The Lies My Teacher Told Me

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."--William Faulkner

I did not know what to expect when I picked up James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, except that fallacies in American history had something to do with it. I think that Professor Loewen is regarded as a "revisionist" historian, which means that he argues for new interpretations of traditional stories, especially regarding ethnicity, now that labor and class are out of fashion. This book, however, by no means argues for revisionist views, but is a concrete study of high-school history textbooks. L (I shall refer to Professor Loewen as "L" to save my hard disk allocation) brought up "Afro-Phoenicians" rather early, which alerted my rubbish-detection faculties, but this was a false alarm. He simply wanted to point out alternatives, no matter how absurd. The book improved steadily from that point on.

Elsewhere on this site (The Leviathan) I have discussed how Richard Mitchell's Graves of Academe presents a general theory of American education, based in the first instance on the analysis of educationalists' writings. The references and bibliography in L do not mention Mitchell, and I did not see his name while scanning the many footnotes, nor did I find any mention in the text. From this, I presume that L's account is completely independent of Mitchell's, which makes its support of Mitchell's argument much more conclusive. Indeed, in many places it could have been written explicitly to prove what Mitchell says.

L does not give a compendium of those numerous errors of fact and interpretation in history textbooks, but adduces significant examples and general areas. The general areas are: (1) Columbus and the initial contact of Spain and America; (2) native Americans; (3) slavery and racism; (4) progress and ethnocentrism; (5) perceptions of government; and (6) lack of the recent past. Some significant examples are the treatments of: (1) John Brown, who was called insane; (2) Helen Keller, whose support of socialist and labor causes was eliminated; (3) Woodrow Wilson, whose antidemocratic, authoritarian and racist nature, well known in 1920, was forgotten; (4) Abraham Lincoln, whose beliefs and opinions were distorted; and (5) Squanto, of the Thanksgiving legend, who had a much more interesting history than that of a simple savage learning English from fishermen, having crossed the Atlantic six times and been in Spain, England and Newfoundland. He was better-travelled than the Pilgrims.

Although it is denigrated as "revisionism," all these things and many others are not newly discovered, or matters of opinion, but are facts documented by primary sources. L remarks that left- and right-wing history texbooks are unknown: they are all middle-of-the-road, boring, incorrect and large. They present only facts to be memorized and then forgotten. There are no ideas, no conflict, no causation, no controversy. Wars just "break out," while cause and effect are interchanged. L concludes (correctly, I think) that the more history textbooks a student reads, the stupider he or she becomes. The purpose of a course in American history, or its diluted relative social studies, is purely indoctrination, to make the young mind look kindly on its government and place in society, to vote and not cause any disturbance. L thinks it might be better in mathematics or biology, but it is not.

There are no standardized tests to measure basic competence in history, as there are in reading, writing and arithmetic ("mathematics"). This could be a blessing. If the schools can only show the attainment of basic competence, they will be praised and given more money. Basic competence is easy to attain, and I wish them success. This will, however, further obscure the lack of real education in the schools, and may make it even rarer. Stupidity is not lack of knowledge of facts (that's ignorance), but the inability to make informed decisions on the basis of evidence and reason. That is, it is the lack of Jefferson's "informed discretion" that is so important for freedom in civilization. That's why reading more textbooks can make you more stupid, as can basic competency exams.

The textbooks he reviewed were of two formats: inquiry or narrative. The inquiry texts, new at the time, and which involved some mental effort and discussion, faded away by the time L wrote the book. All that was left were a few large texts (over 800 pages each) filled with factoids and boringly similar to each other. What was the cause of this uniformity? L notes that textbooks can be influenced by: (1) the upper classes; (2) corporations; (3) adoption boards and censors; (4) publishers; (5) pressure groups; (6) parents; (7) teachers; (8) school boards; (9) school administrators; and, finally, (10) authors. The conclusion is that there is no conspiracy to maintain uniformity. There are simply shared perceptions, as demonstrated by Mitchell. It is like TV news. Comparing the simultaneous broadcasts of the evening news, it looks as if the news was composed in a central office, censored, and distributed for broadcast. But it is nothing of the sort. Each station perceives the "news" in exactly the same way, deplores the same things, and celebrates the same things. "Education" works like this, only better. One term for this is "cultural transmission."

There is not even a collusion of publishers, owned by corporations or the upper class, to present a solid party line. One of the benefits of capitalism is that any book, however revolutionary or revisionist, will be published so long as a profit can be made. In fact, Lies itself was a National Bestseller, as its paperback cover brags. There is no collusion, no conspiracy, of either left or right, simply the dead weight of stupidity and common beliefs. Right-wing and fundamentalist groups make a good deal of noise, but are as ineffective as any others in having their way.

I remember that when I was in school, I wanted to know about Indians, about my state of Indiana, and about my city of Evansville (among a lot of other things). I found out nothing, of course. The schools were silent on these topics. Only much later have I looked into these matters, and found out how meagre was my ethnocentric public education. I now know I would also have been fascinated to find out about the labor movement (Evansville had many union members, since people worked in those days), and about African-American culture. L uses the Kiswahili concepts of the living, the sasha (dead, but in living memory) and the zamani (beyond living memory) quite effectively, and I am sure there are more things worth knowing. Hollywood zombies are probably just a misinterpretation of the sasha.

As a curious example of the kinds of pressures on textbooks, what I like to call the War of the Rebellion is normally termed the Civil War, a good, neutral term that I accept gladly, and one that the ex-Confederates originally suggested. The more modern Confederates insisted on the War Between The States, a term with no historical pedigree (War Among The States sounded like too much of a free-for-all). One group wanted War For Southern Independence, which was at least accurate. Nobody seems to have suggested War To End Slavery, which, in fact, it was. While we are naming wars, the Revolutionary War is really the War For American Independence. Nothing carried on by the upper classes and lawyers can be called a Revolution. There was no revolution, just a change at the top. L does not revise things this far.

There is mention of the Elite White Male Capitalist (EWMC), whom I can understand because I am one. White and Male I had no control over; it just came out that way. Elite, I suppose, because all the members of my disintegrating family were professionals or proprietors--dentists, geologists, Army officers, school superintendents, school teachers and shop owners. My immediate family was very small and very poor, but I have survived and this provides a certain perspective. A capitalist, because I now live off of the proceeds of my capital, all of which was the residue of the wages of myself and my mother, but which has turned out to be a quite comfortable support. Since I have received no special consideration at any time, nor have ever been on the "inside" of anything, I consider myself quite fortunate. This modest success is quite lucky, but I note that it is rapidly sliding from the grasp of others in my former situation today.

It is curious that all the engineering students I have known have been taught that the normal thing is to send out resumes and to go to work for someone. That is, they are taught essentialy to be slaves, and this is promoted by all the apparently individualist right-wingers that populate engineering. They are not taught the independence of the professional and the duties that flow from it. They have no idea of the profits that accrue to the owner, the master, and are satisfied by a good salary. The corporate organization of modern American life is stricter and more confining than ever, making the success of individual initiative very difficult, yet its strongest supporters think they promote individualism and freedom. History textbooks say nothing to the contrary, but instead present the doctrine of the obedient wage earner.

L observes that the recipients of American education are not fooled, but know they are being conned, and respond with passive resistance, like the slaves on a plantation. They are also usually quite bored, which L finds understandable. He always uses the word "student," where "pupil" might be more appropriate. A pupil is compelled to learn, legally required to attend school, and confined while there to activites specified by those in control. A student is eager to learn, and seeks out learning for its own sake. All those in K-12 are, I suppose, legally pupils, although in the case of the high school, there may be an element of the student, but it depends on the individual. Recently, I have heard of schools in a part of Denver being on "lockdown," while just today I heard of captive fugitives in "lockdown" as well. Strange that we use the same words at a primary school and a maximum-security prison. Schools have always seemed to me, especially as an inmate (of a school!), as kin to prisons.

Authors, concludes L, are chiefly responsible for what goes into history textbooks, and they are subject to pressures from several sides. The publishers and editors know what is good for business, and what will succeed with the Texas and California adoption boards. The author does not want to stick out as different, perhaps to be shot down, so he includes and excludes about the same things as everyone else. It is necessary to be optimistic, not to criticize the government, and to present the right side of every question (only). There is always more than one author. As the textbook is revised again and again to make it appear up to date (while not including any recent history), the authors recede into the background and the book becomes more and more the work of publishers' hacks, and even blander and duller, if possible.

The textbooks become so large that they are not finished by a class. A physics textbook always becomes larger on revision. There have been high-school physics texts of some 1500 pages (in the UK, not the US). Actually, these are references that strive to include everything, and are not meant to be taught serially, but used as a resource. In physics, this can be done successfully and reasonably, making students sharper, not duller. In history, everything cannot be included in an encyclopedic way--there is simply too much, and, unlike physics, it never ends. The real virtue is in a concise textbook that introduces and teaches thinking skills. History is actually full of drama and emotion, not dry at all, but this would never be gathered from high-school history. History is also argument and controversy, and strengthens the mind. High-school history is, in fact, not history but something much less and nearly worthless. It is only a Disney history, with warped and altered facts and interpretation.

One contemplates with unease the possibility of standardized tests of minimum competency in American history, to accompany those in reading, writing and ciphering. The output of the basic skills of reading, writing and ciphering is easy to see and evaluate. That of a basic skill in history is not so easy to characterize. History involves informed discretion; arithmetic does not. History is part of education beyond basic skills, in the rationality that is not part of American education. It is also neglected, probably for that reason (but not as completely as geometry was neglected). Geometry, too, is not a basic skill but a component of education. "Education" (note quotes) no longer includes it. Now we have "history" to replace history. I have seen no suggestion of a possible antidote by a rational writer.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 26 January 2001
Last revised