaf girl who overcame her disabilities. However, many do not know that after she learned to read, write, and speak, she became a radical socialist. She first became a member of the Massachusetts Socialist Party in 1909. Because she wanted to do something to help blind people, she became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the coalition persecuted by Woodrow Wilson. At the time Keller became a socialist, who was not only the most famous women on the planet, but also the most notorious. Loewen then goes on to explain the truth about Woodrow Wilson. Many do not know that Wilson was actually a white supremacist who personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. He was openly hostile to black people, and believed that they were inferior. Another fact that many do not know about Wilson was his invasion of the Soviet Union and other countries in Latin America. He put troops into Mexico a total of thirteen different times, and also in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Helen Keller even called Wilson "the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!"
Loewen moves on to talk about our first so-called hero, Christopher Columbus. Many learn at a young age that Christopher Columbus founded America, when in truth he did not. The Norse, Afro-Phoenicians, and even possibly the Irish sailed to the New World long before Columbus s voyages. Though many textbooks tell of Columbus s three later voyages to the Americas, they fail to mention how he treated the lands and the people he "discovered." Since Columbus had not yet found any fields of gold, Columbus had to return some kind if profit to Spain. Thus, he initiated a great slave raid. Columbus s conquest in Haiti was one of the bloodiest atrocity that left a legacy of genocide and slavery that endures in some degree to this day. Columbus and his men also cut off hands and ears of the Indians if they failed to obey their command. Also, Columbus gave his men women to rape as a reward. Though there were many uprisings, in the end Columbus and his men won because of their guns and other more advanced technology.
Though many think that the first Thanksgiving goes back to the Pilgrims, it was actually established by Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. The first Thanksgiving in modern times actually happened in 1863 to thank the slow victory of the troops in Vicksburg and Gettysburg, as well as the abolishment of slavery. Anyway, the Pilgrims were really thankful for surviving the Black Death that killed between 90 and 96 percent of all the people, mainly Indians, living in Massachusetts. In fact, the Pilgrims and Puritan leaders thought the plague was sent by God to wipe out the Indians for them to live there. Which is why they were at Massachusetts instead of Virginia. Squanto actually was enslaved a few times and taken to various places such as Spain and England. Eventually, when he finds his way back to Massachusetts to his home village, he discovers that every person is dead. Thus, he is without a family or community, which is why he decides to help the Pilgrims. He was very important to the Pilgrims, until he died of a different disease. Many do not know, but the Pilgrims moved into Squanto s village and renamed it Plymouth.
Contrary to the popular belief, Native Americans and Whites worked together and even sometimes lived together. Thanks to the Natives, their influence on food, words, names, farming methods, and other contributions have made a lasting impact on all our lives. Their ideas are even partly responsible for our democratic institutions. On the other hand, Europeans powers deliberately increased Indian warfare by providing them with guns as well as by playing one nation off against another. And, as the Europeans learned from Natives what and how to grow, they became less dependent on them and their technology while the Natives became more dependent on the Europeans and their technology. Therefore, Europeans actually "deagriculturized" and "deskilled" Native Americans with intensified warfare and the slave trade. Indian history reveals that the United States and its predecessor British colonies have wrought great harm in the world. Because of the many wars over land (such as the Pequot War, the violent King Phillip s War, and the French Indian War), eventually Americans thought of the Native Americans as a conflict partner and forgot everything they had once taught them.
Loewen says in his book, "race is the sharpest and deepest diversion in American life" and that the "struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme in American history." As more and more people began to join the slave trade, Europeans came to characterize Africans as stupid, ignorant, inferior, and uncivilized, forgetting about all the contributions that they had made during the Renaissance and other times. Though there are stories that Thomas Jefferson opposed slavery, in truth he actually was an eager advocate of the expansion of slavery to the western territories. Slavery was a key factor in many wars including the American Revolution, the Texas War, Mexican War, and of course Civil War. Contrary to the popular belief that Reconstruction was the time period when blacks took over the government of the Southern states right after the Civil War, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they messed up and whites had to take control again. What really happened was that the Southern states were governed by a black-white coalition led by whites. Many of the Southern states, particularly Mississippi, had good government during Reconstruction. In Mississippi, the state government during that time period started the public schools for whites as well as blacks, wrote a superb new constitution, and did many other non-segregated or discriminatory things. Unfortunately, many blacks still fell victim to violent comments and actions from groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
One chapter in the book is devoted to John Brown and Abraham Lincoln informing us about their "real" ideas and beliefs and explaining why textbook authors describe the two as they do. Brown was the most radical white abolitionist of the Civil War era, who did what he could to help free the slaves until his unfortunate death, which he was hung. Though many textbooks do not imply that Brown was crazy, he was insane from 1890 and 1970. Though many do not even know why Lincoln was such a great hero, Loewen provides us with what he did and really said in his speeches to show what Lincoln did to dealt with slavery.
Throughout the book, Loewen provides the reader with interesting facts about what truly happened throughout history. For example, many do not know but the United States dropped three times as many tons of explosives in Vietnam as it dropped in all theaters of World War II, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Loewen closes the book giving us reasons why history is taught the way it is, which is through textbooks that supply irrelevant and even erroneous detail that omit pivotal facts. As General Petro G. Grigorenko once wrote in a letter, "concealment of the historical truth is a crime against the people.," for it is the history of America, and one that everyone deserves to know the truth of.
Lies My Teacher Told Me should be read by every American because it provides the truth about some of the misconceptions and lies in history. James Loewen does a great job with providing us the true information of people such as Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, Christopher Columbus, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln. He also tells us what really happened during the First Thanksgiving and the Vietnam War.
I would recommend this book to every student studying United States history because the ten chapters are filled with amazing stories that one will not ever forget. It shocked me that I was not aware of certain beliefs of the people listed above, as well as what really happened during renowned events in history. The book also advises the reader to be careful when reading history textbooks, because even textbooks provide irrelevant detail and even create erroneous ones, too.