Lies Our Textbooks Tell Us
LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. By James W. Loewen. The New Press, 372 pp. $24.95.
The U.S. history textbooks used in schools today make children stupid. This is the blunt conclusion arrived at by researcher Jim Loewen of the University of Vermont, who spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution cuddled up with twelve of the current major U.S. history textbooks — each averaging four and a half pounds and 888 pages. Sure, some of the books are better than others. Some incorporate insights from recent scholarship and offer the occasional nod to multiculturalism. But when the final bell rings, according to Loewen, “Students exit history textbooks without having developed the ability to think coherently about social life.” And given that more than five-sixths of all Americans will not take another U.S. history course after high school, this analytical incoherence may never be remedied.
As background for his study, Loewen slogged through 10,000 pages of thick textbookese. But the critique resulting from this meticulous text-combing is no tedious catalogue of historical lie after lie. Indeed the “lies” Loewen uncovers are less outright falsehoods than broad patterns of historical distortion and omission. His critique is a lively, sometimes angry, sometimes playful, alternative history. Despite some biases and omissions of its own, Loewen’s book argues effectively for a thorough rethinking of traditional approaches to U.S. history.
Befuddlement — Past and Present
The core of Loewen’s critique is that because of the texts’ wretched portrayals of the past, students can’t help but be befuddled by the present. The books fail to consider why anything happens in society. Events appear as inevitable because, as Loewen found, the texts never indicate that throughout history there were choices, that people posed alternatives. Consequently, students are discouraged from thinking of the present as a place in history with different potentialities, dependent largely on how we analyze society and work for change.
The books begin from the premise that the governmental and economic system of the United States is the best of all possible social arrangements. The system itself is the textbooks’ main hero. Thus these texts never take seriously ideas, social movements, or cultures that have embodied different ways of living or that have fundamentally challenged the status quo — whether Native American mytho-poetic traditions or the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. “Even to report the facts of income and wealth distribution might seem critical of America the hero,” writes Loewen. “For it is difficult to come up with a theory of social justice that can explain why 1% of the population controls almost 40% of the wealth.” For that matter, as Loewen indicates, half of all the books he surveyed had no index listing whatsoever for “social stratification,” “class structure,” or even “social class.” Land ofPromise, one of the six texts that does mention “social class,” stops using the term after 1670. And, Loewen reports, The Challenge of Freedom assures high school students that by 1815, there were no longer two social classes, as “America was a country of middle class people and of middle class goals.”
Also missing from these corporate-produced tomes, according to Loewen, is the role collective action has played throughout U.S. history. In the rare times when textbooks acknowledge mass social movements, their origins are distorted. In one text, President Kennedy receives credit for the Civil Rights Movement. According to The Challenge of American Freedom, “Following the President’s example, thousands of Americans became involved in the equal rights movement as well. In August 1963 more than 200,000 people took part in a march in Washington, D.C.” Loewen points out that in the phony textbook America, “every problem has been solved or is about to be solved.” The suprahuman United States or the occasional president, not people, create change — and life just keeps getting better. As Loewen indicates, there’s an important corollary: “The optimistic approach prevents any understanding of failure other than blaming the victim.” If this is such a “land of opportunity,” like the books promise, if the U.S. is so good, how come some people have it so bad? Must be because they’re lazy, wicked, weak, un- lucky… History students can fill in the blank. In myriad ways every textbook is one long — very long — advertisement for the status quo.
The Only Good Indian…
In a provocative early chapter entitled “Red Eyes,” Loewen asks us to look at U.S. history from a Native American point of view. For those of you thinking, I’ve heard it already,” let me note that this chapter is not a list of massacres that textbooks cover up. In fact, Loewen observes that textbooks these days do admit government massacres of defenseless Native Americans at places like Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, though the books make sure to depict brutality on “both sides.” Loewen’s purpose is more profound. He argues that to look at the sweep of American history from a Native standpoint requires us to question notions of “progress” and “civilization,” the implied superiority of “our” way of life, and the supposed inevitability of European domination.
As Loewen points out, “The overall story line in contemporary American history textbooks about American Indians is this: We tried to Europeanize them; they wouldn’t or couldn’t do it; so we dispossessed them. … Native Americans stood in the way of progress.” Perhaps this is a more sympathetic treatment than in earlier days when Indians were depicted as bloodthirsty savages, but the change is more one of tone than of substance. And, as Loewen ably demonstrates, it’s wrong.
According to Loewen, today’s texts try to be accurate about early Indian cultures. All but two of the twelve books he reviewed devote at least the first five pages to precontact Native societies. They’re inadequate, superficial treatments, but more importantly, they introduce students to concepts of “primitive” and “civilized” that will ultimately be used to justify the European conquest, and similar imperial bullying today. And, of course, in textbookland,
the wealthier a society is, the more civilized, the more “advanced” it is. From The American Adventure: “Unlike the noncivilized peoples of the Caribbean, the Aztec were rich and prosperous.” So-called civilizations were located in Mexico and Peru, never in what is today the United States. The American Pageant pronounces that, “Indian life in North America was less advanced.” As Loewen writes, “Even an appreciative treatment of Native cultures reinforces ethnocentrism so long as it does not challenge the primitive-to-civilized continuum.” If civilized means a complex division of labor, Loewen offers, then the Nazis were more civilized than the ostensibly primitive Taínos Columbus first encountered in the Caribbean.
Left out of every U.S. history text Loewen reviewed is the magnetic appeal Native American societies had for many Europeans — perhaps drawn by greater equality and individual freedom. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “No European who has tasted Savage Life can after- wards bear to live in our societies.” Hernando De Soto posted guards to keep men and women under his jurisdiction from fleeing to Indian communities.
According to Loewen, the Pilgrims outlawed long hair out of fear of “Indianization.” More important than individual examples like these, the texts erase virtually the entire history of Indian influence on European culture: food, agricultural and hunting practices, language (Mississippi, hurricane, skunk, etc.), politics, architecture, and pharmacology. Two texts mention Indian foods; one mentions Indian names. Instead the books adopt the “archetype of the frontier line.” But this make-believe frontier between civilization and wilderness — a European concept connoting nature as enemy needing to be controlled — misrepresents history. Writes Loewen, “Textbooks present the process as a moving line of white (and black) settlement — Indians on one side, whites (and blacks) on the other.” The term “frontier” places the student in the urban East, creates an attitude of “us” and “them,” thus “othering” Native Americans.
However, Loewen argues that inter-cultural contact was the rule not the exception, and, as Native American societies became drawn into the expanding world economy, their cultures were transformed dramatically. “Yet textbooks make no mention of this process,” writes Loewen, even though “it is crucial to understanding how Europeans took over America,” and how indigenous cultures are being destroyed today. The combination of guns and trade led to increased specialization, slavery, and warfare. In early America, according to Loewen, “Colonists in South Carolina paid nearby Indian nations in guns, ammunition, and other goods, which enabled them to enslave interior nations as far west as Arkansas.” All but two of the twelve textbooks are completely silent on the Native American slave trade, even though in one year alone Charleston shipped over 10,000 enslaved Indians to the West Indies. The textbook American History includes one sentence: “A few Indians were enslaved.”
The books similarly downplay and distort the extent to which warfare between European invaders — the so-called “settlers” — and Indians (why aren’t they called the settlers?) shaped American history. Loewen writes that waging war against the Indians consumed 80% of the entire federal budget during the administration of George Washington. But it consumes barely a mention in the textbooks. TheAmerican Pageant provides a table of “Total Costs and Number of Battle Deaths of Major U.S. Wars,” but entirely neglects Indian wars. Writes Loewen, “Pageant includes the Spanish-American War, according it a toll of 385 battle deaths, but leaves out the Ohio War of 1790-95, which cost 630 dead and missing U.S. troops in a single battle, the Battle of Wabash River.” By failing to acknowledge the hundreds of wars waged against American Indians, text- books hide the extent to which this country was won by theft backed up with organized violence. The best the textbooks can come up with is Indian history as tragedy: whites marching into a relatively empty “wilderness,” home to nomadic tribes who “could not or would not acculturate,” and thus lost their land. It’s “feel good history for whites,” writes Loewen, and it fails to ask what alternatives existed. Could we have had cultural contact without domination and annihilation? No textbook concerns itself with could-have-beens. Instead, they lament the incapacity of Indians to adjust to white society. The underlying stance that celebrates this country as the best and only possible way to organize a society blinds textbook authors to any alternatives.
Slavery Without Racism
As Loewen notes in an excellent chapter, “Gone With the Wind: The Invisibility of Racism in American History Textbooks,” texts these days describe some of the horrors of slavery but “have trouble acknowledging that anything might be wrong with white Americans, or with the United States as a whole.” Hard as it is to believe, according to Loewen only one of the twelve textbooks offers even a single sentence linking slavery and white racism, and even this is ridiculously tepid: TheAmerican Tradition says, “In defense of their ‘peculiar institution,’ southerners became more and more determined to maintain their own way of life.” In Loewen’s reading, the books treat “slavery virtually as uncaused, a tragedy, rather than a wrong perpetrated on some people by others.” Amazingly, only five of the twelve commercial texts have any index listing for “racism,” “racial prejudice,” or any term that begins with “race.”
One of the nasty consequences of neglecting the causes of Black suffering is that ultimately Blacks themselves appear to be the problem. Did Reconstruction fail because of Klan violence, widespread white resistance — both southern and northern — or the withdrawal of federal troops? No.
American Adventures explains that “Millions of the exslaves could not be converted in ten years into literate voters, or successful politicians, farmers, and businessmen.” Blame the “ex-slaves” for their continuing poverty. Loewen points out that because “not one book links history and racism,” students are denied an opportunity to think clearly about today’s deep racial divides.
Not surprisingly, textbooks are also silent about a tradition of anti-racism in American life. This is a crucial omission, as Loewen rightly indicates, because it cuts students off from “potential role models to call upon as they try to bridge the new fault lines that will spread out in the future from the great rift of our past.” Strangely, however, in Loewen’s own volume, the two heroes of anti-racist activism — together earning a full chapter — are both white men: John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.
An irony that weaves through the narrative is that, although one of Loewen’s central criticisms is the racial blindness of textbooks, in certain respects LiesMyTeacher Told Meis a white book. Singling out Abraham Lincoln as one of the two main anti-racist heroes in U.S. history is a strange choice. To his credit, Loewen’s chapter aims to show that egalitarian ideals have played a crucial role in history, and that textbooks ignore this fact. (As he demonstrates, texts ignore all ideas — period.) However, in order to enshrine Lincoln as a champion of anti-racism Loewen draws selectively from the trough of history. While admitting some of Lincoln’s racism, Loewen plays up Lincoln’s Congressional vote in 1835 refusing to condemn abolitionists; notes that he was the first president to exchange ambassadors with Haiti and Liberia; and mentions that Lincoln desegregated the White House staff in 1863.
However, he fails to tell of Lincoln’s support of an 1849 fugitive slave provision that led the abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, to label Lincoln “that slavehound from Illinois.” As mentioned, Loewen pairs the anti-slavery militant, John Brown, with Lincoln in the chapter, but doesn’t reveal that Lincoln condemned Brown and applauded his execution. Loewen quotes from Lincoln’s second inaugural address but, significantly, not from his first, in which Lincoln promised slaveholders that they could keep their slaves forever, and that he’d support a constitutional amendment to that effect.
Loewen wrongly tries to rehabilitate Lincoln as an anti-slavery crusader through selective quotation, but the underlying premises of this effort are more troubling. First, in Loewen’s worthwhile quest to show that ideas make a difference in history, Lincoln’s personal anti-slavery beliefs become the shaper of Union war strategy with respect to slavery. As with Loewen’s treatment of Woodrow Wilson in an earlier chapter, here he inflates the significance of a powerful man’s ideas and neglects the deeper social and economic pressures that influence history’s course. In crass shorthand, Lincoln managed an economic system that depended on the South for raw materials and markets. In spite of his inner struggles around issues of race, there is nothing in the historical record to indicate that Lincoln would have sought to abolish slavery in the South had the South not jeopardized this profitable economic partnership. Nothing. In the following chapter, Loewen writes that “Textbooks’ treatment of events in labor history are never anchored in any analysis of social class.” A vital point. But he fails to notice that neither is his account of anti-racism “anchored in any analysis of social class.”
Second, and perhaps more important, by selecting two white men as the sole representatives of an anti-racist current in U.S. history, Loewen makes anti-racism a white (and male) phenomenon. “Abraham Lincoln, racism and all, was blacks’ legitimate hero, as earlier John Brown had been.” In a text that explodes numerous myths, here Loewen reinforces an old one: Great white man frees the slaves. His treatment underscores the basic paradigm of Civil War history-telling: good and noble whites save the helpless Black victims, who ought to be grateful. “Anti-racism is one of America’s great gifts to the world,” Loewen writes. “Anti-racism led to ‘a new birth of freedom’ after the Civil War, and not only for African Americans.” But who really created anti-racism: enslaved African Americans who constantly resisted that enslavement or their occasionally reliable white allies?
And it’s not only in his treatment of anti-racism that Loewen reveals his racial standpoint. Throughout his narrative, Loewen’s pronoun selection locates the book as by and for a white community. At one point he writes, “Textbooks may only reflect these lies because we want them to.” Who is the “we”? In this passage, he unconsciously addresses a white audience. In annoying non sequiturs, apparently meant to “balance” an otherwise generally hard-hitting critique, Loewen offers asides such as his praise for Woodrow Wilson as a man “celebrated by lovers of freedom everywhere.” This, after he’d earlier exposed Wilson as a staunch segregationist and arguably the most racist president of the 20th century. So which lovers of freedom celebrate Wilson? African Americans? Not likely.
There’s a troubling omission that Loewen himself acknowledges, but underestimates in its significance. He writes in an Afterword that Liesmentions but “makes no thorough critique of how textbooks present women’s history and gender issues.” Loewen’s failure to employ a feminist lens in his textbook critique is significant not only because this omission reinforces the historic devaluing of women’s lives — even if he apologizes for their absence — but also because it supports a definition of “history” as that which happened in public, political arenas. A feminist approach might have led Loewen to ask key questions that he missed: What do textbooks communicate about relationships between men and women, or about how and why family structures have changed? What do textbooks implicitly teach about what it means to live a meaningful life? What do the texts say about the development of a consumer culture — historically, advertisers have targeted women — and its influence on the quality of our lives? A feminist approach means consistently asking, “Where were the women?” but it also means exploring the intersection of the personal and the political, something notoriously missing from most history curricula.
Contempt for Teachers
Presumably, one of the major audiences Loewen targets for his analysis is classroom teachers. However, a contempt for those very teachers stains much of his narrative. It begins with the book’s cover: Lies My Teacher Told Me.
This may be a cute title, but the many lies Loewen excavates are not those of teachers but of textbooks produced by some of the world’s major corporations. Typical of today’s political discourse, in Loewen’s title workers shoulder the blame for corporate offenses. To be sure, teachers are not blameless for perpetuating the myths Loewen unearths, but his book isn’t about teachers; it’s about textbooks. Although he dedicates the book to teachers who “teach against their textbooks,” he never indicates what that means or who these people are. In a footnote he mentions journals like Rethinking Schools, RadicalTeacher, and Democracy and Education, as well as several mainstream publications, but that’s about it. The few actual examples of high school teaching in the book are negative. In one instance, he creates and criticizes a “hypothetical” teacher who insensitively puts down a Black girl after she challenges the teacher about an aspect of African history. If Loewen can create hypothetical bad teachers, why not hypothetical good ones — teachers who might respond more appropriately to students and offer some concrete picture of what it means to teach against the text? In the introduction, Loewen says that he spent “many hours” observing high school classes and interviewing high school history teachers. But their stories are missing.
Enough harping on what Loewen didn’t do or should have done better. The book is filled with insights, big and little. And, as they say, it’s “must reading” for all teachers who touch on historical issues in their classrooms. In fact, anyone whose students are assigned one of the twelve texts that Loewen critiques should read Lies this weekend.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Loewen’s book is its insistence that we must take textbooks seriously as literature that imparts significant, often reactionary, messages. Liesasks who benefits and who suffers from particular versions of history-telling. And if its answers are not complete, Loewen’s book nonetheless forces us to think about the nature of our society and what is worth teaching about its origins.