I’ve always felt that my background in American history was a little weak, and I felt that a book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me might be a nice, light-hearted starting place in relearning some points of American history. My emphasis when I was a history undergraduate was on Classical and British areas, and I wanted to learn more than I dimly remembered from high school.
Bleeding hell, was I ever wrong. Obviously, I should have done my research beforehand.
To be fair, in one of the three favorable things I will have to say about Lies My Teacher Told Me in this review, I did learn more about some things from this book. Not, certainly, in the way that author James Loewen might have hoped. I’ve struggled in writing this review, too, because I am torn between trying to adequately cite examples of key problems with Loewen’s thesis, and just letting rip with how angry this book made me. That statement, that Lies My Teacher Told Me angered me, does not mean that the book was a success. It makes it a grotesque failure.
First off, let me say I did my undergraduate in history by choice. I didn’t just wander into it. It is a subject that I love and enjoy. There are good books about writing history (Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft springs to mind as a beautifully crafted philosophy of the historian; there are certainly others). Historical writing can have many differing roots: historians can be left-wing, right-wing, conservative, revisionist, or they can even – best of all – be striving for an impartial reconstruction of the real events of the past, based as much as possible in the available empirical evidence. The purpose of learning history, of course, is to give context to human lives and events. Those who do not learn history may not be doomed to repeat it, but they are doomed to a less interesting and meaningful life than they would otherwise have. Without history, the meaning of recent human events is lost, much as it is impossible to understand the world around us without science.
Enter author, sociologist, and textbook basher James Loewen. When I picked up his book, as I mentioned, I was hoping for a nice book that might dispel some of the myths that we all take for granted as being relics of primary school: Washington and the cherry tree, Jefferson’s opening of the West with the Louisiana Purchase, Lincoln’s deep resonant voice, Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalry prowess. In other words, I may perhaps have wanted a rewrite of the Mount Rushmore, postage-stamp history that I knew and remembered.
As it turns out, I think I’m happier with taking postage stamps largely as they stand. Stamps may be a tool of the patriarchy, or whatever the current bitter beef against the “unenlightened past” may say, but they’re elegant and beautiful and look nice in an album. This book, by contrast, is a distorted, bitter mess.
James Loewen is a sociologist: at least, that is what his PhD was in, and that is what he calls himself, when he does not call himself an author or an historian. I’m not sure what you had to do to get a PhD in sociology in the 1960s, maybe they just came as the prize in boxes of Cracker Jack. However, if Loewen represents the state of play by 1970, then the requirements for the degree certainly weren’t scientific, and didn’t involve any sort of historical research that I recognise. Hereinafter, for me, thanks to this book, “sociologist” will be a term of contempt and derision, signifying someone – and we’ve all met the type – who insists on the honorific “doctor” even though they don’t practise medicine. (Usually they have education degrees, but that’s another story.)
Loewen’s view of history appears to be based on three things: (1) he went through old history books and found all of the nasty things that authors used to say, (2) his experiences teaching in the 1960s and 70s, and (3) his experience in trying to publish a textbook.
Long ago, my high school chemistry teacher used to tell us “there are big lies and small lies.” He would then offer us a concept with the words: “Here’s a small lie.” And what he was saying, of course, was that there were concepts which we weren’t ready for, so we had to learn approximations before we learned the reality: electrons, for example, do not orbit a nucleus in an atom, but a chemistry student must understand the atom in a mechanical way in order to grasp certain key concepts, before moving on and learning more.. In reality, the movement of electrons is far, far more complex. The concepts, though, build one on the other, like a beautiful structure assembled in LEGO.
History, similarly, has a learning curve. You must learn the framework before learning history, otherwise, it makes no sense. That’s why, for example, people who don’t learn the DAMNED DATES don’t understand the order in which things happened, and therefore don’t understand history. A lack of that basic framework explains why a young lady of my acquaintance once demonstrated that she could not put these events in the correct order: World War II, Vietnam, the events of the Bible, World War I, and dinosaurs. And she really couldn’t, despite having a degree (albeit in graphic design) from an American university. True story. And a catastrophic failure of education.
Sociology, on the other hand, seems to proceed in the reverse from models in learning science and history. It builds itself from the top down, taking the smallest view possible, concerning itself more with how individual people felt at specific moments, rather than trying to build up a coherent picture of how events, in the main, actually happened. Although it is defined as a science, and a glance at the history of sociology will show that practicing sociologists would like it very much to be taken as a science, it does not appear to be susceptible to any scientific method that a physicist, geologist, or biologist would recognize. The scientific method dictates that one should (1) gather evidence, (2) form a hypothesis from that evidence, (3) test the hypothesis, and, finally, if 1 – 3 have gone well, (4) form a theory. By contrast, sociology seems to progress in this way: make an absurd generalization based on wishfulness, gather a handful of dissociated and poorly documented facts and claim that they support your generalization, and, finally, call anyone who doesn’t agree with you an unreconstructed racist.
Unfortunately, Loewen doesn’t seem to understand the writing of history, even if he might have some experience with the problems in textbook publishing. He also doesn’t appear to understand how to structure his case against textbooks and the teaching of history. For a start, he is fond of making assertions in his text without citing sources properly. Indeed, my most common notation in this book was “Citation? Source?” after any number of instances in Loewen’s book: so many that I lost count. Of course, there wasn’t going to be a citation, or a source, in 95 out of 100 cases, because the author was just saying whatever fit his pet notions about history.
Further, running his footnotes to ground often reveals them to be either partial, incomplete, or useless for further research. Those which do play out are often still misleading, or based on books and journals which were dated excessively even when the book was first published. Loewen is fond of citing secondary sources for what should be easily locatable primary quotations. He quotes authors found in other authors, as it were (he’s also fond of quoting and citing himself, even when it doesn’t seem strictly necessary). Now this can be fine, but another thing that you learn about history, like you learn about creationists writing about science, is that context is everything.
The sad thing, after four hundred plus pages, is this: Loewen is right about some things. However, he’s right for entirely the wrong reasons. Some older books of history are shockingly racist, sexist, or whatever other “-ist” you care to name. That is because, quite simply, they are a product of their times. It does not, however distasteful certain references may be, completely invalidate every book not written up to the – at the time unforeseeable – modern standard. Loewen appears to expect that all authors at all times should have reached his own “elevated” level of broad-mindedness and warm fellowship for humanity in all its stripes, despite such an expectation and standard not having existed until roughly 1980 (and, arguably, in some parts of America, not even today). By holding such an expectation, he clearly misses the point of history, and the point that times change, and are changing still.. as I believe one of his precious hippie folk song writers may already have pointed out.
Loewen also appears to be correct about how poorly some textbooks are written. It is very likely, in fact, that they are not written by the named historians from the cover of the book, but rather produced by a shadowy group of editors and general-interest writers; products of the publishers’ production mills. Publishers are bound by their status as public companies to make profits, however, so they produce what they are most likely going to be able to sell, and they do it as cheaply as possible. That fact, though, doesn’t make it a grand conspiracy, then, and it doesn’t make it a “lie” that your teacher has told you. Rather, it makes the fact a symptom of a very ugly word indeed, capitalism, of a system wherein shareholders whose only interest is profit ultimately drive editorial decisions made for reasons of cost. It is a systemic fault, and one which could best be remedied by wresting control of education from local boards and establishing a national curriculum, with supporting national texts and local supplemental materials as needed.
Anyone involved in education, even as a consumer (or “parent,” or “student,” as I believe they used to be called), knows that there are good teachers, bad teachers, and indifferent teachers. The good ones are sought by parents and students alike, and are generally a pleasure, not only because they are good, but because they engage their students in a positive and engrossing manner. The bad ones are protested, suffered, perhaps parents even attempt to take their children out of the bad teacher’s class. Indifferent teachers, like the football coach who teaches history, may in fact do the least damage, as they are unlikely to stray beyond their remit, and they will teach to the textbook, whether it be good or bad.
What we should be calling for are teachers who are more engaged in their subjects, who are paid appropriately to be subject matter experts, or if not experts, at least well versed in their disciplines. But we should not be calling them liars, as for 98% of them (a Loewen-esque number chosen at random), that is a gross disservice.
And what of history? History should be, at its best, an effort to get at the closest, most unvarnished version of events in the past as they really happened. This means, however, that a certain amount of compartmentalisation is inevitable: to write a history of everything that ever happened to everyone would take, well, forever, so that’s neither useful nor practical. But in the big history, the sort of tale that textbooks are supposed to tell, there should be more effort to bring in all of the threads, from all of the stories, and not just the straight nation-state-date approach.
Avoid Lies My Teacher Told Me. Seriously. Avoid it like it was a hot brick that some fool just asked you to hold in your hands while they went off and had a bit of a lie down. The fact that this ever won an American Book Award (in 1996) should not in any way be taken in mitigation of its awfulness; indeed, it tells me that it’s an award which is less award, more pat on the back from like-minded comrades. If you want to do something about education, then try supporting good teachers, voting for taxes that fund schools, and keeping galumphing idiots, no matter their political stripe, off of school boards. That won’t fix everything, no. But it would be a start.
Originally reviewed 28 December 2012.
Still want to read this? Want to see the horror for yourself? Don’t say you weren’t warned. Lies My Teacher Told Me, at AbeBooks.com. Good luck.