I saw that Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Text Book Got Wrong (2018) by James W. Loewen was available on audiobook from my library, and I decided to give it a try. I took AP U.S. History and AP European History in high school. I did well in those classes, but I didn’t love them. I’ve enjoyed reading in-depth biographies about historical people, but the grand sweep of those high school classes was boring. Fortunately, I took enough history classes in college that this book wasn’t wholly a surprise to me. However, it still changed my perspective.
Loewen’s basic premise is that high school history text books are so focused on minimizing controversy and promoting patriotism that we end up with bad, boring history that minimizes the opposition to and contributions of minorities. In fact, history is the only college class that doesn’t build on what you learned in high school but has to go back and fix what you learned before. For this book, Loewen read twelve different high school history text books, looking at how they were written, and what they chose to focus on..
Loewen has plenty of examples to bolster his theory. He began his book talking about Helen Keller’s radical socialism and Woodrow Wilson’s racism. Both historical characters feature in his example history books, but their arguably more important contributions to history are ignored. Loewen goes on to discuss Christopher Columbus, the myths surrounding him and perpetuated by history books, as well as his true legacy. I’d already learned about how Columbus treated the people he “discovered,” but some of the primary sources were still shocking to hear. Loewen has many other examples, including U.S. anti-democratic intervention in countries around the world.
Loewen also discusses how racism is erased from the history books. Beginning with Columbus’s changing perspective of the people he encountered, the racism deeply entrenched in justifying slavery, and maybe barely, if at all, recognizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II, he has many examples. The problem with this, along with denying a large portion of Americans their story, is that it is difficult to understand the cause and effect of many historical events when you try to explain it without mentioning racism or racist motivations.
Another large portion of this book is dedicated to why our history books are the way they are and how we can change them. It’s a worthwhile discussion although I probably appreciated the historical discussions more. On the whole, I found this book very interesting and enlightening. Loewen has given me a new appreciation for history.
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