Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen was the first nonfiction, non memoir book I ever read of my own free will, in 2003 when I was twenty-two. It was the book that showed me I could enjoy reading a nonfiction book based on facts and research (as opposed to fiction and as opposed to nonfiction that’s story-based), especially when it wasn’t assigned. Many more books of this variety came after, but this book was my first.
Lies My Teacher Told Me explores the misinformation in American History textbooks by looking at it from several different angles. The most prominent of these is James W. Loewen’s thorough survey of twelve textbooks used in American History high school classes across the country and exploring where they fall short–omissions, some outright lies, reliance on secondary (and tertiary, etc.) sources instead of available primary sources–and how they leave us disconnected from our history. He also goes into the process for textbook approval for school systems, and how censorship can often play a role there.
I saw Lies My Teacher Told Me come up a lot in June on lists of anti-racist resources and reading lists that many of us posted on social media. I picked this as my first Spotlight On post because of seeing it on those lists and remembering how for me it was a primer on some real shit about race, as well as about critical thinking about what’s being presented in textbooks and who decides what gets into the narrative we’re taught of our own history.
Specifically, there are two chapters mid-book, one on the invisibility of racism of American History textbooks, and the next on the invisibility of anti-racism. I remember being surprised by the latter–not so much the former–and it gave me a lot to think about at the time, and is probably the chapter I remember most clearly, almost two decades later.
The other chapter that stood out the most was the one on the poor handling of modern history, called “Down the Memory Hole: The Disappearance of the Recent Past” – that too left an impression, and one I mulled over for a long time to come.
Another idea that struck me, not just about history but more about life, was a challenge to the notion that we are always progressing along a straight line of progress. I think it reshaped the way I framed history and also my life and the lives of others, into something less linear and more real.
Why I Recommend This Book
- it’s well-written in an accessible, readable way – an easy and enjoyable learning experience
- it refreshes (or fills in, or straight up introduces you to) your American history
- you get an inside look into how textbooks are created, edited and chosen, and what pressures shape that process, and how that shapes how we conceive of our own history
- it’s interesting, way more interesting than high school history class
- there are primary sources! and pictures! and it makes you think critically about sourcing in textbooks and other things you might consume
- it presents a way of thinking about history, and learning history, and history in education, that goes beyond memorizing dates and names and other boring shit like that that we all forget anyway
- it’s a good primer on real, sourced American history
- there are so many interesting ideas to chew on
My Story – How I Know This Book
How I came to know of this book was, surprisingly, through my high school American History teacher, Ms. Horn. I had her for sophomore and junior year and when Lies My Teacher Told Me came out, she told our class about it. Our textbook, The American Pageant, was one of the twelve surveyed for the book. It seems silly now, but at the time it was revelatory to realize that textbooks weren’t objective, and that were all these other narratives going on alongside the official one I’d been reading at, with various levels of detail, since elementary school. I later heard that another teacher at my high school, Mr. Graf (I think that was his name, it’s been a couple decades), assigned parts of it to his AP History students.
A couple years later, during my last semester at Northern Arizona University, I took a class on censorship in English literature. I was an uneasy English major then, taking refuge in the major everyone, including me, had envisioned for me from when I was young after astronomy didn’t work out for reasons related to disability and discrimination (that’ll be something to explore on here someday). I was on the verge of dropping out. I don’t think I read anything we were supposed to read for the class (and actually, that wasn’t out of character, I always resented being told what to read and often rebelled by not doing it, especially in my younger days, especially when I wasn’t sure why I was even there anymore).
For our big project for the class, we had to find our own example of censorship and present about it and also write a 20-page paper on it. It could be a censored work of literature or something else having to do with censorship, the field was pretty open. Perhaps too open–there were excerpts from other students’ presentations that were legitimately the stuff of nightmares that I wish I could un-know. But I digress.
I thought back to Ms. Horn’s American History class and the concept of censorship in textbooks and thought it would be interesting. I did my oral presentation on the book, and my prof (who I can picture, and whose first name I maybe remember, oddly, but whose last name, the name I would have called her, Dr. something, I do not) told me later, in a discussion about me taking an incomplete in the class when I was dropping out, that my presentation had been the best. Food for the ego, to be sure, but not enough to fuel me to ever write the paper.
I don’t think I’d read the whole book prior to giving the presentation, just enough to get by, but later, after I was all dropped out and on my own and living on Orcas Island, I devoured it. With care and and underlining and notetaking in the margins (all rare for me) in black pen and a thin pink marker. And here I am, writing about it so many years later.
It’s stayed with me, both the concepts from the book, and the actual physical book. I was thinking about it, and it may be the oldest book I own. There’ve been others that I read before it and purchased new copies of at some point or another, and plenty of books bought and read since then, but I think this might seriously be my oldest physical book. And it’s battered. In the summer of 2002 I was working as a camp counselor and often left the windows in my cabin open, and one day there was a huge rainstorm and everything I owned got soaked. So the pages and cover are stiff and wrinkled, but all the marginalia is still legible.
Interestingly, we were also assigned The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy for that class. I didn’t read one word of it when I was supposed to, but what we read and discussed in class intrigued me. Within the next year or so, I read the whole thing, again after I’d dropped out and was on my own, and it’s probably my absolute favorite book of all time (and will definitely be featured eventually in this column because I’d gladly write a dissertation on it for fun, and did once write a paper on it). So there’s something about things I was supposed to read and do for that class that really spoke to me later.
It’s a great, well-written book. It’s an accessible, informative, and interesting read. There’s lots to learn between its covers, both in terms of facts and ideas.