Lies My Teacher Told Me
Last edited 5th September 2020Evergreen Note
Lies My Teacher Told Me
James W. Loewen's book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong is a critical look at the way history is presented in the United States with a particular emphasis on the role that history textbooks play in reinforcing false narratives about the past. It dives deep into topics that I had never encountered until my university studies: American imperialism, structural racism, and shifting the blame for wealth disparity upon the poor. The book illustrates how textbook publishers have not only been complicit, but have actively encouraged the whitewashing of American history to the point that "...converts textbooks into anti–citizenship manuals—handbooks for acquiescence."1.
[^1]: loc 4092
Having both actively studied and written about topics such as American Imperialism and structural inequality and lived in countries outside the United States, I have repeatedly encountered the shortcomings of my public school history education. Not only did Loewen's writing explore more topics where my knowledge fell short, but it shown a light on the structures of power that encourage this miseducation either because they have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, or in the words of Robert Pirsig they are "...[not] willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless." 2.
[^2]: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pg 87
While they comprise of only a small portion of the the world's population, the ignorance of the American people to their own history affects millions of people around the world. Many of the international organizations which make policies, enforce international law, and finance national debt are funded overwhelmingly by Americans 3 4 5. These organizations are then incentivized to turn a blind eye to the American agenda driven by the mythos of propagandized American history. Loewen quotes Robert Bellah and his idea of the "civil religion" of American history, while reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, I encountered similarities between the history as taught by textbooks and my experience of learning the history of the religion in which I was raised, Mormonism. In both cases, the overarching theme was the institution itself can do no wrong (in one case, the United States Government, and in the other, the Mormon church), and any particularly unsavory events or policies were merely the misguided, but well-intentioned actions of imperfect people.
What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.
Throughout the book, Loewen displays how textbooks present American history as an endless march of progress, as linear as the relentless passage of time itself. Textbooks neatly wrap up issues and ideologies into easily testable chapters, demonstrating what seems to be the American people's supernatural ability to confront complex problems and check them off a policy todo list, never to be revisited. Democracy? Solved with the declaration of independence. American Indians? Moved to reservations ( no mention of the wide scale genocide here ). Slavery? Solved with the Civil War. Women's rights? Solved with the Suffrage Movement. Racism? Solved with the Civil Rights Movement. All of these are taught without the depth requisite to understand that American society still grapples with these issues today, but thanks in part to subpar education, lacks the ability to engage in meaningful discourse about why these problems still exist.
For white male Americans who are presented as the protagonists of human existence, being taught about the above issues and movements in the box ticking style of history textbooks enforces their false notions that such issues no longer exist in American society. Social media has made it easy to observe this phenomenon as white men complain about and attempt to censure women and people of color for speaking out about the very real power structures which discriminate against them. Part of the reason these discriminatory power structures exist is because those who benefit from upholding them are taught that American society is continuously moving towards "progress" and therefore any actions taken by American society must be part of this march. For those who have not been racially or ethnically oppressed, the idea of America being a land of eternal promise and unshakable progress which forms their reality gives rise to a dangerous cognitive dissonance.
In fact, this romanticized view that history textbooks present is the cornerstone of Donald Trump's presidential campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again". This begs the question, what does it mean for America to be great? The dissonance that arises through examining the reality of life in America in comparison to the America that was presented in school has been directed almost everywhere but the root cause.
Few things have been more influential on American history than race, religion, and class. These topics are almost never talked about in textbooks more than a cursory mention about events such as the progress of labor laws, the Civil Rights Movement (where racism is not explored in any meaningful way), and the role of religious groups in America's formative development ( such as the Quakers, the Puritans, and the Great Awakening movement ).TODO ADD MORE
People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions...
The myth of perpetual "progress"
- The idea that anything we do is in alignment with the perpetual character arch of the American people.
Removing of any “unsanitized” history
- “Civil rights didn’t involve riots “