Lies My Teacher Told Me, An Excellent Call To Action

Lies My Teacher Told Me is a book that doesn’t try to correct everything wrong with our history, as portrayed in textbooks, but one that gives examples and then challenges the reader to take that information and use it in the future to find real truth in what we’re fed by public education institutions.  The book encourages people to think about what they’re being told, why they’re being told it, and to consider how and when it was presented.  It also offers a few intellectual tools for interpreting the information we’re presented with today, and how to understand why our history is relevant to our current situation.  For example, why do so many people in the world hate the US?  Is it because we’re just so damn good, like our textbooks would have us believe?  Or is it because of actions in the past that are morally ambiguous at best, or completely contrary to the ideas our nation was founded on at worst?

One of the biggest problems Mr. Loewen presents, in regards to textbooks, is that they’re meaningless jumbles of facts, put together by a mass of authors (sometimes not even the ones on the covers).  That jumble of meaningless factoids turn into a tome of confusing rubbish that leaves the potential learner entirely dissatisfied.  While reading the book I kept thinking back to when I learned American history in high school.  Honestly, it didn’t take long, because I don’t even remember learning American history in high school.  This supports the information he presented which says that most students won’t even remember what they learned, mostly because of the way the information is presented.  Mr. Loewen consistently reinforces the idea that history should be taught as a causal structure, both to make it interesting and to make it relevant.  I completely agree.  Up until recently I had no interest in history, because all I remember of what I was taught, in a middle school class that I only remember vaguely, was that it was horribly boring.  We were presented with lots of names and dates and place names that we had to remember, and not much else.  There was no content.  There were no real people or real actions behind the factoids.  We never focused on the ‘why’ of the situations, or the human aspect.  Instead, we were forced to memorize these factoids and regurgitate them onto paper for tests.  What does that teach me about history?  That it’s boring and irrelevant to what I’m doing today, that the actions of the past and the people responsible for them don’t matter, and that it has no bearing on what I might do in the future.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  After taking a personal interest in history and learning on my own, I find history to be incredibly interesting.  The things I read about are often situations that still occur today, or explain current problems.  Not everyone takes a personal interest in history, though.  Not everyone gets beyond that meaningless factoid stage and really tries to think about the ‘why’.  They memorize, they regurgitate, and then they forget.  That’s why high school history textbooks are a problem.  They turn people off to history, leaving them without a firm foundation to stand on in when trying to forge a better future.

Another problem with textbooks that Mr. Loewen presents is the affect they have on maintaining the status quo, both on a personal, state, and national level.  He goes into some detail about the textbook adoption process and how that process is affected.  For example, Southern states have more often than not tried to make sure the textbooks that reach their classrooms are not overly negative in terms of the Civil War or slavery.  Textbooks as a whole leave out information on Native Americans, the European diseases that left them decimated, or the forced relocations.  Textbooks also continue to teach the primitive vs. advanced society theory, which has been debunked by recent research.  High school history textbooks also perpetuate the idea of constant progress, even though the resurgence of racism against blacks during Reconstruction obviously was a step in the wrong direction. Textbooks try to avoid mentioning social class, religion, or anything that might be offensive.  Who isn’t offended by something?  History isn’t all peach blossoms and pleasant views.  The truth is more important.  We can’t learn from history if we’re only taught history that makes us feel good about ourselves, or that won’t offend anybody. Mr. Loewen argues that new work in fields like anthropology and sociology should be introduced into history textbooks to better inform students about how our history has affected who they are.  Again, I agree.  History as a set of facts is meaningless, especially when it’s a list of biased facts that don’t tell the whole story.  History as a set of facts is also boring.

I think the biggest lesson that I can take from Mr. Loewen’s book is that any information, whether from a history textbook or a news article or a book, should be treated with caution, if not suspicion.  Remembering who wrote it, when it was written and what was important to people at the time, what was important to the author and if it’s trying to push an agenda, all these things can help in keeping the information in context.  When in doubt, consult primary sources to find the truth, or at least something closer to the truth.  We’re all biased, one way or another, and the meaning of history is a matter of interpretation.  For example, we can easily say that the US entered the Vietnam War, but why we entered the war and whether it was justified is a matter of opinion that can be supported only by finding facts and then forming them into a coherent argument.

History is a fascinating subject if you allow it to be.  Real history isn’t the same as the meaningless factoids that you’ll find in a history textbook.  It’s alive, it’s vivid, it’s emotional and it’s relevant to today.  Besides teaching me some things about our history that I didn’t know (because I wasn’t taught properly), Mr. Loewen’s book taught me how to better study history.

7 thoughts on “Lies My Teacher Told Me, An Excellent Call To Action

  1. Well, it's more like a fog settling over the whole country, but yup, that's an accurate description!

    Besides teaching, I'm hoping to write a book one day. I hope it'll be as good as this one.

  2. lol at rampant stupidity. It sounds like fog setting in over a city.

    Excellent choice in the path towards teaching. I believe serving in many degrees is one of the highest callings.

  3. Armand: Wikipedia can't save us. A fellow student was telling a story in class today about a class experiment. One of the students edited Napoleon's Wikipedia entry to say that he was a known serial killer that preferred to carve up his victims with axes. The entry remained incorrect for over a month.

    Calling an opinion unpatriotic is a classic move to stifle dissent. Here's a quote for you:

    “Of course the people do not want war…. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.”

    ~Hermann Goering

    One of the best examples I can think of right now to demonstrate the problems with everyone having an opinion on the Internet, in that it distorts the truth, is the issues with Islam. If a Muslim tells someone what they believe, they're immediately told they're lying and they quote misinformation they read on the Internet. Does anyone read (example) Benjamin Franklin's diary and then say he's lying about what he believed in? The problem with the Internet is that people rely on biased opinions to form their own opinion, or worse, they don't form an opinion at all and just copy what someone else said. They never take the time to look at the source documents themselves, or to find more reliable secondary material in a bookstore.

    Personally, I don't think blogs are that reliable. I can go back and edit posts I made two years ago to reflect a changed opinion. I don't do that, out of a sense of integrity, but I'm sure many people do. If I change my mind about something, I'll just write a new post about it.

    I think not understanding history, combined with rampant stupidity and laziness (in not checking primary sources, or even reliable secondary sources) will be our undoing. It's one of the reasons I realized I want to learn and teach history. I think dispelling misinformation is a noble calling.

  4. (^^couldn't figure out how to edit my comment)

    I hate to think of a future where we a measuring the validity of a subject by analyzing Google analytics or trending popularity.

    Now that everyone has a platform for their opinions, seeking a supporting thought for ones perspective will be too easy in the future. There may more facts and learning transpiring via discussions on blogs and forums than with the stoic stance of media corps that put out a news piece and have the dogs come tear at each-other in the comments.

    Where will the measure of accuracy be when every blog, opinion, tweet, and comment is indexed and searchable? Will Wikipedia save us?

    I think it will definitely be harder to sort out.
    We can't even find truth to reported news stories now, and if you do, it is often debunked as conspiracy, unpatriotic, the other party and so on.

    I was watching a a documentary with Alan Watt discussing Eugenics [ http://goo.gl/UPKbg ] and he stated that he reads old books because they permanent records of the past. Thinking about that perspective, it first makes me think of the ability to alter, edit online content and should be a reminder to backup any online/digital writings you may have.

    It's a scary thought. Maybe I'm just getting old.

  5. Armand:God forbid someone should be offended right?

    In regards to literature opening a window to the past, it's true to a degree. Lies My Teacher Told Me points that out. Gone With the Wind for example paints an untrue portrait of blacks in the South during Reconstruction. It does make history come alive though and gives people a genuine interest in finding out more. Movies help too, to some extent.

    I was thinking about how social media is going to play a role in history, in the future. I was wondering if it would make history easier or harder to sort out, and I came to the conclusion that all of the information online will only make things harder. What do you think?

  6. Great review of the book, I plan on getting either the traditional or digital copy of it.

    The old adage of 'His Story' equaling History proves true far to often. It's upsetting to see the same curriculum being taught to minors accepting fragmented versions of historic events with no context or layers. The bullet points they try desperately to remember prevails in a school system that rewards learning by rote, and shuns and even punishes expansion of discussion as it might offend, impede a segment of the classroom or breach a legality clause.

    My 9th grade English teacher was from Sierra Leone. Her class instilled in me a zeal for English as a medium for story telling. In there, I realized English literature, especially between Civil war to present, could be seen as a humanitarian history account. It filled a lot of the gaps that traditional history courses left out. On her wall, she had the famous Elanor Roosevelt quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your own consent.” She told me that it was the quote that made her go into teaching.

    A 12th grade, African-American studies teacher that I had in zero period before school started, was Dr. Larry Spruill. In that class we discussed more 'real' American History starting around the Middle passage up until about civil rights. His course was probably the best class I can recall for the open discussion, the “and why do you think x,y,z occurred?”. Traditionally accepted historic events were challenged for authenticity and debates often continued after the morning bell rang. Unfortunately, it was an elective class, so many did not even know it existed or wanted to get up early for it.
    As you stated, it is wise to try and process news, media, history accounts with a 'how' &'why' approach. History is fascinating to me to see the repeated successes and far too often blunders that humans have faced. I am increasingly interested in methods of rule, oligarchies, tactics of war and politics.

    The far reaching grasp that social media and technology has, should caution us to the rapid spread and acceptance of rumors and news. History is not even making it to print for the next generation, we are being schooled now via constant bombardment of updates. Undoubtedly, the powers that be are leveraging these conduits to their benefit. [/unrelated rant]

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