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

by James W. Loewen

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Nothing could get me to read another dozen high school history textbooks.



FOR YEARS, as I have spoken around the United States about how we get history wrong, I have promised audiences that they can buy Lies My Teacher Told Me with no fear that it will become obsolete. “There will never be a third edition,” I pledge. The first edition had come out in 1995, based on my intensive reading of twelve high school U.S. history textbooks. For the second edition in 2007, I read only six new books, partly owing to publisher consolidation, but also because reading them is so tedious. “Nothing could get me to read another dozen high school history textbooks,” I tell my audiences. “They are just too boring.” Those statements are serious. Usually I then add, “Took me years of psychotherapy to get over it the last time.” So this new paperback is not a third edition. The only new words in it are in this preface. Lies My Teacher Told Me may have new significance, however, owing to detrimental developments in America’s recent public discourse.

I’m not the only reader who hates to read history textbooks. So do state and local textbook rating committees. Consider this: the 2007 edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me showed that two textbooks, A History of the United States and America: Pathways to the Present, were nearly identical for page after page. A year earlier, I had brought that startling fact to the attention of the New York Times, resulting in a front-page story, “Schoolbooks Are Given F’s in Originality.” But why was I the only person to note the similarity? For more than a year before I got them, rating committees across the nation—statewide in half our states, district-wide in the rest—supposedly had been reading and rating both books. Why didn’t any ofthem notice? Surely because their members—many of whom are themselves busy high school history teachers—couldn’t bear to read these ponderous volumes. Most likely they looked over the books but didn’t actually read them.

Indeed, state and local textbook committees should not select any 1,200-page hardcover book. As the introduction to the second edition points out, there is no pedagogical justification for such huge tomes. Their only reason for being is economic. These textbooks now retail for more than $100 and cost more than $70 even when ordered in quantity by states and school districts. It’s easy to understand why publishers keep on making them. It’s harder to understand why school districts keep buying them.

Surely the desired end product of high school U.S. history courses is graduates who can think clearly, distinguish evidence from opinion, and separate truth from what comedian Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness.” Unfortunately, history textbooks and teachers who teach mainly from them do not help students build these capabilities. Instead, they impart information.

Mislabeled as “CRITICAL THINKING” in the early pages of the teacher’s edition of Paul Boyer’s Holt American Nation is this example: “How many days were in the Tzolkin and the Haab calendars?” For those of you who have somehow forgotten, these are two different Mayan calendars. I cannot imagine why Paul Boyer thinks students need to remember these words, but the teacher’s edition goes on to provide the answers: “Students should indicate that the Tzolkin had 260 days and the Haab had 365 days.”That’s all it says!

Two obvious questions arise, queries that do reflect thinking:

Why would anyone invent a calendar as “wrong” as the Tzolkin?

How did the Mayans invent a calendar as accurate as the Haab? Also, did they invent adjustments, like leap year, for even closer accuracy?

Exploring the first topic might prompt students to relate the Tzolkin calendar to today’s religious calendars—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and so on. Exploring the second might help students realize that non-European people long ago, without telescopes and modern science, nevertheless thought accurately about the world. Absent any such context, learning these twigs (certainly we are not encountering a forest or even a tree here) has nothing to do with developing critical thinking.

Other “critical thinking” exercises in U.S. history textbooks suffer from a second form of pathetic pedagogy: they merely invite unsubstantiated speculation. Consider this “CRITICAL THINKING” item from The Americans: “Why did European explorers believe they could simply claim lands for their homecountries, even though these lands were already populated?” This is indeed a serious question. But I doubt that anyone at McDougal Littell really wants students to buckle down and devote the several days that would be required to begin a serious answer. I doubt that the five putative authors of the book have any idea the publisher even posed it. Teachers who use the question, I suspect, simply invite students to opine off the top of their heads. Critical thinking requires assembling data to back up one’s opinion. Otherwise students may falsely conclude that all opinions are somehow equal. Textbooks pose scores of questions like these. They don’t pose them seriously.

Sometimes the information that textbooks impart is completely correct. Sometimes it is flatly wrong. And sometimes we—the community of scholars—just don’t know for sure. The second and fourth chapters of Lies My Teacher Told Me are filled with examples of that third kind—“facts” of which we cannot (yet) be sure. Did the first people in this hemisphere walk across Beringia? Did a horrific explosion from space decimate the population of North America 13,000 years ago? Did people from Egypt reach the Americas long before Columbus? Instead of teaching such items as facts or omitting them as false, textbooks and teachers should present them as hypotheses. Then students could learn how to marshal evidence on each side, come to a conclusion, but still reserve room for doubt.

Way back in 1974, I led a group of professors and students at Tougaloo College to write a new textbook of Mississippi history, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. Even though we intended it for ninth graders, we believed our job was to encourage students to think, not just “learn.” In an early boxed question, we referred readers to nine maps sprinkled throughout the book, “to try to answer this question: do soil resources attract industry? If not, try to discover what does bring about industrial growth.” We went on to say, “The answer is not easy. Possibly it involves the attitudes of a society, attitudes based on the kind of society it is; the society itself, in turn, was based long ago, in part, on the kind of land lying underneath.” Our hope was to get students thinking about causality in history, a topic mostly absent from U.S. high school textbooks. We also intended to increase students’ map literacy, so they could see how patterns from a shaded map or dot map might relate to a landform map. Again, nothing like this occurs in any high school history textbook. They merely ask students to opine.

An early page of Mississippi: Conflict and Change armed readers with ten “Questions to Ask of Historical Sources.”We pointed out that writers’ ideologies andlocations in social structure usually influence what they write. At the same time, we noted, any author may write the truth, so the reader “must sift through his/her words, separating truth from falsehood. These questions can help:

1. When and where did the author live?

2. For what purpose did s/he write?

What audience did s/he have in mind?

3. What was the author’s social class?

4. What was his/her race? sex? age?

5. What were his/her basic assumptions about black people? about white people? about Indians or others?

6. What was his/her ideology?

7. Does s/he cite facts to support his/her conclusions?

8. Does what s/he says about Mississippi seem to be true from your own experience?

9. How do his/her conclusions compare with those of other authors you have read? Is s/he biased?

10. Is what s/he is talking about relevant to your life and to present-day society?”

Some of the above queries are at least mildly subversive. They suggest readers should not only examine what an author wrote, but also why. Four decades later, U.S. history textbooks still do not provide students with similar tools for critical thinking. Textbooks avoid provocative words like “ideology,” which means one’s understanding of how the social world works.Textbook authors also never invite students to critique their own work. Again, our Mississippi textbook shows this can be done. For example, we noted that only four of our twenty-five mini-biographies were of women. “Has the book therefore been guilty of discrimination against women?” we then asked. Such a question implies that students can think for themselves, which then helps them learn to do so. When students are not asked to assess, but only to remember, they do not learn how to assess or how to think for themselves.


Copyright © Copyright © 1995, 2007 by James W. Loewen. This excerpt originally appeared in Lies My Teaher Told Me, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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