Mike's Reviews > Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
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's review
Feb 04, 12

bookshelves: history, politics
Read from February 02 to 04, 2012

Before I get into this review, a couple of disclaimers, if I may.

First of all, I'm not an American and was not put through the American school system, which means I have no first hand experience of the standard of history teaching referred to by James Loewen. I'm British and count myself extremely fortunate to have attended a very good school at home.

Secondly, I am aware that history in many countries is twisted a little for either feelgood or nationalist purposes, depending on how you choose to view these distortions. British history is not taught in a particularly balanced fashion in the UK, especially with regard to more modern issues such as the Irish 'troubles'.

That said, I am aware of some of the appalling atrocities committed by the England and then the British down the years. I know, for example, of the pogrom against the Jews of York in that city's castle in 1190, and that one of the reasons for this was the debt a local noble owed and did not wish to pay. I know that Oliver Cromwell's invasion of Ireland was a disgustingly bloody affair and that much more recently indefensible acts have been carried out in that country in the name of the United Kingdom. I could go on with British actions in India, for example, much of Africa, or even initial English colonisation efforts in North America, but the point has been made: we should know of these things and we do.

In America, it would seem, teaching the past failings of the state and its people is a no-no, leaving a populace unable to critically consider how it came to be where it is now and often in possession of a history which is simply not true. Loewen points out with exceptional lucidity such examples as Columbus who, American textbooks claim, sailed west, discovered the Americas and found that the world was not, after all, flat. The previous sentence can only be said to be true if it ends 'sailed west'. He most certainly did not discover the Americas - which were populated when he arrived - and sailors had known for centuries that the earth was curved - a ship's hull disappearing over the horizon before its sails will tell anyone that

Loewen does not simply stick to disabusing us of the simple untruths of history, however. He viciously, and quite rightly, attacks coverage of Woodrow Wilson, a white supremacist who interfered in the affairs of other nations, often creating long term problems both locally and for America itself, by continually launching invasions of other states; most recent American interventions in Iran and Lebanon, which have created sectarian and political issues in those countries; and even the Vietnam War, portrayed as a moral intervention when it most certainly was not.

What Loewen is at pains to point out, and what he covers so well, is that the books that are used to teach Americans about how they came to be where they are today paint government after government as lily-white, and their 'mistakes' as misunderstandings. Wrongful executions, the napalming of vast swathes of jungle in Vietnam and Laos, continued attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and many other unforgivable horrors - all are either painted as the unfortunate errors of a nation striving to do right, or otherwise totally ignored as inconvenient.

'Lies My Teacher Told Me' is a damning indictment of how American high school students are taught about their country. Thoroughly researched and bursting with cutting, to the point arguments, if James Loewen's work has not yet brought about a change in an education system run by interest groups then it's about time it did. America is not alone in distorting its history beyond recognition - Russians are taught a version of history so far from the truth it should not be called history at all - but for a country which would like to pride itself on openness and progress, Loewen asks questions which demand answers.
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message 1: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Weinstein An example: We are aware of a history teacher in an American high school (some years ago) who actually taught that the South won the Civil War. The principal knew and would not make her change.

Thanks for an excellent review.

When you add in the very political nature of textbooks chosen for use in our schools, driven largely by the state of Texas, it is easy to understand the abysmal ignorance and gullibility displayed by so many of our voters.

The shortcomings of our education systems, which are almost entirely the function of the states and not the federal government, are among the most serious problems we face.


Mike Wow, that's amazing, Lew. I know that every country teaches its own slant on history, but that take needs to at least be based on interpretation of fact!

It's an excellent book and one that I'm recommending to anyone and everyone I come across with even a vague interest in history, education or the United States. We have serious shortcomings with education in Britain, but I never imagined something so warped could be going on at the 'enlightened' end of the world.


message 3: by Edward (new)

Edward Your positive review is the most damning indightment of the book I've encountered yet. Reading it has clearly given you a distorted view of American history classes. I've been to school in America. The idea that "teaching the past failing of the state is a no no." couldn't be farther from the truth. We spent A LOT of time discussing slavery, Jim Crow laws, the McCarthey era. Before I was out of my teens I knew several of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and that was discussed at length.
The author is a liberal "muckraker" who seeks to point out flaws. Those people can be very misleading to outsiders who don't have context. If you only hear about what others are trying to fix, you only hear about the bad parts.


Mike Edward wrote: "Your positive review is the most damning indightment of the book I've encountered yet. Reading it has clearly given you a distorted view of American history classes. I've been to school in Americ..."

I'm not about to get into a debate about the quality of education in the US with regards to history. I know that things are bad enough in that respect in the UK as well. However, many of my American friends - well-educated, well-travelled people - are unaware of things as rudimentary as the importance of the French in the War of Independence.

You can describe everyone whose opinion differs from your own as a 'nutcracker' if you like, but it's entirely unhelpful to the situation and serves only to widen political gaps.


message 5: by Dean (new) - added it

Dean I went to primary school in England and Germany, and secondary school in the US. It is true that all countries distort the teaching of their "history" but no Western nations goes quite so far as the US. Part of that is due to the extremely far-right school boards in Texas (the largest market for school books) demanding a sanitized history curriculum... book printers simply can't print 50 different versions of their books so the states with the largest volume of orders set the agenda for US textbooks.


message 6: by Mandy (new) - added it

Mandy Mike, I totally agree with you.I too am a Brit my husband is American. He freely admits he only discovered his history education was "incomplete" when his interaction with other foreign nationals helped correct his "misinformation". I had no part in this as this allhappened before we met.


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