Don's Reviews > Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Lies My Teacher Told Me  by James W. Loewen
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's review
Jan 18, 2015

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bookshelves: history, teacherman, on-shelf, own

UPDATE: After reading the first 150 pages, now I just sorta have this book on my shelf and pick it up from time to time.

This book is very good on a few levels ... It takes the textbook publishers to task for their weak glossing over of American history, and it emphasizes the use of primary documents, which are important and often underutilized by lame teachers. It is also (verbosely) summarizes some very valid criticisms of the general treatment textbooks and by extension, some high school teachers on a handful of touchy subjects in American history.

However, it is not what it purports to be, it is not new or unusual, and had it been titled appropriately, this book would have been relegated to the back of the store in the "teacher handbooks."

"Lies My Teacher Told Me," comes across as revealing the "controversial issues" that these damn liars across America are foisting on our children. Please.

Does ANYBODY teach that Christopher Columbus was a godlike hero?

Do our high schools really teach that the inhabitants of North America when the Pilgrims landed were noble savages, few and far between, and that the Europeans were simply arriving to assume control of a continent that was virtually empty and ready for the taking ... And the Manifest Destiny march of conquest was merely inevitable and might makes right, and all that rot?

These are the first three examples, taking up 110 of the 330 "Thanks-to-me-teachers-will-now-know-how-to-teach-U.S. History" pages. I don't disagree with most of what he says... That textbooks are too conservative, and that we need more current scholarship with some Howard Zinn and Ray Raphael mixed in... Yay.

But Loewen is just so caught up in his quantifiable study of textbooks, he's operating under the ridiculously flawed assumption that all teachers do is hand out the big, fat textbook and go to sleep. And that's boring to kids! Well, yeah.

The book has value and is interesting in many places, such as the 350th Anniversary of The First Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, when in 1970 the state department of commerce asked the Wampanoags to select a speaker. When Frank James was selected, and he had to show his speech to the white people, he was not allowed to read it, because it was not celebratory enough. That's fascinating, but that seems to fit in with one of Loewen's other books, "Lies Across America." It truly has nothing to do with "Lies my teacher told me," or even "Everything your American history textbook got wrong," which is the subtitle to this book.

I'm still reading. I have set it aside because most of what he writes is self-congratulatory crap that suggests that he's informing the nation's mass of ignorant, fib-telling, morally bankrupt educators (who are probably being protected by that damn socialist teachers union). He's not. He's a retired former college sociology teacher who has ostensibly found a nice retirement income ("From the first day," he writes breathlessly in the introduction to the second edition, "the readers made 'Lies' a success.")

Actually, I would submit that the biggest lie involved is that this guy is telling the country what goes on in history classroms. He's right that textbooks generally gloss over anything that doesn't present America as the "land of opportunity," and venerate the regular cast of heroes... But the textbooks are invariably bought by schoolboards, not the teachers. Maybe that's what he should have written this book about, but that would not have been nearly as sexy.

Another thought: Why didn't this presumed wrong-righter choose to spend some time writing a really good, fair, accurate textbook? Oh, well, because tha would have been too hard, almost impossible (consider that he takes 330 pafes to touch upon 8-9 topics...). And besides, he'd have never made any money the way he has by jumping on the "teachers suck" bandwagon along with people who have a completely different and much more damaging agenda than his own.

I suspect that the amazingly and purposefully inaccurate title was not part of his original idea ... This is primarily an indictment of textbooks, not teachers, but somebody must have told him how sales could skyrocket if he throws teachers under the bus in the title -- "even teachers will buy it out of self-defense!" That's why I bought it... I'm just glad I got it on sale.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Mary Unfortunately, too many teachers I know do just hand out the book and tell the students to read it. I agree with your indictment, wholeheartedly. I am considering having students read some excerpts from this book for some critical thinking.

message 2: by Don (new) - rated it 3 stars

Don Sure thing... I sorta went off on a rant, but there is some good stuff in there... the quoted material from historians like Karen Kupperman is well-chosen. I'll be using the great table "Explorers of America," on Page 40-41; I don't think I have ever seen it expressed like that before, even in 1491 (which I loved). I am digging 1493, too, but it's taking forever to get through it because I'm taking too dang many notes. But my favorite history reading is by Sarah Vowell.

message 3: by Carrie (new) - added it

Carrie Not to nit-pick, but on page 160 (of the copy I'm reading), Loewen mentions (in the caption of a photograph) "a revisionist state history textbook I co-wrote". So he's making an effort. . .

message 4: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Actually, all of the things you're asking if high schools really teach, those are things I learned--and that was in pre-AP and AP history classes. I am looking forward to reading this book because of that.

message 5: by Don (new) - rated it 3 stars

Don To Sarah... Yikes! In that case, by all means! Most likely I am underestimating the problem, certainly in some regions of the country, and Dr. Loewen is providing a much-needed service. It is apparent to me that I took the title too personally ... But my feeling is that we don't teach the same.way as 30 years ago in History any more than we do in Science classes... New understandings, research, knowledge... But he's picking low-hanging fruit in the South. He's a good, if pompous, story teller, though!

message 6: by Sarah (new)

Sarah My high school was in a small, conservative town in Texas. History was typically taught by coaches, who, quite frankly, cared more about the sports they coached, than the classes they taught. I'm not saying all coaches are bad teachers of course, I had a coach for honors biology in 9th grade who was phenomenal, but the coaches I had for history courses never seemed to care. I like to think that this has changed, since I graduated high school 11 years ago, but I'm almost willing to bet that it hasn't.

Erika Sadly I can say that by my experience, yes that is what is taught by many. If the teacher doesn't care to teach or believes it all themselves, then it's entirely possible. I knew that a lot of what is written in these textbooks was whitewashed because I read a lot. If you're a kid who doesn't like reading or learning, well... You can imagine that this is exactly what they would end up thinking.

message 8: by Karen (new)

Karen Somehow I must have gotten lucky with great teachers in high school, because while the whitewashed version of "history" is taught in elementary and even middle school, by high school we were seeing and discussing the "holes" in our textbooks. I homeschooled one of my own children for grades 3 and 4, and although our curriculum would be considered conservative Christian, (Sonlight), we certainly covered the bad things about Columbus and the colonial era, along with the full story of the Civil War period. While textbooks often do focus on the "great white father" narrative, I was aware of discrepancies and I credit my teachers who wanted us to be aware that textbooks teach the victor's version and not the whole story. I was also a reader and likely had read books that told other stories of history.

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