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In Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen criticizes modern American high school history textbooks for containing incorrect information about people and events such as Christopher Columbus, the lies and inaccuracies in the history books regarding the dealings between the Europeans and the Native Americans, and their often deceptive and inaccurate teachings told about America's commerce in slavery. He further criticizes the texts for a tendency to avoid controversy and for their "bland" and simplistic style. He proposes that when American history textbooks elevate American historical figures to the status of heroes, they unintentionally give students the impression that these figures are super-humans who live in the irretrievable past. Rather than highlighting both the positives and negatives of historical figures, Loewen claims textbooks cause students to perceive these figures through a single lens.[2] Loewen asserts that the muting of past clashes and tragedies makes history boring to students, especially groups excluded from the positive histories.[3]

Lies My Teacher Told Me

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When I was a high school junior in New Orleans taking AP American history, my teacher assigned us a paperback book. Slim in contrast to our hulking required textbook, it was a funny, compelling, even shocking read. Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, explained how history textbooks got the story of America wrong, usually by soft-pedaling, oversimplifying and burying the thorny drama and uncertainties of the past under a blanket of dull, voice-of-God narration.

Turnipseed is on the stand and he says: "Now, you know, some ninth-graders, especially black male ninth-graders, are pretty big, and I worried that teachers, especially white lady teachers, would have trouble controlling their classes with material like this in the book."

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I laughed thinking about it and the story warms me, in part because it reminds me of the book the Lies My Teacher Told Me. James Loewen, who passed away on August 19, 2021, published the book in 1995. It became an instant classic as it challenged the Eurocentric, white, patriarchal, narrow views of classroom texts by presenting an alternative text that corrected many of the myths and lies that are taught by the education system.

Moreover, Loewen provides the results of the research held in 1990 which revealed that 40% of teachers (who participated in the research) had a B.A. or M.A. (Loewen 280). This situation only contributes to the fact that students get information about the history from their textbooks only.

Of course, not only textbook authors but teachers as well try to omit any controversies in history. It is easier to enumerate particular names, dates and events without discussing various backgrounds, downsides and impacts on the further development. Thus, textbooks authors pick up some historic events that seem to them heroic or essential and omit many other details associated with these events.

A decade and a half ago, in America Revised, Frances FitzGerald demonstrated that widely used school textbooks presented simplistic, fatuous, and often inaccurate versions of American history. Here, Loewen (Sociology/Univ. of Vermont; Mississippi: Conflict and Change, not reviewed) draws the conclusion that little has changed since then. In a year-long study at the Smithsonian Institution, Loewen reviewed 12 leading high school history textbooks and was appalled by the unscholarly, inaccurate, and overtly ideological material he found. Textbooks, Loewen argues, ``supply irrelevant and erroneous details, while omitting pivotal questions and facts in their treatments of issues ranging from Columbus's second voyage to the possibility of impending ecocide.'' He notes their non-treatment of subjects such as early American settlers' relations with the Indians, Helen Keller's radical socialism (textbooks often present her story only as an inspirational one), Abraham Lincoln's complex attitudes about race, and American atrocities in Vietnam. Loewen contends that American history has traditionally been taught in order to inculcate patriotism and other moral qualities rather than to get at the truth. Moreover, he asserts, the discipline of history, more than other scholarly fields, has traditionally been dominated by upper-class white male writers who share a particular consensus on American history. While the discipline of history has become more sophisticated and diverse in recent decades, Loewen shows, school history textbooks have not kept up. The result is a general lack of interest in history on the part of intelligent students. Loewen concludes that high school history teachers can do much to enhance interest in history by questioning the texts, encouraging students to do primary source work, and continually asking questions rather than providing answers. Although Loewen often is entertaining, he presents both an indictment that rings true and an eloquent call to action. (40 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Over five weekday radio episodes on BBC Radio 4 this week, Historian Priya Atwal will examine how national history is told across the globe, ranging from the fraught business of teaching Lebanese children history to a discussion of conflict in Northern Ireland.

He was born in Decatur, Illinois, his father a doctor and his mother a teacher and librarian. While studying sociology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, during the height of the civil rights movement, he spent the early part of 1963 auditing courses at Mississippi State University, while also visiting Tougaloo College and the Tuskegee Institute.

In his final two chapters, Loewen examines why history is being taught in this way and the consequences of doing so. Textbook publishers, he explains, not only have to appeal to students and teachers, but also to special interest groups and conservative selection boards. They must appeal to large markets like Texas and California, making sure both states are well represented. Large, complicated historical events must be reduced to a chapter or even a page, with little room for nuance. With publishing costs so high, the writing becomes safe, bland, and nationalistic. As a result, students, particularly girls, minorities and the working class, view history as boring and disconnected from their lives. Education, Loewen believes, should teach students how to think. Modern textbooks, missing nuance and key facts, teach students what to think and nothing more. Students will care about history when it connects to their lives, something that will only occur when textbooks stop lying to them.

Accessible, passionate, detailed, and often startling, Lies My Teacher Told Me documents the errors, lies, and omissions that mar history textbooks -- opening with Helen Keller's ignored radicalism and expanding its scope from there, dealing extensively with society's treatment of Native Americans and blacks and also critiquing the presentation of more modern events, including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Loewen told me that he was aghast, so he visited high-school history classes. "My students had learned exactly what was being taught," he said. Although he visited predominantly black schools with black teachers, they were mostly reading from textbooks filled with lies. This was history as approved by the KKK.

What's disappointing about Lies My Teacher Told Me is that Loewen doesn't offer a systemic solution for a systemic problem. His prescription in the book is that teachers should stop relying on textbooks, and prompt their students to question and research what they're reading.

He also said that school districts could make a difference by rejecting the typical textbooks -- which retail for between $90 and $110 -- and instead teaching from a 300-page paperback, such as those used for people trying to become American citizens. "It gets the basics right," he said, and would force teachers to engage with the subject matter. "A few school systems doing that would set a new paradigm, and then teachers would teach differently," he said. "They wouldn't just cover the book for the whole school year ... . They would have to supplement. They'd have to get students doing projects and having debates and doing all kinds of exciting things."

Ken Jacke, director of instruction/assessment, outlined in an e-mail the process in Rock Island/Milan School District #41: "The textbook-adoption process usually starts with a review of the current text being used. If deficiencies/inadequacies are found (in social studies/history, usually this means outdated), a committee is formed including teachers and administrators to research texts from different vendors. The process is somewhat closed in some respects, since we base our selection process on the free textbook lists that are screened and furnished to us by the State of Illinois. ... Once a recommendation is received from the selection committee (usually taking at least several months of research and study), the selection is then screened by the Curriculum Cabinet as to alignment with state standards and district power standards, cost, etc. If the Curriculum Cabinet agrees with the recommendation of the selection committee, a recommendation is then made to our superintendent and school board for purchase. If the Curriculum Cabinet does not agree, then the recommendation is sent back to the selection committee for review and possible alteration." 041b061a72


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