Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen



Five stars, read and reviewed in 2010.

When I was in junior high, I remember studying the Holocaust and being told that the Japanese don’t acknowledge it ever happened. Given that my source probably had no way of knowing such a thing, I’m skeptical of that information now. But even if it were true, the hypocrisy of such an accusation, coming from an American history teacher, is remarkable. I remember being absolutely appalled that a country would do such a thing. How naive I was.

Starting with Columbus’s “discovery” of America (an already-populated continent that had also already been “discovered” by several other explorers before him), our entire history is full of inconsistencies, distortions, and outright falsehoods that are presented as fact. American history classes do not teach history—they teach patriotism.

Our textbooks create heroes where none existed and ignore the real ones. They omit nearly every wrong ever committed by an American, much less the government. They present a myth of history as a straight line of “progress” in which America was always right—events just happened, never as a result of someone’s actions (or at least not an American’s); they imply that no other path was ever possible besides the one we chose, and that since the founding of this country things have been getting better and better—when in fact there is significant evidence that that isn’t true. Textbook authors blatantly espouse the belief that America is the best country in the world, and rewrite our past so that it agrees.

But if we believe that America is a great country, why would we lie about its history? If we can’t acknowledge our past and maintain the belief that our country is great, then it must not be great at all, and we are just pretending to live in a country which does not exist. If, on the other hand, we believe that our country is great in spite of its mistakes, then it is necessary to acknowledge those mistakes—to stop deluding ourselves and lying to our children. We can’t have it both ways; one of these things has to go.

James Loewen is a textbook author and historian who spent eleven years researching U.S. history textbooks, their publishers and authors, the school boards and textbook adoption boards who control them, and the teachers who teach them. For this book he chose twelve textbooks that are representative of the books used throughout the country (one of them was my junior-year U.S. history book, The American Pageant) and studied them thoroughly. “Textbook authors need not concern themselves unduly with what actually happened in history,” he says, “since publishers use patriotism, rather than scholarship, to sell their books. Publishers market the books as tools for helping students to ‘discover’ our ‘common beliefs’ and ‘appreciate our heritage.’ No publisher tries to sell a textbook with the claim that it is more accurate than its competitors” (285).

In fact, accuracy prevents textbooks from being published, since the simple truth is that it is impossible to relate history accurately without offending someone. Each state’s textbook adoption board has regulations that the publishers must adhere to; Texas’s includes one that says textbooks cannot include anything that undermines authority (280). (What an American idea, don’t you think?) Since publishers are business people—and since school boards, teachers, and the public care more about not being offended than they do about truthful history—we have textbooks and history classes that teach little of worth to anyone.

Did you know that two-thirds of seventeen-year-olds can’t place the Civil War within a half-century of when it was fought (300)? (I couldn’t until I was in college.) I didn’t know when the Vietnam War was fought until the last few years, and I didn’t know when the Korean War was fought until I wrote this post.

Did you know that the FBI actively persecuted and tried to sabotage Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement? J. Edgar Hoover—with the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy—bugged MLK’s hotel rooms and tapped his and other civil rights leaders’ phone lines. “A high FBI official sent a tape recording of King having sex, along with an anonymous note suggesting that King kill himself, to the office of King’s organization.” J. Edgar Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country,” and tried to prove that many of the civil rights leaders were communists. For many years during the civil rights movement the FBI (and the government) attacked black and interracial organizations, but none of the twelve textbooks includes any of this information (231).

Did you know that the American government rigged the 1957 election in Lebanon, which led to civil war the next year (in which American troops then had to fight)? That the CIA was involved in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba of Zaire in 1961 and staged a coup to help bring someone else to power; that we helped overthrow the elected governments of Chile (in 1973) and Guatemala (in 1954); that our troops in Nicaragua arranged the presidency and forced the passage of a treaty that benefited us; that we invaded Haiti, disbanded their legislature, and set up a new one ourselves? Probably not—most of the textbooks don’t mention it. Incidentally, when other countries do these things, we call it “state-sponsored terrorism” (221-226).

Did you know that the government has consistently lied to the American people about what we were and were not doing in these and other countries?

  • On the same day that we were landing at the Bay of Pigs to try and overthrow Fidel Castro, the secretary of state said, “The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening in Cuba or intend to do so in the future. The answer is no.” Four American pilots died in that failed invasion (227).
  • President Eisenhower denied that American planes were flying over Soviet airspace, and was caught in his lie when captured airman Gary Powers admitted the truth on Russian television. “Much later, the public learned that Powers had been just the tip of the iceberg; in the 1950s we had some thirty-one flights downed over the USSR, with 170 men aboard. For decades our government lied to the families of the lost men and never made substantial representation to the USSR to get them back, because the flights were illegal and were supposed to be secret” (227-228).
  • The government kept our bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War a secret until years later (228).
  • Woodrow Wilson tried to keep secret the fact that we had troops intervening in civil war in Russia in 1918 (228).
  • “In some ways the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan-Bush administrations, a web of secret legal and illegal acts involving the president, vice-president, cabinet members, special operatives… and government officials in Israel, Iran, Brunei, and elsewhere, shows an executive branch more out of control than Nixon’s” (229).

The general public found out about these things, obviously, but textbooks don’t talk about them. Instead they tout the checks and balances of the governmental system to assure us that our country is really run by the people.

How about Helen Keller—did you know that she was a radical socialist activist (20-22)? That Woodrow Wilson actually opposed women’s suffrage for a long time, until finally giving in to political pressure (23, photo caption)? That John F. Kennedy tried to stop civil rights marches and sent his VP out of the country because the VP was too pro-civil rights (234)? Yet these presidents are given credit for the social changes that their administrations tried to prevent, and Helen Keller—who fought against the inequality of our class system—is sadly, ironically, silenced. Our history hails her for overcoming her physical challenges and learning to speak—and then ignores everything she said.

Did you know that almost everything we were taught about Christopher Columbus’s personal life is either untrue or impossible to verify (39)? That he was personally responsible for the start of the first slave trade across the Atlantic, and that he and his men committed genocide and wiped out entire nations of Native Americans(60-66)?

  • “The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike” (61).
  • Not having found gold yet but needing something to send back to Spain, Columbus began a slave raid on Haiti. Then he set up a tribute system, in which Indians had to pay tribute every three months or have their hands cut off.
  • When the tribute system failed because what it asked was impossible, he set up a system in which he granted entire Indian villages to a colonist or group of colonists. This situation was so horrible that Indians commonly committed suicide and killed their own children so they wouldn’t have to endure it (62-63).

These facts all come from letters written by Columbus and other members of his expedition, but none are mentioned in American history. (Textbooks rarely include primary documents.) “Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith,” President Bush said. “To denigrate Columbus is to denigrate what is worthy in human history and in us all,” said Jeffrey Hart. I sincerely hope that what is worthy in human history is not our ability to violently conquer and enslave peaceful peoples for monetary gain.

American history paints a picture of a few primitive, nomadic Indian tribes who just kept getting in the way, of well-meaning Europeans who tried valiantly to include them in their new culture, but were viciously attacked and had no choice but to fight back. This just isn’t true.

For one thing, although a few groups were indeed violent and did attack settlers—and really, can you blame them?—the vast majority of the violence was perpetrated by settlers against Native Americans, who were themselves helpless against the advanced weaponry of Europe (115-116). Hundreds of thousands of Indians were enslaved in an enormous and far-spread slave trade—but our textbooks don’t talk about this. “Adolf Hitler displayed more knowledge of how we treated Native Americans than American high schoolers who rely on their textbooks. Hitler admired our concentration camps for Indians in the west ‘and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat’ as the model for his extermination of Jews and Gypsies” (126).

It’s true that there were some things to which the Native Americans couldn’t adapt—European illnesses, for instance, which killed off unknown millions of them in devastating plagues. But the tragic inability of Native Americans to merge into European society is a myth.

Frontier life is presented as highly separated—an “us versus them” kind of situation—but this isn’t true. In truth frontier life was incredibly multicultural, with many different Native American tribes, British, French, Mexican, Russian, and other Europeans living together harmoniously. In fact, many Europeans liked Native American culture so much better that they joined it. Europeans had to post guards to keep their men and women from “defecting,” and “the Pilgrims so feared Indianization that they made it a crime for men to wear long hair” (108-109).

“The problem was not Native failure to acculturate. In reality, many European Americans did not really want Indians to acculturate… The Massachusetts legislature in 1789 passed a law prohibiting teaching Native Americans how to read and write ‘under penalty of death.’ The United States claimed to be willing to teach the Indians to farm, but Indians in Ohio [and other states] already were farmers” (129).

Really? Native Americans refused to settle down and become farmers? It seems that we have already forgotten our good friend Squanto, who taught the Europeans how to farm in America. Unless we think he was the only one, our patriotic stories have given us the evidence against themselves. The truth is that in many frontier societies, much like in the south after the Civil War, Native Americans were treated as inferior and didn’t have the same rights as settlers. Even when they lived in European American colonies, their homes and land could be taken by colonists who picked fights with them, and they often could not testify in court against whites (130-132).

As much as I’ve written already, I couldn’t include half of what I found in this book—how race relations are in some ways worse now than they were just after the Civil War (138-199); how gender issues are still not addressed fairly in schools; how the recent past (the last seventy or so years) gets skimmed over because the fact that the people involved aren’t all dead means the issues are much more controversial, and of course we can’t have controversy in our classes (239-253); how the accomplishments of non-whites are consistently downplayed and even ignored (95; 101-103; 267); how America does indeed have a class system, and the fact that we pretend it doesn’t just perpetrates the plight of the lower classes (because if you believe that your country is a meritocracy and yet you can’t seem to catch a break, it must be because of your own failings) (201-213).

Textbooks aren’t the only problem, though; the entire system of teaching history in our country is warped. Textbook content is determined by the market, which means that nothing meaningful gets in there because it could offend someone. This “content-free” approach could be countered by teachers if they taught against their books—but a survey in 1990 (and again in 1999-2000) showed that only 40 percent of history teachers had a degree in history or something related to it, which means that even most teachers probably don’t know how much of their information is wrong (286-287). (Sadly, this explains how all of my history teachers at Wylie High School were basketball coaches, required to teach something besides their sport.)

And when the National Assessment for Educational Progress asked the public to help review the guidelines for teaching social studies, guess what the public replied? That “‘references to specific minority groups should be eliminated whenever possible,’ ‘extreme care’ should be used in wording any reference to the FBI, the president, labor unions, and some other organizations, and ‘exercises which show national heroes in an uncomplimentary fashion though factually accurate are offensive’” (292).

A standard American history education teaches archetypes, not facts. Without even going to school, we “know” that Columbus was a great hero—after all, he is one of only two people who get a day named after them in our calendar. It’s so wrong to me that Columbus is equated in that sense with Martin Luther King, Jr. But even if teachers do include the facts about the thousands of people Columbus killed or enslaved, our collective memory forgets them because they don’t fit with the archetype.

Blind allegiance does not make a person a good American, and history textbooks should be teaching history, not “patriotism”. Students do not feel very patriotic when they grow up and learn that they have been lied to. Minorities do not feel patriotic when their classes teach that America is an ideal society, but their personal lives tell them otherwise. And isn’t the state of our country’s politics evidence enough that people are not being prepared for citizenship by our educational system? If in school we are taught to just accept certain information because that’s how we were always taught it—even if it turns out that information is wrong—then how can we expect to become educated voters and citizens?

If we want to believe that America is truly a great country, then we need to own up to our past like adults. Criticizing your country cannot be considered anti-American, since it is exactly that freedom which distinguishes us. To simply believe what you are taught without question, to teach that authority must be obeyed implicitly, to accept the propaganda that everything the government has done has been for the best, even when it was kept hidden from the people or went strictly against our policies—that is as literally anti-American as it’s possible to be.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
—Maya Angelou


anything by Howard Zinn

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.