Letters: ‘Textbooks Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg’

Readers consider textbooks’ biases—and their limitations as teaching tools.

Joe Corrigan / Stringer / Getty

How History Classes Helped Create a 'Post-Truth' America

In a recent interview for TheAtlantic.com, Alia Wong spoke with James W. Loewen, the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, about how schools’ flawed approach to teaching the country’s past affects its civic health.

As a history teacher, I agree with James W. Loewen’s indictment of history textbooks. But Loewen is old school. Many of today’s history teachers, and all the good ones, have shunned textbooks. They’re using primary sources, film, and other tools that require critical thinking and prompt students to draw their own conclusions about the past.

Tom Bienemann
Spokane, Wash.

I am a high school history teacher. I also own Mr. Loewen’s original 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. I enjoyed the book, but Mr. Loewen’s argument is based on the assumption that the only resource history teachers use and make available to their students is the textbook. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Textbooks are, by necessity, only brief introductions to any given topic. They tend to run about 1000 pages. For U.S. history, they usually cover 500+ years in that space. For world history, it’s more like 5000+ years. Naturally, nuance and detail suffer under the circumstances. Any history teacher worth their salt knows this to be the case and supplements the textbook the students have with many additional sources. The internet is a valuable tool in introducing students to primary sources and giving them practice in analyzing those sources, as well as more in-depth coverage of topics by respected historians. There are limitations to what we can cover in a 36-week school year, however, so, yes, some subjects are not given as much coverage as we would like. But the goal is to teach students to evaluate a wide variety of sources and materials so they can intelligently pursue those topics they wish to research on their own.

I think Loewen’s blanket statement that history education is “broken” is far from true and lacks nuance, precisely the accusation he makes against the textbooks! Could history education be improved? Of course. There is always room for improvement. I and my fellow social studies educators strive for that every day. As a new school year begins, I would challenge Mr. Loewen to actually see what happens in history classrooms before he passes judgement. I agree that textbooks do not offer much nuance and often give short shrift to important topics. But textbooks are just the tip of the iceberg in the materials made available to history students today.

Barbara Marshall
Fairbanks, Alaska

By saying “we historians tend to make everything so nuanced that the idea of truth almost disappears,” Loewen seems to maintain that “truth” is hidden among myriad details, and that historians lose sight of it by getting caught up in these details. Loewen’s belief that not all historical “narratives” hold equal amounts of water is commendable. However, excavating truth is delicate. Take away too many details or too much nuance and you can damage the artifact, the truth; leave too many details in there and the truth is still hidden in the dirt.

As for Loewen’s hypothesis that somewhere there exists “a bedrock of fact,” it is also commendable, but slightly naïve. Aside from perhaps dates, no historical “fact” is devoid of some sort of judgment; after all, deciding which facts to record bespeaks some judgement on the gravity of certain facts over others.

Rebekah Edwards
St. Davids, Pa.

Lies My Teacher Told Me are actually lies my school board insisted that they tell me, since so many school boards approve textbooks. There may be accurate texts written but never selected. And teachers keep their jobs by following the text that’s mandated. Concerned citizens need to pay more attention to who is running for school board if we want facts and critical thinking to be even a part of history instruction.

Sally Holland
Middlebury, Vt.

I spent 28 years as a social studies teacher in public schools. The state of North Carolina slashed textbook funding for the last ten years of my tenure. This was a blessing; I was able to find other ways to teach the complicated history of the United States, and civics and economics, too. Students were exposed to the ideas of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

It is a tough gig. Not every teacher is reliant upon textbooks. Especially when you do not have them to assign to students.

David Dickson
Denison, Tex.

As an African American high school economics teacher, I found Loewen’s book distinctly refreshing and frustrating. I went back to our state-/district-issued economics textbook to put Loewen’s critiques to the test for a different subject, and discovered how engagingly it presented the advantages of capitalism and the disadvantages of socialism, and how underwhelmingly it presented the disadvantages of capitalism and the advantages of socialism. I found the textbook’s failure to cite slavery (free labor) as the particular vehicle by which capitalism in America could succeed to be problematic. Additionally, the positive and ethnocentric biographical snapshot of Adam Smith as “the father of economics” was astonishingly naïve and boring. I encourage every educator to go back to their textbooks and challenge the text, and think of questions that aren’t easy to answer.

Timothy Thomas
Fort Worth, Tex.

Schools’  flawed approach to teaching history affects not only the nation’s civic health, but its physical health, too. I am a nursing educator in California, and have seen examples of this in the textbooks used to educate nurses. Pearson Education, one of the biggest publishers of nursing texts, published horrendous stereotypes about people of color and the Jewish population in its textbook Nursing: A Concept-Based Approach to Learning (the company later apologized and removed the “offensive information” from e-text versions of the book and future print editions).

Page 161 in Volume 1 of the the 2014 edition states:

[Arabs/Muslims] may not request pain medication but instead thank Allah for the pain if it is the result of a healing medical procedure. ...

Chinese clients may not ask for medication because they do not want to take the nurse away from a more important task. ...

Blacks often report higher pain intensity than other cultures. ...

Jews may be vocal and demanding of assistance. ...

Hispanics may believe that pain is a form of punishment and that suffering must be endured if they are to enter heaven. ...

Native Americans may prefer to receive medication that has been blessed by a tribal shaman.

I wonder why minorities have the highest healthcare disparities. When we learn from our mistakes, we realize racism, implicit or otherwise, hurts us all.

Denise Dawkins
Bakersfield, Calif.

James W. Loewen replies:

Obviously Bienemann and Marshall are exemplary history teachers. I did not mean to imply such people don’t exist. Indeed, I dedicated the first edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me “to all American history teachers who teach against their textbooks,” and I added to that dedication this phrase for the latest edition: “(and their numbers keep growing).” Unfortunately, in too many classrooms taught by less dedicated teachers (and yes, I meant both meanings), textbooks are not “just the tip of the iceberg,” they remain the bulk of “materials made available to history students today.” Foundering on this massive iceberg—textbooks are 20% longer than they were before the internet!—history classes sink to the bottom in popularity with students, perceived relevance, and utility after graduation.

Edwards is right: Each issue must be judged anew, and carefully. For example, the very first issue, how and when people first got to the Americas, is still up for grabs, with new theories and evidence appearing almost monthly. What a wonderful beginning to a U.S. history course!—the admission that there are no factoids to “learn,” that instead we must begin by weighing evidence and deciding why this source is more credible than that one. Some other issues, on the other hand, are settled. Anyone who claims that the Southern states seceded for states’ rights, for example, has to come up with a credible theory as to why all statements their leaders made when seceding were against states’ rights, enumerating the states and the rights that particularly prompted them to depart.

Textbook adoption is indeed a key problem. I know: A book I wrote (with co-authors), Mississippi: Conflict and Change, was rejected by the Mississippi State Textbook Board, leading to an important lawsuit, Loewen et al v. Turnipseed et al. Holland is right: Elect good people!

I suggest that the days of the >1,000-page textbook should be over. Giving students 250-page paperbacks, with the basic chronology, would cost less than loaning them these huge hardbounds. Then teachers would be forced to supplement, with web sources, etc., and history courses would become more interesting.

To Timothy Thomas: I encourage you to write Lies My Economics Teacher Told Me.

Dawkins’s story reminds me of another time Pearson committed a cardinal sin. In updating Lies My Teacher Told Me, I found that two high school U.S. history textbooks from Pearson Prentice Hall contained virtually identical language for page after page. The discovery prompted a front-page New York Times story. Like U.S. history, nursing is too important to be left to the likes of Pearson.