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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong [Format Kindle]

James W. Loewen

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Chapter 1

Handicapped by History

The Process of Hero-making

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors.

James Baldwin

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner.., and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.

W. E. B. Du Bois

By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves....We fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise.

Charles V. Willies

This Chapter is About Heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.

Many American history textbooks are studded with biographical vignettes of the very famous (Land of Promise devotes a box to each president) and the famous (The Challenge of Freedom provides "Did You Know?" boxes about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States, and Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, among many others). In themselves, vignettes are not a bad idea. They instruct by human example. They show diverse ways that people can make a difference. They allow textbooks to give space to characters such as Blackwell and Hansberry, who relieve what would otherwise be a monolithic parade of white male political leaders. Biographical vignettes also provoke reflection as to our purpose in teaching history: Is Chester A. Arthur more deserving of space than, say, Frank Lloyd Wright? Who influences us more today -- Wright, who invented the carport and transformed domestic architectural spaces, or Arthur, who, urn, signed the first Civil Service Act? Whose rise to prominence provides more drama -- Blackwell's or George Bush's (the latter born with a silver Senate seat in his mouth)? The choices are debatable, but surely textbooks should include some people based not only on what they achieved but also on the distance they traversed to achieve it.

We could go on to third- and fourth-guess the list of heroes in textbook pantheons. My concern here, however, is not who gets chosen, but rather what happens to the heroes when they are introduced into our history textbooks and our classrooms. Two twentieth-century Americans provide case studies of heroification: Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. Wilson was unarguably an important president, and he receives extensive textbook coverage. Keller, on the other hand, was a "little person" who pushed through no legislation, changed the course of no scientific discipline, declared no war. Only one of the twelve history textbooks I surveyed includes her photograph. But teachers love to talk about Keller and often show audiovisual materials or recommend biographies that present her life as exemplary. All this attention ensures that students retain something about both of these historical figures, but they may be no better off for it. Heroification so distorts the lives of Keller and Wilson (and many others) that we cannot think straight about them.

Teachers have held up Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren. Every fifth-grader knows the scene in which Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen's hand at the pump. At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on Keller's life. Each yields its version of the same clichE. A McGraw-Hill educational film concludes: "The gift of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make us is to help another reach true potential."

To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn from it. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history. The result is that we really don't know much about her.

Over the past ten years, I have asked dozens of college students who Helen Keller was and what she did. They all know that she was a blind and deaf girl. Most of them know that she was befriended by a teacher, Anne Sullivan, and learned to read and write and even to speak. Some students can recall rather minute details of Keller's early life: that she lived in Alabama, that she was unruly and without manners before Sullivan came along, and so forth. A few know that Keller graduated from college. But about what happened next, about the whole of her adult life, they are ignorant. A few students venture that Keller became a "public figure" or a "humanitarian," perhaps on behalf of the blind or deaf. "She wrote, didn't she?" or "she spoke" -- conjectures without content. Keller, who was born in 1880, graduated from Radcliffe in 1904 and died in 1968. To ignore the sixty-four years of her adult life or to encapsulate them with the single word humanitarian is to lie by omission.

The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist. She joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1909. She had become a social radical even before she graduated from Radcliffe, and not, she emphasized, because of any teachings available there. After the Russian Revolution, she sang the praises of the new communist nation: "In the East a new star is risen! With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new, and behold in the East a man-child is born! Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the coming dawn!" Keller hung a red flag over the desk in her study. Gradually she moved to the left of the Socialist party and became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson.

Keller's commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people's opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller's research was not just book-learning: "I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it."

At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity -- this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller's "mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development."

Keller recalled having met this editor: "At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him." She went on, "Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent."

Keller, who devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, never wavered in her belief that our society needed radical change. Having herself fought so hard to speak, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union to fight for the free speech of others. She sent $100 to the NAACP with a letter of support that appeared in its magazine The Crisis -- a radical act for a white person from Alabama in the 1920s. She supported Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, in each of his campaigns for the presidency. She composed essays on the women's movement, on politics, on economics. Near the end of her life, she wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, leader of the American Communist party, who was then languishing in jail, a victim of the McCarthy era: "Loving birthday greetings, dear Elizabeth Flynn! May the sense of serving mankind bring strength and peace into your brave heart!"

One may not agree with Helen Keller's positions. Her praise of the USSR now seems naïve, embarrassing, to some even treasonous. But she was a radical -- a fact few Americans know, because our schooling and our mass media left it out.

What we did not learn about Woodrow Wilson is even more remarkable. When I ask my college students to tell me what they recall about President Wilson, they respond with enthusiasm. They say that Wilson led our country reluctantly into World War I and after the war led the struggle nationally and internationally to establish the League of Nations. They associate Wilson with progressive causes like wom...

Revue de presse

"Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book. It is both a refreshing antidote to what has passed for history in our educational system and a one-volume education in itself." -- Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

"An extremely convincing plea for truth in education." -- Mary Mackey, San Francisco Chronicle

"Remarkable." -- USA Today

"A lively critique." -- The New York Times

"Powerful and important...deserves to become an instant classic." -- The Washington Post Book World

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2.348 internautes sur 2.495 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A Must Read for any Student of American History 6 août 2001
Par Un client - Publié sur
As a conservative white male who views revisionist history quite skeptically, I did not expect much from this book. As a student of American history, I understood what a woeful job our textbooks and (unfortunately) our teachers do in teaching the actual history of this country, but I never expected both the depth and the level of scholarship Mr. Loewen presents in this book. It is well researched, well written and much needed. Having grown up near an Indian reservation, my own personal studies in original sources confirm how accurate Mr. Loewen really is. The book is hardly "political correctness" run amuck as suggested by one review. And his point is not to paint America as evil or bash Christian Europeans as two other reviews would lead us to believe. This type of simple minded attack does not tell us anything about the book, but rather betrays the reviewers' own entrenched viewpoints - viewpoints that certainly will not be changed by exposure to the truth. In fact, the criticisms make Mr. Loewen's point almost better than he can as to why history is taught in feel-good myths rather than truth. Yes, Mr. Loewen treats certain issues and not others. He tells us he is doing so several times throughout the book, and makes apologies for it. This is not intended to be a replacement for a full history of the United States. Mr. Loewen makes good and valid suggestions as to such replacements. It is not even intended to be a complete coverage of all the things our history texts get wrong. He would need several more volumes for that, and even then would get some of it wrong. For those who actually read the book (and many reviewers obviously did not), he admits all of this. Mr. Loewen's book is an important start. But it is only a start. One reviewer, in criticising the book, stated that we must learn from our past. But this is exactly the point of the book. We must and can learn from our past, but only if we have the objectivity and moral courage to accept what that past was. As a white Christian Anglo-Saxon male, I feel no need to beat myself up as a result of the deeds done by white Christian Anglo-Saxon males who are long dead. But I do feel the need to move forward with as good an understanding as I can have of the cultural and personal histories that cause people to act as they do - especially those whose backgrounds are so different from my own.
702 internautes sur 744 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Why kids hate history (but shouldn't have to) 5 mai 2009
Par History Man - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
This is a real eye-opener to anyone who thinks they learned about U.S. history in high school. Loewen spent eleven years reviewing the 12 most commonly-used U.S. history textbooks and found all to be seriously wanting. Textbook publishers want to avoid controversy (so, apparently, do many school systems), so they feed students a white-washed, non-controversial, over-simplified version of this country's history and its most important historical figures.

To make his point, Loewen emphasizes the "dark side" of U.S. history, because that's the part that's missing from our education system. So, for example, we never learned that Woodrow Wilson ran one of the most racist administrations in history and helped to set back progress in race relations that had begun after the Civil War. Helen Keller's socialist leanings and political views are omitted and we only learn that she overcame blindness and deafness. John Brown is portrayed as a wild-eyed nut who ran amok until he was caught and hanged, rather than an eloquent and dedicated abolitionist who uttered many of the same words and thoughts that Lincoln later expressed.

Loewen's book vividly illustrates the maxim that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Ignorance of our real history also renders us incapable of fully understanding the present and coming to grips with the issues of our time. For example, from the Civil War until around 1890, real racial progress was underway in the United States and civil rights laws were Federally enforced in the South. The military was integrated and former slaves had the right to vote, serve on juries and as witnesses in trials, own property and operate businesses. They also received mandatory public education, which was automatically extended to white children for the first time in the south. But, between 1890 and 1920, the Feds gradually disengaged and allowed southern racist governments to strip these rights from blacks and relegate them to virtual non-citizenship. Only within the last half-century has that policy been gradually reversed, again through Federal intervention. This history casts current racial attitudes and issues in a different light than most of our high school graduates are likely to see unless they are taught the complete history of their country, warts and all.

Despite some of the reviews posted here, it is clear to me that Loewen is NOT out to bash the United States or offer up an equally one-dimensional, negative version of its history. He gives a balanced account of many of the figures whose weaknesses he exposes. Thus, we learn that, although Columbus was an unimaginative fortune hunter, a racist tyrant and slave trader, he (and Spain) were not much different than most people at the time. He points out that all societies, including Native Americans and Africans, kept slaves, for example (the very antithesis of "revisionist" or "post modern" approaches) and that it is unfair to single out Columbus as singularly evil.

The problem is that our kids never learn both sides of these stories, so history becomes a bland repetition of non-confrontational "events" that appear to have had no or vague causes. Historical events are not related to issues that people disputed or serious conflicts that placed them at irreversable odds with one another, the very stuff that drives history. No wonder kids are bored and uninterested. They are left with the distorted impression that, down deep, the United States always means well (rather than acting in its own best interests, like any other country) and, in the end, is always "right." With that view of our history, these students become putty in the hands of politicians who appeal to that dumbed-down, distorted view.

Loewen has presented fair accounts of key events in our history and indicated why our high school graduates know and care so little about it. He also suggests ways to correct this serioius shortcoming and every American ought to applaud that.
344 internautes sur 374 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Honest History Does NOT Diminish America in Any Way 15 janvier 2003
Par Maginot - Publié sur
In this superb book, James Loewen argues what most Americans have understood since childhood, namely that our American History textbooks, are, boring, theme-driven, inaccurate and largely ineffective at imparting the richness of their subject. While the book�s title and argument may seem like a leftist gerrymander, they are not. Loewen, a professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont (who spent several years analyzing ten high school American History textbooks totaling more than 8,000 pages), is not out to reverse the traditional cast of heroes and villains in American history. Instead, Loewen advocates an honest and inclusive history that simply reveals events as they actually happened. While this may expose some dark truths about �heroic� people and events in American history, and may cast historical �villains� in a new light, Loewen does not believe it will cause students to despise their country. On the contrary, he argues that revealing conflicts and problems that our text books ignore or conceal will make American history come alive and will almost certainly enhance students� appreciation for their country. Ironically, while many textbook editors and teachers fear that altering their inaccurate and theme-driven content will cause students to despise their country, they miss the fact that this is precisely what the specious, vapid nature of the textbooks already accomplishes. Some of Loewen�s interesting observations are contained below:
Columbus was almost certainly not the first European to discover or colonize North America. He tortured and mutilated the native population of Haiti and eventually exterminated it by working the inhabitants to death searching for gold. All of these facts are available in the journals of Columbus and his colleagues.
Prior to the arrival of white settlers, North America was thickly settled with tens of millions of Indian tribes that formed a complex civilization consisting of advanced agricultural techniques (guess where white settlers learned it from), trade, roads, villages, and government. The white settlers wiped out most of these people at first inadvertently by spreading disease, and then deliberately through wars of extermination. History text books often present Indians as sparse, primitive, violent (it was actually white people who scalped Indians), and inevitable victims of progress.
For more than one hundred years, history textbooks have characterized post-Civil War Reconstruction as a combination of white corruption and black ineptitude. Few mention that the ultimate cause of Reconstruction�s failure was the terrorism that some white southerners perpetrated against black people and white�s who favored reconstruction. Many of the so called carpetbaggers and scallywags were in fact anti racists who attempted to help rebuild the south along egalitarian lines. And when given even minimal opportunities (most of which were subsequently dismantled by the government), blacks were able to build successful businesses and to win the Kentucky Derby a few times.
High school textbooks never admit that America even has social classes. They treat labor problems as something that happened a long time ago and which the government fixed of its own good will.
The textbooks also present the United States as the vanguard of social progress while failing to admit that many of the social issues we still strive for such as equality between men and women have already been accomplished by other nations or people in history.
According to American history text books, the government spontaneously decided to give civil rights to blacks and other oppressed minorities, but this decision did not result from a populist struggle that was initially met with state sponsored violence and brutality.
Similarly U.S. history textbooks argued that the Vietnam War sort of happened and sort of ended. They don�t examine why the U.S. got involved in the war and why it stopped fighting. They also overlook the brutality of the war that was waged largely against civilians on whom the United States dropped three times as much bomb tonnage as all theatres of World War II combined including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Loewen�s book is his examination of why high school history books are permeated with boredom and lies. Surprisingly, Loewen does not blame this phenomenon on the power elite that ultimately controls the publication of these books. Instead, Loewen concludes that a number of damaging, but less insidious processes are at work. For example, since many history teachers don�t really know their subject, they are afraid to challenge or teach outside of the textbooks, which become a source of pedagogical authority. Even qualified and highly motivated teachers are often afraid to deviate from the textbook because they believe that failing to paint a rosy picture of America will somehow hurt students. Finally, there is the textbook publishing industry that is understandably motivated to sell books more than it is to tell the truth.
Loewen correctly concludes that when you unmask many of the lies in U.S. History text books, America does not suddenly become odious, and while people like Columbus may become more controversial, they are not transformed into villains. Instead American history is full of conflict that displays the richness and fascination of its history. Concealing and distorting this conflict is sort of like telling a child that his/her parents are perfect. The child will not only get bored with these themes but will quickly learn that they are false. If the child learns that his/her parents made mistakes, then far from hating them, the child will probably appreciate their humanity and learn more from them. History is the same way.
139 internautes sur 154 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 An important book to read, but... 22 juin 2010
Par lilygirl - Publié sur
This is one of the books that changed the way I look at history and modern current events. So much of what I thought I knew about American History was overturned or cast in a new light, and some aspects of modern life make a lot more sense now. At times it can feel like you're getting beaten over the head with negativity, but if you can get past that you'll gain some valuable knowledge and insight. It's well worth the read.

Loewen makes a very good point that we shouldn't unthinkingly accept what textbooks teach us, but we shouldn't unthinkingly accept what Loewen teaches us either. He's not immune from his own historical misrepresentations and simplifications in service of making his point. I'm a liberal and his digs at Bush Sr. were tiresome even to me. The whole truth isn't here--the whole truth is best learned from multiple books, sources, and viewpoints. But, please don't let the above criticism stop you from reading. This book gives a great starting-off place for finding out more of the whole truth about American History.
85 internautes sur 97 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A noble attempt, but just more bias from a postmodern angle 27 décembre 2001
Par Un client - Publié sur
As a historian, I found Lies My Teacher told me an informative and fascinating book. However, I do have problems with a number of things. On the one hand, it is comendable of Loewen that he brings to light many of the actual situations and circumstances of American history. Teaching the beauty and the horror of American history is a necessity. However, my problems with the book are more with Loewen's objectivity and research methodology. Loewen is pushing for a more objective, truthful teaching of American History, yet it seems very difficult for him to remain objective in the the presentation of the facts. He uses polemical and inflamatory remarks as in stating that George Bush was born with a silver senate seat in his mouth. Or the use of the word persecute in regards to Wilson's relationship with the IWW. A person who is pushing for a more truthful, objective teaching of history should work a bit harder to not let his own left leaning bias enter his work.
Another problem is with his research methodology. He commits a fairly large blunder in the very begining of the book in stating that many of the early settlers of New Mexico were Jews from Spain trying to escape the inquisition. Unfortunately the historical facts regarding Jews hiding from the inquisition in New Mexico have turned out to by largely myth and hoax. Yet Loewen presents it as fact.
Along with this and a number of other places, Loewen cites magazine interviews and articles among other more respectable citations as the basis for historical fact. My contention is that if you are going to make a historical assertion in a book about history, you need to back it up with more than a magazine article. An example of this is the statement that the Reagan/Bush administration attempted to reprise the racial policies of the Wilson administration. This is an extremely provocative assertion and the work Loewen cites to back this up is an interview in Modern Maturity magazine with Studs Terkel. So in reality there is no historical basis for the statement. It is simply Loewen's opinion.
As much as I liked the book and many of the sources Loewen cites for the basis of the book, I am disappointed with Loewen's inability to remain objective in preventing his own bias from influencing the facts he is presenting. The list of works cited in creating the book read as a who's who of historians and authors who basically hold to the same social and political agenda as Mr. Loewen. There is a desperate need to dismantle the heroic mythology of American history and present reality and fact. However, the sad irony is that in attempting to dismatle the heroic/traditionalist bias of much of American history, Loewen commits the same errores in bias, but from the opposite end of the political arena.
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