Books Every American Should Read: Chapter 1: ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’

As someone who minored in American Studies – as well as political science – and owns a bookcase of well worn history books, I take a lot of pride in my knowledge of American History.

And still, James W. Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” brings me news surprises on each page. The thoroughly researched, iconoclastic book was first written in 1995 and updated more than a decade later. Loewen’s book is a criticism of history textbooks. It shows how they don’t prepare students to tackle todays issues because the authors’ inability to show conflict, need to paint incomplete portraits of our nation’s heroes and, ultimately, fear of controversy. Part of the book’s magic is Loewen’s detailed analysis. The other part is the snappy writing.

Take, for example, this passage from “Lies'” fifth chapter, “Gone with the Wind: The Invisibility of Racism in American History Textbooks.”

“The emotions generated by the textbook descriptions of slavery is sadness, not anger. For there’s no one to be angry at. Somehow we ended up with four million slaves in America but no owners. This is part of a pattern in our textbooks: Anything bad in American history happened anonymously. Everyone named in our history made a positive contribution. Or as Frances FitzGerald put it when she analyzed textbooks in 1979, “In all history, there is no known case of anyone’s creating a problem for anyone else.”

Certainly the Founding Fathers never created one. “Popular modern depictions of Washington and Jefferson,” historian David Lowenthal points out, “are utterly at variance with their lives as eighteenth-century slave-holding planters.” Textbooks play their part by minimizing slavery in the lives of the founders. …”

This, I guess, is where the anti-PC crowd steps in and whines that we’re knocking our Founders unnecessarily. That we can’t judge them based on modern mores. This, of course, is hogwash. Loewen expertly points out why.

15 books every American should read

Over the course of the next 15 days, I’m going to list the 15 books – some fiction, some non-fiction -that I think every American should read. They’re not going to be in any order. Just 15 books.

Loewen’s “Lies” is first because it’s the book I’m actually reading right now. Truth be told, I thought I’d read it when I was in college. Five paragraphs in, I realize I hadn’t. That college kid would have had a hard time swallowing some of what is in the book. Thankfully, I’d had very good history teachers, people who challenged my brain and made me a better person. But still, I wasn’t going to listen to anyone knock Ben Franklin or George Washington. Jefferson, OK. I’ve never really like Thomas. I’ve always thought he far too two-faced for me. Too much of an ideologue who didn’t have any feet on the ground.

One of the best classes I had in college was Race and American Memory. It was a fascinating and thorough look at race relations. Like Loewen’s lies, it delved into the source material to show you how we still haven’t come to grips with the issues of slavery. More on that in an upcoming post, though.

Loewen’s book doesn’t just tackle race. It looks at a broad range of subjects, from Christopher Columbus and the first Thanksgiving, to Vietnam.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who can’t handle a thorough and more truthful paining of our history. They’re often quick to call things politically correct. But they’re the ones who don’t like their beliefs to be challenged and seem to avoid the facts as much as they can.

The problem, as Loewen points out, is that when you know an incorrect history, you can’t really appreciate today’s problems.

I often bring this up in discussions on State’s Rights. One thing – and one thing only – caused the Civil War. Slavery. It’s in the founding documents of the Confederate States. But Loewen’s book brought up a point that I’d never known. Some of those founding documents of the confederacy also prove that State’s Rights was a myth. As the war was about to break out, some northern states passed laws that were very anti-slavery. Loewen particularly shows a Pennsylvania law that, while acknowledging the Fugitive Slave Act, said law enforcement officials wouldn’t be paid for “capturing and returning alleged slaves.” South Carolina, among others, objected to such laws in their declarations of secession. In other words, free states’ rights wasn’t necessary.

I can’t help but think the population’s ignorance about such issues has helped get us to where we are to day. As far as I’ve gotten into the book, Loewen hasn’t pointed out the difference in the connotation between advocating for “States’ Rights” and advocating for Federalism.


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