How History Classes Helped Create a 'Post-Truth' America
The author of Lies My Teacher Told Me discusses how schools’ flawed approach to teaching the country’s past affects its civic health.
In 1995, the University of Vermont sociologist and historian James W. Loewen published a book that sought to debunk the myriad myths children were often taught about the United States’ past. Framed largely as a critique of the history education delivered in America’s classrooms but also serving as a history text itself, Lies My Teacher Told Me was the result of Loewen’s analysis of a dozen major high-school textbooks. It found that those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways. Take, for example, the false yet relatively widespread conviction that the Reconstruction era was a chaotic period whose tumult was attributable to poor, uncivilized governance of recently freed slaves. Textbooks’ framing of the history in this way, according to Loewen, promoted racist attitudes among white people. White supremacists in the South, for example, repeatedly cited this interpretation of Reconstruction to justify the prevention of black people from voting.
Loewen didn’t veer from his conclusions with the second-edition release of Lies My Teacher Told Me in 2007, for which he analyzed six new history textbooks. The books’ treatment of what were then new developments, such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, reinforced his belief that history education in the U.S. is fundamentally broken.
Now, with the release this summer of a new paperback version of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen contends that his bestselling book has “new significance … owing to detrimental developments in America’s recent public discourse.” By providing students an inadequate history education, Loewen argues, America’s schools breed adults who tend to conflate empirical fact and opinion, and who lack the media literacy necessary to navigate conflicting information. I recently spoke to Loewen about how the quality of Americans’ history education could affect the country’s civic health. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Alia Wong: What’s changed with regard to your thinking on history education since the first edition came out in 1995? What about since the second edition in 2007?
James W. Loewen: Not much has changed in my thinking, and that’s because I think I was right in the first place. What has changed has to do with our current intellectual era. History and social studies, as taught in school, make us less good at thinking critically about our past. For one, textbooks don’t teach us to challenge, to read critically—they are just supposed to provide exercises in stuff to learn. Secondly, the textbooks (and the people who teach from those textbooks) don’t teach causality. They aren’t designed to have students memorize anything about causality—what causes racism, for example, what causes a decrease in racism. That means that those of us who are more than 18 years old and are out of high school and voting may have never had anybody teach us anything about what causes what in society.
Wong: How do you think inadequate history education plays into what some describe as the country’s current “post-truth” moment?
Loewen: History is by far our worst-taught subject in high school; I think we’re stupider in thinking about the past than we are, say, in thinking about Shakespeare, or algebra, or other subjects. We historians tend to make everything so nuanced that the idea of truth almost disappears. People in graduate history programs have said things to me like: Why should we privilege one narrative above others with the term “true”? That kind of implies that all narratives are equal—or, at least, that all narratives have some merit, that no narrative has all the merit. But maybe there is such thing as a bedrock of fact. Take the way we talk about the Civil War, for example. A lot of people will say that the war grew out disputes about tariffs and taxes; many others say it had to do with states’ rights. Well, it’s quite the contrary—the southern states seceded so they could uphold slavery. Sometimes we don’t need nuance.
Wong: How should teachers and history materials treat information that does deserve nuance?
Loewen: Textbooks should admit uncertainty. The very first thing that we teach in U.S.-history courses is when and how people first got to the Americas. The best answer is: We’re not sure. But the darned textbooks don’t say that—except for one of the 18 textbooks I studied intensively. Ironically, it’s the oldest one—it was published way back in the 1970s, and it says something like: The information in this section may be outdated by the time you read it. And by just saying that, it turns out to be the only textbook that is not outdated, even in 2018. All of the others conclude that the ancestors of Native Americans walked across the Bering Strait on a certain date. The consensus on that has broken down in the last 10 years. Textbooks could start right off by saying: We don’t know everything—isn’t that cool?
[History classes teach fictions about race in America.]
Wong: I was talking with a colleague about her history-education experience, and she recalls never learning what happened after the 1960s; I don’t remember my history classes ever extending beyond that period, either. Is that common? And if so, why is it that U.S.-history classes so often fail to teach students about the country’s more recent past?
Loewen: The recent past is always more controversial. It used to be that classes never even reached the war in Vietnam—even today that happens. Nobody’s going to get in a big fight with their parents about what their teacher said on the War of 1812, but what about when a teacher says the war in Vietnam wasn’t in our interest, that it was a terrible mistake, that it was done for domestic political reasons? What about when a teacher says that Bill Clinton shouldn’t have been impeached? Many Americans supported his impeachment, and a lot of those people are still alive, so teachers often decide: Let’s not emphasize the recent past.
I argue that anything with implications for the present is de-emphasized. For example, we can talk about slavery because it ended; it now has become an American success story because we voted it out and fought it out. What about racism, though? Racism was, of course, the ideological justification for slavery. Slavery and racism were tightly entwined, but while slavery ended in the 1860s, racism doesn’t just end. We should discuss what caused racism to endure. If you can’t use history to illuminate racism, what is history good for?
Wong: Isn’t it possible that history books are just really long, and that—perhaps because of poor planning—classes simply run out of time to teach the last few chapters?
Loewen: Certainly time pressure and the felt need to cover so many topics play a role. But I’d argue that that poor planning has an interest behind it because the earlier history is less controversial.
Wong: You write in the new version of Lies My Teacher Told Me that “there is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.” What do you mean by that?
Loewen: Take, for example, the way textbooks handle the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The practice was hardly a secret—at the time it was well covered in the press. But what did the textbooks say in 1947? What did they say in 1950, or 1960? Well, they said very little about the incarceration; they just had a couple of sentences, if anything, and sometimes they even tried to justify it. But then the country changed course and paid $20,000 to every survivor; the federal government issued a formal apology. After that, some textbooks have two whole pages on this, with pictures, denouncing the practice. Why did the textbooks do that? Now that they have justice in the present, it makes it easier for us to face the past. And the reverse is also true—it’s a two-way street.