Jim Loewen: The biggest lie we still teach in American history classesHistorians in the News
tags: education, Jim Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me
One of my favorite writers, Gore Vidal, once described his country asthe United States of Amnesia. “We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” he wrote.
Vidal’s point is simple enough: America’s concept of itself is shaped by mythology, not by facts. And it’s harder to address mistakes if you’re unwilling to face them honestly.
In 1995, James Loewen set out to resolve this problem. He published a landmark book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that went on to sell more than 2 million copies. Loewen taught race relations for two decades at the University of Vermont, and spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution, where he surveyed past American history textbooks.
The result of his research was a massive tome that pointed out all the distortions and falsehoods taught in US history classes.
Like Howard Zinnfamously did before him, Loewen shattered myths around Christopher Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, the Civil War, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln, American labor history, and the roots of racial inequalities. The problem, Loewen argued, was our impulse to turn historical events and figures into “moral examples,” which usually involved whitewashing the past in order to reinforce a familiar story about American greatness.
Lies My Teacher Told Me was republished this month, so I reached out to Loewen to talk about what has changed, what lies we still tell ourselves, and how he thinks about historical truth in the age of “alternative facts.”
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
According to your book, the biggest lie we are taught in US history class is that the country started out great and we’ve just been getting better ever since.
But on a long enough timeline, isn’t this partially true?
It’s true enough. My problem is the implication that progress is automatic, which it most certainly isn’t. Second, the idea that we’re always getting better keeps us from seeing those times when we’re getting worse.
Consider the period of 1890-1940, when race relations got systematically worse every year. America actually got more racist in its ideology than at any other time in history. After slavery, white people convinced themselves that there were equal opportunities, which was a lie. They told themselves that black people were criminals and incompetent and unable to succeed.
The point isn’t that life was better for people under slavery; it’s that the story of moral and political progress isn’t so clear. And when we pretend that it is neat and clear, we cause teachers to teach and students to think that progress happens automatically, and that destroys the impulse to change things — to become an activist. ...
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