Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Lies My Teacher Told Me - Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong - Hardcover - 1995.jpg

Hardcover - USA - 1st edition.

Author James Loewen
Published 1995-??-??
Type Non-fiction
Genre Educational
Themes History, Skepticism
Age Group Adult

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong is a non-fiction book by James Loewen first published in 1995. The book critically examines 12 American history textbooks frequently used in schools and demonstrates how they don't just get a lot of facts wrong, but leave out important details to pacify dissenters, heap only praise on historical figures to the point of deification, and fail to teach history effectively by turning the subject into memorizing facts rather than using the historical method to weigh evidence.

The success of the book led to a second edition in 2007 which includes six more history textbooks, many subsequent printings, as well as a "Young Readers Edition" and a "Graphic Adaptation." While Loewen isn't partisan in the book, many of the events left out of textbooks are absent at the behest of ultra-Conservatives who view the truth as a personal attack against them. In response to the book, many conspiracy theorists and racists, who don't appreciate their deeply held beliefs being challenged by something as petty as evidence, have written books with titles clearly meant to appropriate the original. For example, there is a Confederacy apologist book with exact same title and a antivaxxer book with a similar title.

Personal

Own?No.
Read?Second edition audiobook read by L. J. Ganser.
Finished2024-02-29.

Ever since I first started learning how a lot of the things I was taught by adults was wrong, I've enjoyed revisiting all the knowledge from my youth to see if it passes muster. As such, I was drawn to this book right away from its title. I listened to the audiobook of the 2nd edition and was shocked and angered at how poorly US history is taught in schools, but also impressed that Loewen took the time to review and expose them.

Review

Overall:

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Good

  • Having a scholar give a frank description of American history without sanitizing it "for the children" or adding jingoism to make white Americans look superior, is both informative and eye-opening.
  • Each chapter presents not just what the history books get wrong, but, more importantly, includes the important events they leave out and explains why the events are left out (sometimes even using the publisher's own reasons).
  • Loewen criticizes the approach history books take to teaching history — having students memorize a list of facts — saying it is neither informative nor effective, and points to other methods which help students appreciate and retain information better.
  • Loewen points out, while actual history happened in a specific way and we can come to a consensus, we don't have access to objective evidence. Because of this, it is wrong for history books to suggest that there is one true version of history. Instead, history should be taught with multiple conflicting views where the evidence for each of those views should be critically examined and weighed.
  • Some of the more brutal facts Loewen addresses include:
    • European colonizers, including Christopher Columbus, enslaved the natives in droves. Many natives were kept as slaves at the European settlements and forced to collect gold (which prevented them from providing for their own families) and, if they didn't work hard enough, were punished by having parts of the body's chopped off. Various accounts also describe how European leaders would rape native women and sell them and their daughters (one account says girls aged 9 and 10) into sex slavery, and, because of this, pregnant natives would abort their fetuses, mothers would kill their own children, and women would commit suicide to prevent being raped. Reading the matter-of-fact accounts of this nature from the personal logs of European colonizers was particularly shocking.
    • Because Europeans brought myriad diseases of which the natives had no immunity, perhaps the most devastating pandemic in history occurred in the Americas. While the bubonic plague in Europe killed around 30% of the population, some estimates for the American death rate (which combined smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, influenza, and more all at the same time) are as high as 90%! This great dying meant massive swathes of already developed land were left available for colonizers to take over with little effort. Many Europeans, including the Pilgrims, wrote about how the plagues were proof their god was deliberately wiping out the evil savages for their personal benefit. The fact that most history books don't even mention the plagues, let alone what the Europeans thought of them, boils my blood, and learning that Europeans continued to decimate indigenous people as recently as the 1990s was also very shocking.
    • The chapter on slavery delves deep into the atrocities committed by American slave owners including constant severe beatings, frequent murders, constant raping, kidnapping of freed blacks in the North who were sold into the Deep South, and how the federal government worked to further-ingrain slavery into non-slave states.
    • Numerous examples are given about how history books perpetuate racist lies about post-slavery America, and nearly all of the books gloss over the nadir of race relations in the USA showing it, incorrectly, as a time of gradual progress rather than a concerted effort of many white Americans to keep black people subservient and inferior.
    • Many American "heroes" have skeletons in their closets that are completely left out of the text. For example, the books will spend a lot of time talking about how Woodrow Wilson helped win World War I, but they won't even hint at the fact that he was an open white supremacist who worked to remove all black people from the government. This deification of historical figures prevents us from seeing them as real people.
    • The USA used its military and espionage agencies to invade several nations, particularly throughout Central and South America and later in the Middle East, to depose democratically elected politicians and replace them with loyal dictators in order to help US companies control the regions. This was almost always done to support American corporations, though politicians used the political bogyman of the time (communism, Islam, etc.) to cover up their true motives. He points out that those nations who allowed the Soviet military to enter their borders were not doing so because they loved communism and wanted the USSR as their leader, but because they feared the USA would invade them like they did so many other nations before.
    • Various sources said all levels of the military knew US soldiers routinely tortured, raped, and murdered Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War, and often chose to cover them up rather than punish soldiers as to not make the war look even worse than it was.
  • The author points out that many of the authors listed on the cover of popular textbooks are not the actual authors.
    • In some cases, they wrote most of the first editions, but subsequent publishings edited their text so much little remains.
    • Some never played more than an editorial role.
    • Some never wrote a single word, and their names were just licensed for the cover!
  • He points out that several books he reviewed contained many paragraphs of identical text indicating that they were all written by a single author whose text was copy-pasted to the other books.

Bad

  • There is little not to like about this book. My only quibbles are minor:
    • Some of the topics are brought up too frequently. I assume the idea is to hammer them home, but they are often striking enough to not need it.
    • The main title suggests the book will cover a variety of subjects, but the book is only about US history. At least the subtitle more accurately describes the content of the book.

Ugly

  • Nothing.

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