In 1995, sociologist James Loewen released Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong as a critique on the inaccuracies that litter the textbooks that teach millions of Americans. He took twelve of the most popular American history textbooks in circulation at the time, and reviewed them for bias and errors. In every era of American history, Loewen argues that Textbooks present an ethnocentric view of history, and that historical figures have been heroified to one dimensional characters and that many of the United States’ most horrific and horrible acts have been glossed over or seemingly justified by the publishers. Loewen uses examples ranging from George Washington to the Vietnam War to show a consistent pattern of misinformation in our educational literature.
Loewen’s first point is about a process he calls “heroification, which takes fascinating, controversial and complex people from our past and gradually transforms into boring, one-dimensional figures in the pages of modern day history textbooks. His first example of this is Helen Keller. While most know that Keller was blind and deaf, very few know she was also a socialist activist and was significantly tied into the suffrage movement and civil rights for the vast majority of her life. She is instead marginalized to a cutesy folk story of a small and seemingly insignificant character in American history.
Another important example of heroification, especially in regards to racial relations in the United States, comes in the form of President Woodrow Wilson. While textbooks laud Wilson for his support of progressive causes like the women's suffrage movement and his role in the winning and peace brokering of World War I, they tend to leave out the fact that he was actually a white supremacist who oversaw the segregation of the federal government for the first time since Reconstruction and that he instigated the invasions of several Latin American countries. His legacy is most certainly white washed. This is important because Wilson’s story will forever be remembered only partially complete. It creates a world where the white majority with the power to write our history has the ability to choose what is highlighted and what is not. It creates a world where millions of people of color could be within their rights to believe that their history has not been truthfully and completely told. Having the opportunity to see and analyze the flaws of some of the most influential people in history gives students a better opportunity to understand the complexity of morality and that in every conflict, no side is ever 100% virtuous
In most history textbooks, Christopher Columbus is painted as America’s first great hero. Perhaps the biggest myth told to American youth across the country is that Columbus discovered the land we now know as North America. In reality, he didn't discover anything. Indigenous, or native, people had been living on the continent for thousands of years. The first foreigners to reach the Americas were African and Asian. Columbus wasn't even the first white person to land on the shores of the Americas—the Vikings were. Loewen takes this time to argue that one of the main reasons Columbus is the person Americans celebrate because he was a white European and the United States is a country run by descendants of white Europeans. American exceptionalism is presented as justification and reasoning for the United States’ unquestioned superiority to the rest of the world.
The most analyzed and notable point made in the book is the domination of the white race over blacks throughout history. History books do not adequately cover the causes and effects of racism in the United States. This, similar to the idea of colorblind racism, has the tendency to perpetuate the idea that racism and prejudice our concepts from the past, forever closed in our history books. However, race has and forever will be a factor in the United States due to slavery. White people purposefully subjugated an entire race of people for their own personal gain, and established a class system based on skin color. Even after slavery was abolished, attitudes among white people about their own superiority have remained constant.
African Americans still have worse housing, worse educational attainment, and more incarcerated young men than their white counterparts. The idea that blacks may be inferior goes unchallenged in the hearts of many blacks and whites, as our textbooks have essentially garnered racism invisible. The constant theme in all twelve textbooks analyzed was that, as with most things, America is trending in a positive and upward direction. That as time has progressed racial relations have normalized and tensions have cooled. It even allowed some to announce that the election of Barack Obama, an African American man, proved that America was ‘post race’. If this was the case, then the constant and crushing inequalities we see in education, financing, employment, housing and more for minorities would not be present. The problem is that all of these problems arise from the very birth of these institutions in which racism and prejudice were actively and primarily used to dictate policy. All of these institutions took their blueprints from slavery. The notion that one race is better than another has been woven into the very fabric of American society. This sentiment becomes incredibly difficult to change when history textbooks name only the injustices that occurred, and not who subjected people of color in this country to those injustices. Unfortunately, Loeven argues, History books, already an antiquated medium, will forever remain lackluster in their coverage of race relations in the United States. They are unable to truly encapsulate neither why race-related events, who perpetuated these prejudices, and ideologies nor what prompted change.