Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
This book was originally published in 1994 and was revised in 2007. I’d been thinking about reading it for a long time, but finally put it on the top of my list when I realized I should be reading more non-fiction because I had little to recommend to you.
And I do recommend this one! It challenged just about everything I learned in my history course (dinosaur days, yeah), and shows that not much has changed in the courses you are taking now—unless your own U. S. History teacher is challenging the textbook by sharing information with alternate points-of-view.
I’ve tried to have a clearer picture of American history by reading selections from Columbus’s journal (now, that was eye-opening—his own words prove him to be a vicious brute) and paying attention to alternate versions of wars and presidential policies. But Loewen tackles treatment of Native American (from Columbus forward) in detail; he dishes the dirt about American policies from the time of the Pilgrims forward. Did you know:
- Christopher Columbus did not discover that the world is round (lots of people already knew this)? He, with the Spanish explorers he brought to the New World, hunted and murdered Indians for sport and dog food? That he had the hands of Indians cut off as punishment for disobeying the Spaniards?
- Plagues had killed off so much of the Native American population before the Pilgrims arrived that those Pilgrims arrived to lands that were already cleared and ready to be populated (i.e., a lot of the hard work of ‘settling’ was already done)? That Squanto, famous for helping the Pilgrims, was not just an Indian traveler who happened to speak English, but had been enslaved twice by Europeans? That when he finally got home again, his tribe had been wiped out by a plague—probably a good reason for him to align himself with the Europeans?
- That John Brown was not mentally ill and/or deranged?
- That Abraham Lincoln, who was idolized when I was younger, and then demonized as a racist later (at least in some books I’ve read), was actually deeply thoughtful about race and country—and probably deserves much of the respect he receives (although for reasons more complex than textbooks allow)?
- President Woodrow Wilson (whom I’ve always thought of as a decent man because of his championing of the League of Nations) was an open racist who removed African Americans from all levels of government?
- Helen Keller was a ‘left-wing socialist’ who wrote extensively championing the common person?
- That several U. S. history textbooks say the same thing, almost word-for-word, as if they’ve all been written by one person with one point-of-view? (Unless they are plagiarizing from one another and no one has noticed!)
Lies My Teacher Told Me discusses lots of the stuff history book publishers are afraid to let you know about our history because they are afraid you won’t be able to take it—you’ll be unoptimistic about your future. (Hum. . .) The thing is—as bad as some these facts are—they are incredibly interesting. Loewen argues that if the facts were in your history books, you’d like the subject a lot more—and people of all ethnic backgrounds as well as both genders would have role model from the past.
There are people who won’t like Lies My Teacher Told Me. I read a review on it that stated, “To account for the deplorable situation, [Loewen] offers this quasi-Marxist explanation: ‘Perhaps we are all dupes, manipulated by elite white male capitalists who orchestrate how history is written as part of their scheme to perpetuate their own power and privilege at the expense of the rest of us.’” (Gilbert Taylor) These words are taken out of context as Loewen is asking a rhetorical question, and then answers that, no, it’s really unlikely that this is the case. Ironically, this is just the kind of ‘tweaking’ that Loewen is decrying.
Read it. You may be disgusted by the facts, but you’ll be fascinated as well.