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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Debunking Historical Hogwash

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageIn honor of Christopher Columbus–and all the lies told about him in history class–CC2K is revisiting this 2009 piece.

This week, I started reading the second edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  Although I haven’t finished the book yet, I suspect it’s going to be added to my (still growing) list of nonfiction books you must read before you die. 

There’s a lot of scholarships out there debunking popular historical myths.  So why is this book so different?  Loewen’s methodology is simple: take several popular American history textbooks that are taught to students in school, examine them, and dissect how history has been whitewashed–take the connotations of that as you will–to reflect the (primarily white) authors’ biases.  Many of these truths are well-known to anyone who’s ever taken a higher-level history class–that Columbus was not the first European to “discover” America, for example–but what’s scary is that fallacies are being force-fed to schoolchildren every day.  And while some may be innocuous, others clearly color history in a way to turn European-Americans into the “good guys” in every conflict.  So where does that leave other races?  They are either the bad guys–e.g. the evil Indians who attacked the poor, defenseless Pilgrims–or beings so primitive, so foreign, so other, that they don’t exist as recognizable individuals.

The result is a schoolroom history that is hideously Anglo-centric, as well as devoid of all conflict, controversy, drama–and just about anything else that makes history interesting!  By treating history as a series of names and dates to be memorized, history textbooks prevent students from really understanding it.  Furthermore, historical points–for example, the dates of the earliest human settlement in North America–can often be debated among historians.  Does this ambiguity translate into historical textbooks?  Not generally.  Instead, students are given a litany of “facts,” none of which can be debated or discussed.  This is what happened, and that’s the end of the story.

Let’s face it: the American experience is not merely the white American experience.  The United States has always been a country of diverse groups and cultures, and our history has not done a good job of reflecting this.  Certainly, more modern textbooks (as Loewen takes pains to point out) have tried to incorporate more diverse figures into the text: Squanto, Sacagawea, Harriett Tubman, among others.  But textbooks still often gloss over the controversial or bad things that white Americans have done–Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the Federal Government, for example–instead choosing to heroify our historical figures. 

I was lucky.  I had an American history teacher during my junior year of high school who was really passionate about the subject, who talked about historical events as if he was actually there.  And he treated historical figures as people, rather than just names.  One of my favorite anecdotes: once news of Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital affair hit the presses, Hamilton issued a mea culpa that basically said, “Yeah, I did it.  My bad.”  Modern-day political figures could learn a thing or two from this!  In short, Hamilton was arrogant, elitist, and kind of a prick.  But he was also intelligent, loyal, and the architect of the country’s financial system.  Hamilton’s all-too-human personality intrigued me, and he became one of my favorite historical figures–so much so that when I inadvertently found his gravestone at Trinity Cemetery in New York, I couldn’t wait to run home and tell all my friends about it.  (That’s the true mark of my nerdiness right there: there I was in Manhattan, surrounded by famous people, and I was way more excited about finding Alexander Hamilton’s grave than any random celebrity sighting.)

The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.  Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.  These are facts that any good schoolchild can recite from memory.  But unless you’re planning a career as a Jeopardy contestant, they’re also completely useless.

How can we understand where this country is now unless we understand where it’s come from?  I don’t believe we can.  But names and dates are only important when they’re placed in the larger context of America and its underlying ideologies.  And quite frankly, historical figures are only interesting when you can see that they were not infallible, that they were once human beings who were no more or less flawed than anyone else.

Loewen’s point here is not to demonize the European settlers who came to–and took over–America.  Instead, it’s to point out how history has been sanitized for schoolchildren to eliminate anything that is either useful or interesting.  And as someone who loves history, it’s disheartening to find out that the BS that we were fed as children persists, that a whole new generation will be ignorant of where they come from, because the truth is considered too messy for them.

Welcome to America, the land of self-delusion.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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