Title: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong
Author: James W. Loewen
Library of Congress Catalog Number: E175.85L64
Lies My Teacher Told Me considers what's missing from American high school history textbooks and why. I have some comments on the author's work. And some notes for further reading, from his sources. Mr. Loewen's website also has some good pointers, including this one to History Matters at George Mason.
Chapter 2, "1493," considers the impact of Europe and the Americas on each other.
Astoundingly, no one textbook I surveyed describes these geopolitical implications of Columbus's encounter with the Americas. Three of the twelve books credit Indians with having developed important crops. Otherwise, the west-to-east flow of ideas and wealth goes unnoticed. Eurocentrism blinds textbook authors to contributions to Europe, whether from Arab astronomers, African navigators, or American Indian social structure. By accepting this limited viewpoint, our history textbooks nefver invite us to think about what happened to reduce mainland Indian societies, whose wealth and cities awed the Spanish, to the impoverished peasantry they are today. They also rob us of the chance to appreciate how important America has been in the formation of the modern world.
This theft impoverishes us, keeps us ignorant of what has caused the world to develop as it has. [p. 69]
This important concluding point is obscured by appeals to self-esteem in the concluding paragraph of the chapter.
When history textbooks leave out the Arawaks, then offend Native Americans. When they omit the possibility of African and Phoenician precursors to Columbus, they offend African Americans. When they glamorize explorers such as De Soto just because they were white, our histories offend all people of color. When they leave out Las Casas, they omit an interesting idealist with whom we might all identify. When they glorify Columbus, our textbooks prod us toward identifying with the oppressor. When textbook authors omit the causes and process of European world domination, they offer us a history whose purpose must be to keep us unaware of the important questions. Perhaps worst of all, when textbooks paint a simplistic portraits of a pious, heroic Columbus, they provide feel-good history that bores everyone. [p. 74]
What is, after all, the point of studying history? It matters not if we are offended, nor if we identify with someone. Only understanding cause and effect matters. The paragraph, edited, is much shorter.
When history textbooks leave out the Arawaks,
then offend Native Americans.[w]hen they omit the possibility of African and Phoenician precursors to Columbus, they offend African Americans.[w]hen they glamorize explorers such as De Soto just because they were white, our histories offend all people of color.[w]hen they leave out Las Casas, they omit an interesting idealist with whom we might all identify.[w]hen they glorify Columbus, our textbooks prod us toward identifying with the oppressor.[w]hen textbook authors omit the causes and process of European world domination, they offer us a history whose purpose must be to keep us unaware of the important questions. Perhaps worst of all, when textbooks paint a simplistic portraits of a pious, heroic Columbus, they provide feel-good history that bores everyone.
What would it be but feel-good history if the text were inclusive because it might offend somebody?
In Chapter 3, "The Truth About the First Thanksgiving," Mr. Loewen again focuses on the good that comes from inclusion, though he closes with the stronger argument that historical truth is good in itself. Arguing that one must include because of any other reason reduces the discussion to the question of "how should we indoctrinate our children?"
The opening quote from Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975, p. 15) interested me. For some reason it reminded me of Robert A. Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky.
European explorers and invaders discovered an inhabited land. Had it been pristine wilderness then, it would possibly be so still, for neither the technology nor the social organization of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries had the capacity to maintain, of its own resources, outpost colonies thousands of miles from home.
Chapter 7, "The Land of Opportunity," considers avoiding any discussion of social stratification. This is, after all, the land of the archetypal self-made man.
As part of the process of heroification, textbook authors treat America itself as a hero, indeed as the hero of their books, so they remove its warts. Even to report the facts of income and wealth distribution might seem critical of America the hero, for it is difficult to come up with a theory of social justice that can explain why 1 percent of the population controls almost 40 percent of the wealth. Could that other 99 percent be that lazy or otherwise undeserving? [p. 212]Why is it necessary to have a theory of social justice to explain this? Isn't economics satisfactory? To apply social justice theory to the distribution of wealth would be an exercise in rationalization, rather than an explanation of how things came to be. After all, high school students are too stupid to understand Pareto distributions.
Chapter 8, "Watching Big Brother," seems especially pertinent now.
[T]extbook authors portray a heroic state, and, like their other heroes, this one is pretty much without blemishes. Such an approach converts textbooks into anticitizenship manuals — handbooks for acquiescence. [p. 216]Our hero, the Federal government, does everything good, does nothing bad, and only for the best of all possible motives. We intervene in other countries because it's our responsibility as the World's big brother. Odd then, that General Smedley D. Butler (USMC), from a New York Times interview August 21, 1931, said
I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. ... I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. [p. 220]
I'd like to compare Ruth Leger Sivard's World Military and Social Expenditures, 1985 (Washington, D.C.: World Priorities, 1985) with more current data.
Americans are often seen as having a short memory, hardly unable to recall events of ten years ago. Yet when it comes to discussing events where the actors are still alive, or recently dead, we're suffering from short-term memory loss. In Chapter 9, "Down the Memory Hole," Mr. Loewen compares the treatment of recent events with that of the further past, and how perceptions change as the past becomes more remote. F'rinstance, I wasn't aware that the Imperial Presidency began with Woodrow Wilson. On Woodrow Wilson's advocacy of executive supremacy, he cites Congressional Government quoted in Garry Wills, "The Presbyterian Nietzsche," New York Review of Books, January 16, 1992, 4. N. Gordon Levin, Jr., Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968) Arthur S. Link in J. J. Huthmacher and W. I. Susman, eds., Wilson's Diplomacy: An International Syposium (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1973), 9.
Knowing these things about Wilson helps not only to understand America today, but also his character in Harry Turtledove's The Great War: American Front.