‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’ – Review

As you can see from the blurb above, my main reason for starting this blog was the realization, after spending some time in Turkey, that a good deal of important information was missing from my world view. I spent a chunk of my senior high school years studying European history from the 16th to the 19th centuries, without learning much about the Ottoman Empire – except that it came to be known, in the 1800s, as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’.  I certainly have no recollection of being informed that, for at least two of those centuries, it had been in a state of such good health that its armies several times threatened to overrun Europe – turned back twice from the gates of Vienna by the combined forces of several states, and the length of their own supply lines.
As a child in New Zealand in less enlightened times, I learned about ‘our’ Maoris, who put up brave and honourable resistance against European settlers, but were overcome by a superior civilization – which they wisely chose to accept, and eventually became good upstanding citizens, providing muscle power for our rugby teams, fearsome warriors when called on to fight for the British Empire, and ethnic colour to tourist entertainment programmes. It has emerged more recently that this picture may not have done full justice to the complexities of the situation.
So I want to be fair here. The book I plan to tell you about deals with United States history, but let me begin by admitting that we all do it. Even Turkey, whose history texts written for school use have been accused of perpetuating nationalistic myths, omitting important details about the lives of heroic characters, and presenting as facts, matters which are at least debatable.
James W Loewen is professor emeritus of sociology at Vermont University, and the book I chanced upon while browsing in the Tribeca Barnes and Noble bookshop is the 2007 edition of a volume first published in 1995 entitled ‘Lies My Teacher Told me – Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’.According to the learned professor, he was prompted to write it after realising that most of his freshman students had a pretty negative attitude to the study of history, and that, before he could start teaching his courses, he actually had to un-teach much of what the students (thought they) already knew.
The book, then, grew out of a detailed study Loewen made of textbooks used in United States high school history courses over several decades. In brief, he found that they:
  • are long and crammed with factual detail, often trivial – with the result that students memorise names and dates to pass exams, forget them almost immediately, and feel that the study of history is boring and irrelevant;
  • contain serious omissions, resulting in students gaining a wrong impression of crucial historical events and people, or failing to understand them at all;
  • are deliberately written this way for reasons that have very little to do with helping students to understand their nation’s history.
Let me give you one example from Chapter 1, which deals with the topic of hero-making. Pretty much everyone has heard of Helen Keller – the deaf and blind child who learned, with the help of a dedicated teacher, to read, write and speak, and went on to graduate from college (university). She is a textbook case study, living proof that, no matter the odds, with determination and hard work, a person can, and maybe even should, be successful. Professor Loewen points out, however, that Keller graduated from college in 1904 and passed away in 1968 at the age of 88. He goes on to inform us that she in fact became a radical socialist, at a time when radical socialism was not at all the done thing, as a result of her realisation that blindness and such physical handicaps were not random acts of God, but disproportionately found among the poorer classes of society. Having blotted her copybook with her strongly expressed left wing views, Keller endured criticism and ridicule in her own lifetime – and textbook history writers subsequently chose to erase the three-quarters of her life which didn’t fit the desired stereotype.
Further on, in Chapter 8, Prof. Loewen turns his attention to ‘Big Brother’, and discusses what he calls the ‘sycophancy’of the textbooks’ presentation of Federal Government foreign policy. In another challenging example, the professor claims that, by 1975, the US government had made no fewer than twenty-four attempts to assassinate Cuban premier Fidel Castro. He describes Operation Mongoose, launched by President John F Kennedy, as ‘a vast covert programme to destabilise Cuba’. He goes on to assert that, among other schemes, Kennedy actually authorised hiring a mafia hitman to kill Castro, and had plans ‘to invade Cuba with US armed forces until forestalled by the Cuban missile crisis’. In the light of this information, Loewen suggests, conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination may make more sense, in that a revenge killing is not beyond the realm of possibility. On the other hand, opening that can will inevitably release wormy questions about the extent to which the US government engages in political, economic and military activities to undermine the sovereignty of other nation states whose interests clash with its own. Much better for JFK’s reputation to let students believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was just a looney acting alone, and the guy who shot him, merely a civic-minded Democrat.
Loewen’s final chapter addresses the important question: ‘What is the result of teaching history like this?’ His diagnosis is that, apart from the boredom and meaninglessness affecting most students of high school history courses, the distorted picture of historical events serves also to alienate significant groups within the population as a whole:
  • Native Americans, for whom the ‘Columbus myth’ and subsequent fairy-tale story line serve to demean their traditional cultures, deny their contribution to the success of early European colonisation, and ignore the injustices meted out to them;
  • African Americans, whose history of oppression is slighted by denial that the Civil war was fought over the issue of slavery, distorted by turning a blind eye to post-Reconstruction racist regression, and understated by suggesting that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was a foregone conclusion supported by all right-thinking Americans;
  • Citizens in lower socio-economic groups who are conned by the myths of equal opportunity and the American Dream into blaming themselves for their inability to climb out of their impoverished lives.

In conclusion, I can do no better than end with a quotation that Professor Loewen himself uses to introduce the Afterword to his book:
‘Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.’[1]

Loewen goes a step further, and gives you answers to questions you may never have thought to ask!


[1] Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delacorte, 1969)

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