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Lies My Teacher Told Me

September 29th, 2004 · 6 Comments

Lies My Teacher Told Me is for anyone who has ever fallen asleep in history class.

Or so it says on the back of the book by James W. Loewen.

I don’t fit into this category. I don’t remember ever falling sleep in history class. But I wasn’t that excited by it. I took history throughout high school. I would agree with other claims made on this cover, that I thought the subject was “bo-o-o-oring” and “irrelevant”. I was more excited about examining living things under the microscope than digging up dead things from the past. To ace history class it seemed that all I needed to do was memorize the facts and also figure out what my teacher’s political disposition was. I thought it was a game.

In college, when I was allowed to choose my courses, I only took one from the history department, Japanese History, during my junior year. Many years have passed since I studied American history or even read a history book.

Loewen opened his book by using the examples of two icons of American history, Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, to prove that textbooks provide inaccurate portraits. Keller was a Communist and Wilson a racist, according to Loewen, but most Americans are not aware of these not-so-acceptable sides of these famous people.

While reading the first chapter, I agreed with the author that we are afraid to study people as they are, whether or not we agree or approve of their actions and statements. What we are taught is biased and white-washed. No big news there.

However, reading the chapter on Columbus shocked me. I was surprised at my own surprise. I know that no one is perfect and no one is as he appears in a history textbook. Yet I had forgotten or was never taught the extent of Columbus’ actions in the Americas. The atrocities and domination he perpetuated horrified me. I’m left with the dilemma of how to teach my children what happened in 1492. Do I tell my daughters that Columbus rewarded his lieutenants with the rape of native women? Whether or not he discovered America, that debate aside, it seems from Loewen’s arguments that a pattern of associating Christianity with conquering began in the Americas, thanks to Columbus and his contemporaries. False ideas about what God wants people to do to other people continue to this day in this continent.

Other chapters describe “the truth of the first Thanksgiving” (including the decimation of the native population that allowed the Europeans to succeed), “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln”, the myth of progress and stories from the civil rights movements.

I was surprised to learn that Lincoln was racist and was fighting for the Union, not for the abolishment of slavery. He valued the Union above abolition. Perhaps I did learn these things as a child, but I have forgotten them, and our culture only emphasizes “The Great Emancipator”, not his statements that black and white could never live together.

I didn’t know that Europeans joined native American communities, together with freed African slaves, forming tri-racial societies. I didn’t know that the first non-native people to live in America were escaped slaves the Spanish had brought from Africa. Incidents from the civil rights movement and Vietnam were new to me too. I appreciated the perspectives on race and economics included in this book.

I am writing what I have learned from this book, but at the same time, I believe that the main lesson of this book is not to believe everything you read. So I take it all with a grain of salt. A shake or two. I’m not sure what to teach my daughters. Except to examine all the facts and hold them up to the lights. Ask the right questions.

No surprise to me though was the amount of pressure on textbooks. If the purpose of this book is only to convince the reader never to use a textbook, then that is easily illustrated. Textbooks face pressure from publishers and from parents and textbook adoption committees. Facts about the Alamo, for example, or the Confederacy, have been portrayed in positive light so that Texas and Southern states will accept a text book.

What this book did, besides challenging what I thought was true about many American figures, was to ignite in me a passion for history. History didn’t mean much to me as a child. I was survival-minded in school and focussed on science and medicine. But now we live in a post-9/11 world, where the past is in the present every moment. We live in a world that has been made much smaller by technology. I can only imagine what it will be like for my children by the time they are adults. And on a personal level, I am aware that I am raising children who have a heritage that spans across multiple continents and cultures. I want my girls to know where they came from and where the world may be going.

I want to learn more history. Reading this book highlighted to me my own ignorance. I had never studied the history of Caribbean nations. Now I want to know more about the history of Haiti. I want to learn more about America’s history of intervention in other nations. I don’t think I was aware, for example, that our country’s policy towards Haiti fluctuated depending on whether the President owned slaves. I feel I have so much to learn, and that the world will begin to be more clear to me in the present as I start to discover more of the past.

Tags: books

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Katherine // Sep 29, 2004 at 7:51 am

    What comes to mind reading this is: The admonition not to believe everything you read should apply equally to this book. Was there good documentation for where he got his surprising new facts?

  • 2 pops // Sep 29, 2004 at 7:54 am

    History and Baskin Robbins are always ready to offer 31 flavors.

    Yes, Lincoln had to peserve the Union and use it to further the idea of the nation state so that this nation could compete as a capitalist state of the first order.That view is from the economic history of the United States and has nothing to do with the intellectual history or several of the other flavors.

    There are several books about what a nightmare it is to put together American history texts which will not offend the parents of school aged children. Those books created both the icons and the iconoclasts like Mr. Loewen.

    And don’t forget – the first job of any professional historian is to take apart and rearrange all the work of all the professional who came before them.

  • 3 Kai Jones // Sep 29, 2004 at 11:49 am

    Yeah. When I think about someday going to college, I usually want to study history. But I get discouraged thinking about having to write for teachers who have their own agendas–I have a very negative view of academia.

    (p.s., you may remember me as Kris Hasson-Jones, and “snippy” on livejournal aka Interrupting Gelastic Jew)

  • 4 Bob V // Sep 30, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    What goes for textbooks goes for any sort of publication. Newspapers are also subject to some of the same forces. The best way to get at the truth seems to be to get the information from a number of sources. This goes to why blogs are so useful. It makes it very easy to get a number of perspectives at very little cost. Information that gets hidden in other mediums can get good airplay in the blogosphere if they are relevant enough.

  • 5 Julie // Oct 1, 2004 at 2:27 am

    Bob, imagine if Columbus, his crew and the native American peoples all had blogged their experiences…then we would have a better idea what really happened…or maybe not…:-)

    I hope you get to go to college, Kai!

    Here’s to fun exploration of the 31 flavors of history…through blogs and books!

  • 6 Jay McCarthy // Oct 4, 2004 at 10:55 am

    Re: Columbus

    Remember too that most of the native Latin American people who were killed were part of incredibly violent empires themselves. A history of how the Aztecs and Incas conquered their terroritories is just as horrifying.

    These people desired each other.