The Truth is Out There (But Probably Not in Textbooks)

Dedicated to all American history teachers
who teach against their textbooks
(and their ranks keep growing)

And so begins the updated edition of Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. “Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book,” said Howard Zinn. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “an extremely convincing plea for truth in education.” My husband exasperatingly declared, “I can’t believe you still haven’t read this book, Carol!”

Since this month’s reading challenge is to read a book about American history, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what all the buzz is about–and finally let my husband rest his weary voice.

First, let’s be clear: the author is not bashing teachers! He knows that teachers need to teach from the textbooks provided. And the books are only as good as their authors. Some authors are better than others, but overall the state of textbooks–American history textbooks specifically–need to be reformed. As the author points out in the introduction when discussing how most textbooks are 1,200 pages or more:

Indeed, state and local textbook committees should not select *any* 1,200 page hardcover book. As the introduction to the second edition points out, there is no pedagogical justification for such large tomes. Their only reason for being is economic. These textbooks now retail for more than $100 and cost more than $70 even when ordered in quantity by states and school districts. It’s easy to understand why publishers keep on making them. It’s harder to understand why school districts keep buying them.

Topics range from the Vietnam War, the truth about Columbus, and how we have a bad habit of creating heroes out of people who were, at best, regular folks and at worst, total monsters. The book focuses on educational texts, sure, but the point it’s really trying to get across is that we need to educate children and teens to think critically and apply skepticism, not cynicism, to everything they consume: books, internet sites, news reports, and social media posts. This starts in the classroom and it starts with teaching critical thinking skills.

Let me reassure you that there are photographs. Sure, they’re in black and white, but I’m always reassured that a history book won’t be too dry and boring if I can find illustrations, maps, photographs, or other visual helpers to keep my brain engaged if it wants to wander. Many of the images in this book come directly from the textbooks the author reviewed.

Sometimes the representative textbook photos are good, like showing two images representing early Native American societies, one showing an organized society and the other showing people on horseback seemingly wandering. The caption asks students to discern which happened before white settlers arrived and which was after. This builds critical thinking skills and encourages students to find information to support their conclusions. It also busts the lie we’ve been told about how indigenous communities were uncivilized people who welcomed white saviors.

Other times, the representative textbook photos are reeeeeally not good. For instance, a racist cartoon that is still printed in high school textbooks with either no context or a skewed viewpoint. Stating your opinion–especially when it’s racist and contrary to reality–as fact does not make it a fact. But this is what students are taught and tested on. When we teach our children racist views as a requirement of their education, is it any wonder our society has problems with systemic racism and the inability to tell fact from fake news?

This all means that often the illustrations included in textbooks do a great disservice to the students forced to use them in class. It’s just one layer upon many that make up the cracks in our educational foundation. A foundation that is in serious need of repair.

I just checked this book out today. I’ll be reading it this month to complete the reading challenge and I just know I will be completely insufferable as I plague friends and strangers alike with the misinformation, misrepresentations, censorship, and outright lies we’ve all been fed. But this is good, and it’s exactly what the author was going for. He wants people to think and learn and grow and challenge the way we’ve been taught American history. We must stand up for facts, and push back against the BS.

Have you read this classic? I’d love to hear the most shocking or surprising fact you learned from the book. From what I can tell so far skimming, there are an embarrassing amount to choose from.

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