Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

by James W. Loewen

Paperback, 2018



Call number




The New Press (2018), Edition: Reprint, 480 pages


Criticizes the way history is presented in current textbooks, and suggests a fresh and more accurate approach to teaching American history.

User reviews

LibraryThing member gbill
Brilliant, and should be read by all American citizens. If this book doesn’t convince you of the aphorisms that “history is bunk” and “history is written by the victors,” nothing will. Loewen points out where people on both sides of the political aisle in American history have been
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glamorized or vilified unfairly, points out how huge historical moments have been completely whitewashed for political reasons, and paints a chilling portrait of how U.S. History is taught in American high schools. As he says, it’s the only subject where the more one is taught at that level, there is more to be un-taught at the college level, and as only one in six Americans take a history class after high school, the result is a populace with not only less understanding of its past, but much less better prepared to cope with its future. And despite what sounds like a salacious title, this is not some cockamamie hit job based on half-truths or conspiracy theories, but a very well researched account of history, one with a massive number of footnotes, and which only seeks truth and accuracy.

It’s not possible to summarize everything he unearths in this book, but he visits our history from the earliest European colonizers all the way through our wars in the Middle East. While many of these things, e.g. early colonizers like Columbus, the pilgrims, manifest destiny, and the southern “lost cause” have come under greater scrutiny in the past couple of decades, the richness of the detail he provides, based on firsthand accounts, is very informative. There are individuals such as Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, and John Brown who I won’t see the same way again. He also makes persuasive arguments about how our history avoids problems with not just race, but class as well, perpetuating the myth of an egalitarian meritocracy as told from a distinctive, white European male bias, and often a conservative one at that.

I liked how he tied some of the prevailing traits of Americans – optimism, nationalism, and the blind eye cast to some the country’s enormous historical sins – to how high school history books are written. He is not afraid to point out the unfortunate hypocrisy in America, for example, declaring a desire that the world be free and allowed to self-govern, and yet so often undermining elections, installing puppet dictators, and in some cases attempting assassinations. Or reacting with piousness over the racism and genocide of other countries, without fully acknowledging or atoning for its own. Or criticizing the teaching of what amounts to state sponsored propaganda in autocratic countries, and yet essentially doing the same thing with its own history, deliberately presenting a version that omits problematic bits (to say the least) and emphasizes a rosy view of continual progress.

The book won’t try to make you hate your country – in fact, I find it’s the opposite. I love the fact that Loewen was allowed to write this book in a free country, and that we’re allowed to criticize our leaders, teachers, historians, and the system.

The last couple of chapters, where he delves into the history book writing process and the result on students, are important, but a little less effective. They were informative and I appreciated the light he put on how the books are subcontracted to those without history degrees, and loosely managed by editors who care most about not offending conservative school approval boards, but he’s too repetitive and verbose. I also found it ironic that while critiquing history books for their failures to stay current and accurate as each edition is released, his own book contains the 1990’s era truth that most college educated people are Republicans, a trend that was no longer true in 2018 when this edition was published (in fact, the numbers are now completely opposite). It may have been just me; I preferred to learn more about the various eras of history and people who have been incorrectly portrayed (either positively or negatively), and there he is razor sharp.

There are far too many quotes and factoids in this book to ever hope to extract them, not that that has stopped me on other occasions. The only little poetic bit that I would like to capture is this though:

“Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likenesses in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead.”
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Physical description

480 p.; 9.25 inches


1620973928 / 9781620973929
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