Ostensibly, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen is a book about factual inaccuracies found in a survey of twelve popular History textbooks. That’s a good hook, but unfortunately once the hook gets you the place it pulls you into is slightly different than what you might expect. This book might more accurately be titled Subtle Biases Created by Questionable Omissions in A Few Textbooks. But that, of course, is not quite as bombastic a title and you probably wouldn’t read the book, would you?
After a brief false start involving how Hellen Keller was a raging Communist, Loewen starts his review of American history in precolonial days, beginning with the atrocities of the Conquistadors and other European explorers. Then it moves on to the atrocities of the White European settlers. Then the atrocities of the early American, White colonists. Then the atrocities of the antebellum slave owners. Then the atrocities of the postbellum racists. Then the atrocities of the opponents of the civil rights movement. You see the pattern here? It holds up for most of the book.
Throughout it all, Loewen does a pretty good job of showing how textbooks often omit information and whitewash (pun intended) the characters of prominent Europeans and Americans, such as Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln. And it is pretty interesting to read how, for example, textbooks describe how the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were “storm battered” and floundered into the shores of the new world full of crews on the brink of mutiny, while Columbus’s own personal journal pretty much says that hey, the weather has been awesome this whole trip and everyone is still in a great mood. Or how Lincoln made several campaign speeches in which he turned his nose at the idea of racial equality.
And Loewen makes good points about how these omissions seem to be systematic done towards the end of downplaying the unpleasant (like, say, the genocide of Native Americans through disease and murder) and emphasizing the heroic (like, say, taming a wilderness that in truth wasn’t that wild because the Indians had already cultivated it but are dead now). At times, his comments are impressively subtle, like when he notes how textbooks often credit President Kennedy and other governmental institutions for coming up with anti-discrimination legislation during the 60s, when the government was, for the most part, bowing to pressure from civil rights activists, who really deserve all the credit. This kind of misinformation, he argues, teaches that Blacks and their White allies were not the ones who enacted these changes can thus not expect to view them as inspirations for future battles. It’s a subtle point, but Loewen makes good arguments that stuff like this is all in the name of making us feel good about our country and unquestioning about our pride in our history. And he’s good about describing how this is doing a disservice to people both as students of history and as eventual participants in our system of government.
BUT, that all being said, I’m not quite sure I’ve ever read anything so awash in liberal White guilt as this book. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with any of this, but the tone of the work is often offsetting and sometimes approaches zealotry. I was really hoping to read more interesting tidbits about stuff that history books get wrong, the kind of stuff that might serve well as idle chit-chat at my next dinner party or bar crawl. But it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that that’s not what this books is about. It’s really just a vehicle for Loewen’s politics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that and not that I found myself disagreeing with his politics too often (well, sometimes). It’s just not the book I expected or even really wanted.