American history is taught in high schools all over the country. It is held as a core curriculum for every American student because of the importance found in teaching our youth of our “perfect nation” and our “perfect past”. However, contrary to popular belief, James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, has found American history to be taught with a completely nationalistic approach. Not only is the history of our country taught with a horribly strong patriotic sentiment, but generally with a misunderstood concept of the history of America by the writers themselves. America has never lived a lie as ruinous as that in which happens in classrooms every day.
The words “American history” are no more obscure than they sound. It’s simply the history of America. Unfortunately, the history of America isn’t as virtuous as those in charge of our schools textbooks would like us to think. What can the textbook authors do about this? Lie, of course. So many of our favorite tales of valor, righteousness, and lionhearted leaders of America are not, and have never been told in truth. Why might this be? Everyone needs a hero. What makes this seemingly harmless statement as damaging as it sincerely is, is the fact that not only have we made heroes out of nearly every significant figure from our past, but that unless these figures are nearly flawless, no one believes they could pass as a “true hero” in our country. America is the mother sheltering its children from everything unholy. Unfortunately, we are the ones suffering.
American history being taught selectively leads to students learning only bits and pieces of history, and many of these bits and pieces are manipulated into being something other than history. When nearly every American we learn about is a “hero”, it’s apparent that something is happening here. Imagine being lost in a desert, and your whole life you’ve been taught that the only way to save yourself when lost in a desert is to eat sand. Would the sand really keep you from dehydrating? Not only would it not help your dehydration, it would surely make you much worse off than you would have been had you not eaten the sand. False knowledge can and will only hurt those learning it. If students continue to be fed this “sand”, they’re destined to “die in the desert”. This leads me to believe that there are absolutely no benefits that will come out of molding history to suit wants. Students remain ignorant of their country’s true history, and lack the knowledge that could otherwise be so crucial to their endeavors in the future. It is understood that history is a subject that’s content range is so vast that the only means of teaching it will be somewhat selective. The problem arises when the selected content isn’t actually history, but lies. If American history is to be taught selectively, then those in charge must be sure to select as many as the crucial points as possible, and ensure that they are being taught as truthfully as possible. Selective history allows for a wider range of content to be covered, but if it isn’t the truth then it’s not history class, it’s human manipulation.
The fact that history is taught like this disgusts me. I’ve grown up with a Vietnam veteran as my father, and I heard more horrifying truth before the age of ten than any high school graduate around. It’s a shame that the only way to see the importance and truth in history is to live with the history makers themselves. In my case, it’s a privilege. I think that American history should be told for exactly what it is. If it puts Americans at fault, then it’s because the Americans were at fault. If it portrays Americans as heroes, then let it be because on that very day, at that very moment, we were heroes. The circumstances in which I was raised have had a profound influence on my beliefs of this subject. If I were anyone other than myself, I’d just pray that it might be someone that’s been affected in a way similar to how I have so as not to lose my love for history. The real history, that is.
I started out by reading chapter three, The Truth about the First Thanksgiving, Throughout this chapter, Loewen exposes Thanksgiving, one of America’s most beloved holidays, as yet another event in our history that truthfully, we cannot justify as anything to be proud of. “The Pilgrims did not introduce the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries.” (Loewen, pg. 90) When surveying students, Loewen found that students recalled all too much of the euphoric stories of Squanto helping his beloved Pilgrim friends and the Mayflower compact as the forerunner to our constitution. Not only have the students been mislead, but most simply have no idea of the truth. Could it be mere chance that students seem to miss the plague that destroyed nearly everything in its path? “Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 to 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England.” (Loewen, pg. 75) Is this something not worth mentioning in an American history course? The fact is, to most textbook authors it really isn’t worth mentioning. Bringing a disease to a new land and wiping out nearly all of its inhabitants in no way can lead to any sort of honorable tale of glorious American triumph. This seems like a task not even the lying, manipulating authors could handle. On observing high school textbooks, Loewen found that of twelve textbooks “only three of them even mentioned Indian disease as a factor at Plymouth or anywhere in New England.” (Loewen, pg. 80) While the Europeans believed the spread of disease to be God approving of their deeds and helping them achieve their goals, the Natives felt abandoned by their gods. They were completely helpless against their English opposition because of the disease, and so it showed.
The most surprising information I came across in this chapter was the fact that not only have students been mislead, but the adults that are far gone from being students still, for the most part, know very little about important things from our history’s past. This was particularly easy to see when I took time to think about how many times an adult has tried to teach me the true story of Thanksgiving throughout my life. It’s not an easy thing, to teach the truth, when you yourself don’t know the truth. If our country holds Thanksgiving to be as important as it is to us as Americans, then perhaps it might be important to know why we find it important to begin with. It is that about the information I learned in chapter three that I find most compelling.
In chapter four, Red Eyes, the author claims American Indians to be "the most lied-about subset of our population" (Loewen, pg. 93). This chapter focuses on the Native Americans as a scapegoat for much of the European invader’s wrongdoings. Even up until modern day, Native Americans have been forced to keep their outrage to themselves. The settlers, as ignorant of the situation as they may have been, considered the Native Americans to be savages, and so they portrayed them as such. The saddest part of all of this, to me, is that no matter how many years ago that was, they are still portrayed with the same blissful ignorance. For instance, Americans have had the idea that the settlers ventured into an untamed land where the “savage Indians” were just as much of a nuisance as the animals inhabiting the wilderness. Loewen, observing American perspective, has concluded that “Thoughtless use of the term civilized and civilization blocks any real inquiry into the worldview or the social structure of the “uncivilized” person or society”(Loewen, pg. 101), and so it has. There most likely would have been no successful settling by the whites would it not have been for the pre-established settlements of the Natives. If the Native societies were anywhere near as uncivilized as the whites claimed them to be, then they probably wouldn’t have had the effect on European society that they did have. Explorers returned to Europe with new crops that became very important to them in the eighteenth century and allowed for an increase in population. Each hemisphere was greatly affected by one another. This clearly means that they both had something important, whether it be positive or negative, to contribute. Seeing how Europe was affected by the Native Americans, this can only mean that they were an important influential people as well. Even today, the Native American people have been restricted from voicing an opinion, that no matter how truthful, might hurt the image of America. It’s ironic that this be the case considering our nation was built with much help from the Native Americans, and according to Lies My Teacher Told Me, “Native American ideas are partly responsible for our democratic institutions.” (Loewen, pg. 108)
Native Americans tend to have a lot of blame thrown on their shoulders. They have been portrayed as the villains in pictures, films, and books against the “honorable” European settlers. “Similarly, textbooks give the readers no clue as to what the zone of contact was like from the Native side. They emphasize Native Americans such as Squanto and Pocahontas, who sided with the invaders. And they invert the terms, picturing white aggressors as “settlers” and often showing Native settlers as aggressors.” (Loewen, pg. 114) Fortunately, the Natives haven’t been blamed for all of the violence in textbooks since the civil rights movement. I’ve had an idea of the true relations between the Europeans and the Natives growing up. Most of what came surprising to me in this chapter is the fact that teaching the truth about Native American relations with the Europeans shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as it seems to have been in the past, yet it hasn’t been done in full. This information became slightly less surprising to me after reading previous chapters of this book, but equally as alarming as any other massively misunderstood subject presented. As long as we live in America, this is just another instance of negative race relations between whites and non-whites that have been all too plentiful from the beginning. The Land of Opportunity, chapter seven, examines the outlook and false knowledge high school contributes to students understanding of social classes in America. An important point of this chapter is students misunderstanding of why some people are considered lower, upper, or middle class. After asking first year college students why they felt some people were poor, Loewen received answers that overall amounted in an observation that “The students blame the poor for not being successful. They have no understanding of the ways that opportunity is not equal in America and no notion that social structure pushes people around, influencing the ideas they hold and the lives they fashion.” (Loewen, pg. 205) Only five of eighteen books observed by Loewen provided any analysis of social stratification in the United States. The textbooks like to keep it in the minds of the students that America is still the “mostly middle-class” society that it was before 1967. They, for the most part, haven’t found it important enough to teach the changes that have occurred since then. It’s no wonder why we have homeless people all over the country. Can it be that every homeless person would rather be lazy and starve than to work? I don’t think so, but apparently most people do. “Although poor and working-class children usually cannot identify the cause of their alienation, history often turns them off because it justifies rather than explains the present.” (Loewen, pg. 218) It’s more than homeless people that social class has affected. It’s affected the structure of our government and the every day lives of every single living person in our country. People cannot live being as ignorant as they are now forever. This all starts in our schools. This is where the focal point must be.
Though alarming, I did not find much of this chapter to be surprising. I’ve always been baffled by peoples shallowness and what seems like a never-ending urge to “not know”. This I know must be fixed. If our society continues to have the blinded outlook it has now, the lower-class will grow and grow until it becomes the only class. Watching Big Brother, chapter eight.examines how textbooks handle teaching about the United States government. At this point, it will most likely come to no surprise that American history classes aren’t teaching students everything they may need to know what goes on behind the scenes of our government, simply because it could make the government less powerful if the people even knew they had a reason to revolt. This makes George Orwells’ 1984 all too realistic. On discussing what textbooks do say about our government, Loewen wrote; “they imply that the state we live in today is the state created in 1789.” (Loewen, pg. 220) What can go wrong in a country where nothing goes wrong? If this were really the case, the answer would be nothing. Even if it’s not the case, which it isn’t, why not just go along with it to feel a little better about the things that actually do go wrong? Now that we’re right were they want us to be, we are what they want us to be. Ignorant. Even our heroic presidents have been caught in the act. “President Eisenhower used national security as his excuse when he was caught in an obvious lie: he denied that the United States was flying over Soviet airspace, only to have captured airmen Gary Powers admit the truth on Russian television.” (Loewen, pg. 233) I can only imagine some of the things us Americans have been lied to about recently.
Once again, this chapter was more alarming than surprising. As long as the American people are lied to, they are blind. As long as they are blind, they are lied to. We must end this cycle by opening our eyes and wanting to know the truth rather than politely waiting until it’s forced to show itself. Certain instances of these lies were new knowledge, but none surprising. That’s not an assuring feeling to live with. It would be nice if these lies were at least surprising.
Now, for the most touchy subject of the book for me, the Vietnam War. Chapter nine, See No Evil explains what most textbooks fail to explain. Once again, the truth. Most textbooks quote only Johnson or Nixon and none of the soldiers that know the true story considering they “wrote” the story. The War of 1812, which killed maybe 2000 Americans and took place two centuries ago enjoys as much coverage in most textbooks as the Vietnam War. Very few textbooks display images of the real Vietnam War, and none display the whole truth. Those in charge might not be proud of what they sent the soldiers over there to do, but the families of those soldiers who know their true heroism are. I know none to brag, and I anything keep their stories to themselves because they have been taught to be ashamed of them. This fact makes me sick. My own father once told me that as the soldiers were coming home from Vietnam they were being spat on by American citizens. Could they possibly be that blind? Luckily, for my own conscious, my father was never spat on. He threatened to break their necks, which in all honesty, I think he had the right to do. The soldiers and the stories of the Vietnam War have been left on the backburner. America lives in fear of dealing with the issues, and instead forgets they ever existed. “Fear of controversy may be why Florida’s Disney World, in its “American Adventure” exhibit, a twenty-nine minute history of the United States, completely, if awkwardly, leaves out the Vietnam War. (Loewen, pg. 257) Is it that easy to forget? “In Vietnam the United States dropped three times as many explosives as it dropped in all theaters of World War II, even including our nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”. (Loewen, pg. 248) All of this destruction is on par with The War of 1812 according to our textbooks. How may bombs do you think were really dropped in The War of 1812? Even the antiwar movement becomes nothing when taught in textbooks, and according to Loewen, “the entire antiwar movement becomes unintelligible in many textbooks, because they do not allow it to speak for itself.” (Loewen, pg. 252) It’s as simple as saying “they manipulated things even more”. Simply put by Loewen, “Neither our textbooks nor most teachers help students think critically about the Vietnam War and marshall historical evidence to support their conclusions.” (Loewen, pg. 256)
This chapter, I find to be extremely alarming. I find it to be very unfair to those that fought in the war, and even more so, those that died in it. I know for a fact that this information would be surprising to most Americans. Why enter the war if they can’t deal with it. I assure you, there not the ones that have the horrible things to cope with for the rest of their lives.
I completely agree with the points Loewen made throughout the whole book. History can only really be history if it’s what really happened. History is truth. And truth, pleasant or not is what we learn from. It’s what we build our future from. The past is so much more important to the future than what it’s believed to be by most. I feel Loewen did a great job at teaching his readers what America is to shy to teach.
I think American history is taught this way because we came to this land with an idea of a self-image, and it hasn’t changed since. Our thirst for a perfect self-image often puts us even lower in the eyes of truth than we would have been if we would have faced the facts and learned from them. On the contrary, America is ran by humans, and humans have trouble facing unpleasant facts. In truth, America is a land of mystery.
If the public school system doesn’t change their philosophy, they might as well send their students home for a period to watch the History Channel. Who would want to consciously be in charge of ruining the minds of our youth? Unless the schools make it their job to learn, they can’t possibly expect the students to make it their job to learn. No one steps onto a football field and expects to win without knowing the rules. Likewise, no one makes it in the real world without knowing the real world. For when our students are taught to be ignorant, they learn to be ignorant.