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

by James W. Loewen

Paperback, 2018





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 marag
I loved this book in its first edition, and I love it even more now that it's been revised and reprinted. Loewen clearly lays out the problem of the teaching of American history, how bad it is, why it is that way, and some ideas about what to do about it.

It's fascinating reading, even for someone who thinks they know a lot about American history (like, Once again, I've learned things, understand more about America and about the process of writing history.

A brilliant book and one that every American should read at least once (if not multiple times, in order to remember more).
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LibraryThing member JFurey
In Lies My Teacher Told Me, historian James Loewen critically analyzes our country's deeply flawed methods of teaching our own history, the impact that these methods have on the students that must learn from them. Loewen tears down the popular perception of a number of events and periods in our nation's history, from Christopher Columbus's so-called discovery of America to the Civil Rights movement, and leaves us with a much different view of these events, a view that is often much more difficult than the ones that we've grown accustomed to. But Loewen's goal here isn't to simply depress or burden readers with the more honest, more complicated view of American History (though that would still be a laudable goal in itself). Rather, he carefully examines why our history is taught this way, and how such methods negatively shape our perception of our shared heritage.

Loewen purports that through constant whitewashing and borderline-deification of historical figures our perception of the past, and by extension the present, is warped in such a way that we view our world from the sidelines, as spectators rather than participants. By attributing major historical changes to individuals rather than social movements, history lessons effectively discourage active participation in current events. After all, why bother trying to change the world when a Lincoln or MLK will inevitably come along and do it anyway? He also makes the point that the version of history we are often taught tends to be far too Eurocentric, often ignoring or spending little time on the actions and contributions from non-white, non-male figures who played significant roles in history. Loewen points out that the myopic perspective from which history is taught often make the subject seem alienating and marginalizing for students of other heritages and backgrounds.

When I first read Lies My Teacher Told Me, it had an incredible impact on the way that I view and approach a number of things in my life. There are the eye-opening history lessons, sure, but more than that, it made me consider the impact that history can have on our view of the world. There aren’t many books that I can say have honestly changed my worldview as much as Lies has, and that’s probably the greatest praise that a book can receive.
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LibraryThing member keristars
Lies My Teacher Told Me came to my attention years ago, and I've always had it in the back of my mind as something I might get around to one day. Recently, I read Guns, Germs, and Steel and got on a history kick (even if I don't have much esteem for Diamond), so it seemed a good time for Lies. Both books are often brought up when talking about how history gets whitewashed and simplified/"prettified" for the popular memory.

I specifically looked for the revised version of Lies because it discusses events as recent as 2007, and has amended earlier sections to reflect more recent research and newer textbooks which are more similar to those I had in high school. I found it somewhat difficult to see exactly what the differences in the versions are, though. I wasn't sure if it was just the recent history that was added or not - but in reading Lies, I discovered that the entire book had been rewritten to reflect the new information.

However, there are still several spots where the statements Loewen makes felt a bit dated. I don't think it's because the history or view of it has changed, but rather because he's making generalizations that haven't held up over the years. And, also, I think I tend to travel in fairly progressive circles but Loewen is attempting to write a book that will appeal to a much broader swath than my groups would fit into.

For the most part, Loewen did not tell me anything new, but I did recognize a lot of things that I "learned" in my history classes, and then I tried to figure out where I learned the "real" facts that Loewen gives (and often failed! yet somehow these things have been made known to me). It was also amusing, as a fan of Disney and Walt Disney World, where I visited almost monthly as a kid, to see so many "lies" and how they're represented in the Disney Patriotism that has always felt cloying, overly sentimental, and too focused on a pretty, feel-good ideal.

I found myself appreciating the way Loewen points out the political and cultural reasons for why certain facts of history are glossed over or ignored entirely. That and some finer details added to my general understanding of US history, and should help me articulate things better in the future. Also, I have always been terribly confused by the Vietnam War and events following in the '70s and '80s, no doubt caused by lack of discussion in my history classes in the late '90s. Loewen's discussions of the period helped a lot - I felt a bit like lightbulbs were going off over my head with each page.

So, on the whole, I do like Lies and think it was well worth a read. But I have some reservations.

My first reservation is that Loewen explicitly refers to Jared Diamond twice, both times in a positive tone. This made me much more skeptical of Lies, because I have very little trust in Diamond thanks to Guns, Germs, and Steel and likewise am skeptical of anyone who refers to Diamond's books as good scholarship.

The other reservation is in Loewen's generalizations and descriptions of how "people" think or feel. They often felt a little bit off or overly generalized, as though he was doing much of what he claims the textbooks do in order to make facts and data better fit his narrative thesis. Now, they didn't strike me as super wrong, but just a little too easy. On the whole, I think he's right, and I have no problem with the facts and figures that he presents. But usually if he starts in on "this is how people felt" or "this is what X society was really doing", it struck me as overstating his case.
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LibraryThing member SwitchKnitter
This is a critique of American history textbooks that offers some real history to counteract the empty platitudes of those tomes. It teaches some real history along the way, mostly about white Americans' relationships with Native Americans and African Americans. It's brutal in places, but it's a very good read. this is the second edition of the book. The original came out in the 90's, and it was updated heavily for the 2007 release.… (more)
LibraryThing member rpisano
This book was awful. My American History teacher had us read this book over the summer, and the only that kept me going, was the end in sight.

Yes I do concede that Loewen did a good job pointing out many misconceptions and mistakes in textbooks that are read by high school students, but he had many mistakes in his book too. He spent a long time talking about how textbooks are too biased, but his book is extremely biased as well. I am currently reading The American Pageant, which is one of the books Loewen hammered for being a poor book, but I see fewer problems in my textbook than in his book. He shows extreme biases to certain political ideologies, and even makes a bad joke at President George H. W. Bush very soon into the first chapter. He attempted to make a funny spin off of Anne Richard's famous remark at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, but it ends up being a red herring for things to come.

Loewen spends too much time acting as if he knows all and no one else knows anything. He comes off as an elitist sociologist professor that needs to understand that history no single person can always to right.

I recommend this book, under the grounds that some interesting things can be learned from this book, but be aware of his extreme bias.
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LibraryThing member ladycato
I recall hearing about this book when it came out in the '90s, but it remains pertinent today. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong is a thought-provoking read on the fact and intent of history textbooks. It begins at the purported beginning of America with Christopher Columbus. Of course, that wasn't the real beginning - native peoples had been residing here for thousands of years. Loewen sorts through the facts, citing actual textbook passages and then demonstrating how primary material proves the books to be outright lies or embellishments.

However, from the vantage point of publishers and teachers, the textbooks are a success. The point of the book isn't to encourage critical thinking - it's to invoke a sense of patriotism and pride. How are we supposed to have pride in Columbus's greed or obliteration of Haitians? The accomplishments of Plymouth settlers seem a lot more bold when they are described as carving a home in the wilderness - not that they took over the pre-existing village of (Squanto's) tribe who had all died due to European diseases. Or how about the founding fathers' use of slaves? Or Abraham Lincoln's use of the n-word?

The crux of the book is this: by lying to children about their history, we don't create patriotism. We create anger and betrayal when they later find out the truth - if they do. This is an excellent read for students of history, but it really preaches to the choir. The ones who really need this book are already deadened to the concept of history, or will find the concept too offensive to their sensibilities.
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LibraryThing member mjgrogan
This is an excellent investigation of the dismal status of current (circa. 1994) high school US History textbooks. The main objective is to expose how, by omitting important, possibly controversial aspects of historical events, figures, and ideas with an apparent objective of patriotic boosterism, these books tend to alienate all but the whitest, upper-middle class students.

This is certainly a powerful, if selective corrective to the textbook I neglected to read in High School. Loewen argues that this check-list process of Eurocentric dumbing-down has most alarmingly resulted in making this the most boring subject in school to most students – even the male WASPs whom the textbooks seem to target. He’s right - I don’t even recall taking a US History course though I no doubt did! I do remember a disturbing situation in my eight grade Geography course at the same school. Early in the semester, I offered up the ironic tidbit that Greenland was quite a bit more “icy” than Iceland. The teacher (also the PE coach) flatly announced to the class that I was wrong and cautioned that I should refrain from interrupting his course with such lies. Perhaps that explains my subsequent amnesia?

Presumably this critical exercise stems from the author’s experience publishing “the first integrated state history textbook” for Mississippi schools – apparently quite the torturous process. This book seems peppered with some residual angst and I like it! It’s an impassioned critique of an important example of the passionless skullduggery that defines public schooling as I recall it.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
Author reviews major issues that history textbooks get wrong and why publishers continue to perpetuate lies and myths. An excellent source for educators who might want to challenge "the way things are."
LibraryThing member tsolinger
For me, this book had so much potential. Advertised as a look into the American history textbook system and the faults in it, I was expecting an analysis of why our textbooks lie. Why, in school, we are taught the wrong information? Why, after knowing the information is wrong, is it still taught?

Instead, Loewen seems to have a personal agenda: prove his intelligence by rewriting American history. If what has been regarding for years as correct is wrong, why should any reader believe that Loewen, one person, has everything right? While he does cite and offer a source for most facts, what makes his sources correct and the ones used by our textbooks incorrect? Loewen attempts to sell his own intelligence too much, rather than continue his intelligent claim and let the rest fall into place.

Loewen complains of a bias and elitist tone in American textbooks. Well then, how hypocritical of him to, not only write like his knowledge is the end-all and be-all, but also with an extremely evident bias. Loewen portrays himself as a king of American history and that we should all bow down to his impressive intelligent. Unfortunately, this does not resonate well with readers, especially high school students. Loewen missed the boat on his intelligent idea.
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LibraryThing member linnaea44
This is definitely a book that everyone should read, especially elementary teachers. It is important that elementary teachers be familiar with the information in this book so they will not perpetuate the lies told about exploration, settlement, colonization and wars. The information about american history paints a completely different picture of America than the one we are familiar with. Instead of the bland optimism in the commonly used texts books, this book presents a documented history of the struggles of our minorities. Instead of a series of facts, it presents a series of well documented incidents. Such as, President Woodrow Wilson's military interventions in many Latin American countries and secret military aide to the 'White Russians'. This book incorporates the pride of many races and ethnic groups unlike our typical history books. For example, the Native Americans are the true founders of our country, not the pilgrims as we all have been mislead to believe. I really enjoyed the whole context of this book and I feel like I have so much to learn and it is disappointing that as a country we are not forced to read more books like this in our education. Another disturbing point that the book made was the fact that in college required coursework, history is not included.… (more)
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Searing indictment of the American History textbooks used in American high schools at the time (1996) the book was written. The author examines 12 textbooks (with publication dates ranging from 1975-1981) to see how the image they present of key events and personalities compare with the reality.
The results are worse than appalling. With rare exceptions, the books present highly sanitized versions in order to instill a sense of "America is the greatest country in the world" to children who are on the cusp of becoming voting citizens.
He goes on to explain how publishers force authors to whitewash or even omit any events that might tarnish iconic images so that the books will meet the approval of the powerful bodies that set state educational standards.
Not only are students fed misinformation, few of the texts make more than a token effort to introduce students to start thinking critically for themselves. And critical thinking is far more important in the digital age than it was 15 years ago.
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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 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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LibraryThing member Jdely93
Lies My Teacher Told Me is a factual book that does contain loads of misconceptions detailed in high school American history textbooks. However, the book is also full of fallacies itself. I've never read a more biased book in my life and to add, the fact of the matter is, it's completely hippocritical. The author, James Loewen, although a prominent college history professor is talking as if he was personally at attendence (for example) at the Annapolis Convention or like he WAS an African American in the early 20th century. It seems as if he forgot to consider that everything passed down through history (he cites history from the pre-columbian era) is not absolutely correct. To me, he came off as an arrogant, all-knowing history teacher who, in a way, ridicules his college students for their lack of knowledge. Sorry, Loewen, you didn't win me over on this one.… (more)
LibraryThing member deslni01
In "Lies My Teacher Told Me", James W. Loewen presents and argues that the aptly named title is a staple of American History courses taught in high school. He offers example after example of how U.S. history textbooks often omit or distort many pieces of history - or completely falsify them. He argues that students in the school system are taught and presented a Eurocentric history, which takes all blame away from the United States and its citizens on any controversial subject.

Examples include Woodrow Wilson, who in reality re-segregated the government; Reconstruction, which textbooks put the blame on black people for the failure to integrate with society; the Civil War, which supposedly started because the South wanted more state power; treatment of Native Americans, taught to be a natural cause of a progressive world and society; and more, which are controversial subjects because they paint an ugly picture for white Americans.

Loewen argues that is the precise reason such issues are dealt so poorly with in the classroom - the texts and study of U.S. history in the classroom has an agenda to make white Americans feel good about themselves and the actions of their predecessors. And because of this treatment, the students of minority are increasingly falling behind - they are taught in school that their ancestors and their current social position is due to their lack of effort, or intelligence.

"Lies My Teacher Told Me" is a must read for any teacher of history, for any student of history, and for anyone remotely interested in American history. Loewen makes the reader question everything they were taught in school, and instills a desire to re-learn American history for what it was, not how it was painted with a Euro/ethnocentric agenda.
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LibraryThing member librisissimo
NOTES (2012-02-12):
Do all history books selectively include and omit "facts" about the past? Of course.
Can excluding certain facts, or including others, affect the reader's interpretation of the past? Yes.
Would including Loewen's preferred facts require omitting others? Possibly; space in text books is limited (sort of).
Would any particular choice of "facts" in (or out) of the book change what actually happened? No.
Would we prefer that our ancestors had acted in more honorable or ethical ways? Of course.
Does their failure make us any better or worse? Only if we emulate their example.

All this by way of illustrating that, although we might wish that Columbus and the Spaniards (and English and French, etc etc etc), had been less cruel and greedy, that in no way changes my opinion that, in the long run, opening up the New World was a Good Thing.
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LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
I read the first edition of this book around the time I graduated high school, and I was surprised, no shocked, by how much American history I didn't know. And that was just the stuff I thought I knew. Glossing over complex topics in a history textbook is one thing, but the real offense is when the facts presented are simply wrong. This happens far more often than you think.

The author is spot-on about high school history courses being unforgivably boring. Teaching history well means teaching controversy, and that means upsetting a lot of people—a nearly impossible task to sustain in a publicly-funded institution.
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LibraryThing member ElectricKoolAid
I bought this at the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial visitor center. I was on my grand tour of the U.S. visiting the sites of abo genocide and Japanese internment camps among others. It gave me insight into what you Americans probably never learned in your schools but which non-Americans are more aware of. Read it and weep - literally… (more)
LibraryThing member amurphy
The second edition of the book compares 16 elementary and high-school American history books; 10 are from the first-edition and 6 that were published in the 10-12 years since. Lowen's critique of high-school history classes was very interesting, and I definitely learned some new things about American history. His coverage of Columbus's voyages, the Native American relations, the Civil War, and mid-1900s were all very informative.

However, Chapter 11's inclusion of environmental issues seemed slightly out of sync with the rest of the book. I understand that he is arguing that by doing a better job of teaching early American history, people can better comprehend the gap between Americans and developing countries in terms of population, wealth, resources, and pollution. The two subjects are inter-related in many ways. But it just felt off-topic to me.

I can understand how some might say that the book shows a left-leaning bias. But as I pointed out to my right-leaning husband, Lowen says several times throughout the book that history textbooks shouldn't be afraid to present different theories and arguments to students so they can critically think about events. His goal is to get students excited about history once more.
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LibraryThing member ferdinand1213
I haven't read this newly updated version, but the original was an eye-opening look at how much of American history is a myth that reinforces the status quo. Loewen definitely has an axe to grind, so the claims of the book should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it's a good way to get burgeoning historians in the habit of reading against their sources.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevesmits
I have long been fascinated with historiography -- the biases in versions of history that appear over time. The notion that history is a factual recitation of objective truths about the past is just not true. There are many cultural, societal and ideological influences that shape and slant interpretations of history. I recall from my youth, going to high school in the south as I did, the view of Reconstruction that emphasized the corruption of northern "carpetbaggers" and their southern "scalawag" conspirators to manipulate naive and ignorant blacks over the control of political affairs. We understand now that the influence of white supremacy in the post-reconstruction era produced a strikingly distorted picture than what really happened.

Loewen utilizes his review of more than a dozen high school history textbooks to demonstrate just how dangerous practice can be to educating students about the past, and, importantly, on their ability to critically assess our past for its implications on the present and future. Utilizing many themes in American history (Columbus, the centuries of conflict with the native population, slavery, etc.) Loewen shows how textbooks utterly fail to open the power of critical anaysis in students. He says that the "heroification" of figures and events of our past wildly distorts the deeper and significant meanings of their actions. For instance, he says that the myth of Columbus as the explorer who opened the savage cultures of the Americas to the benefits of European advancements completely leaves out the devastation that Europeans brought to the florishing societies existing throughout the Americas. In this analysis, and others in his book, he shows how totally "Eurocentric" is most of American history still in our time. He presents a fascinating chapter on John Brown and Lincoln in which he shows the manipulation by historians of images and appraisals of both figures to fit packaged conceptions of their views on slavery and race. As well, on slavery, Loewen posits convincingly that our histories portray slavery as a "tragedy" that just happened -- that no one was really responsible for it. He reminds us of the time in history that slavery as the root cause of the Civil War was shunted into th background by emphasis on other esoteric fctors: "states' rights", economic imbalances between the regions, etc. He does similar analysis on the conceptions of social/economic class throughout our country's history.

He says that in the bland and neutral historical treatment of America as a world power we are usually shown to be international "good guys" with the betterment all of humanity as our motivating force. Any complete examination of the facts and outcomes of our actions show that this was very often far from our motivating impulses, e.g. the war in the Phillipines, Vietnam and more. Much of American history written for high school students seeks to show our country as a place where higher and higher attainment of our morally superior ethos is what makes us distinctive; there is little place in the texts for criticism that might make us challenge ourselves and forestall repeating mistakes of the past.

Textbooks are written for certain influential audiences, namely political forces, state and local approval committees, parents -- anyone other than the students they should be serving. They are commerically-driven ventures whose profits are best insured by not risking anything that would generate controversy. Loewen describes his conversations with "big name" historians whose names appear as authors of widely distributed textbooks. When he points out certain passages of highly questionable accuracy, these "authors" convey shock at the content; they evidently have been paid only to append their names and prestige for marketing value the publishers hope for. They have not only not written, they have not read the works it is claimed they authored. He says that quite a lot of the content is written by anonymous jobbers who almost never do research in primary and secondary sources.

What Loewen criticizes and laments most is the missed opportunity to use history in ways that stimulate critical thinking; in stultifying high school students' interest and ability to analyze and challenge, to dig deeper beneath the surface of neatly packaged versions of our past. Thus, that students are bored with, and turned off by, history should not come as a surprise, but regretablly leaves them with a disregard for the potential for history to become a useful element in their civic lives as adults.
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LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
Now while a lot of this assumed knowledge of US educational and history it was interesting and there is probably the same level of errors in Irish history textbooks. I'm not sure that localised history books wouldn't be useful as I can't imagine a single history book that would work for all of Europe.
LibraryThing member dangnad
What an eye-opener. "Lies" hardly describes the massive conspiracy amongst high school history text book writers (all of 'em) to render a mythical America while leaving out EVERY negative aspect of our English/Spanish society.

I suppose it would hurt the sensibilities of young students and enrage their parents if they wrote about how John Winthrop and his followers in Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17 century used Biblical passage to justify burning Wampanoag Native American women and children alive in their teepees.

Or how Columbus managed to completely wipe out the Native American tribe the Arawaks in just 25 years. Or, how President of the USA Woodrow Wilson reinstated strict segregation into the US government that led to lynchings throughout the South in the early twentieth century.

Now we wouldn't want our sensitive children to learn about that, would we?
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LibraryThing member busterrll
Enjoyed the first edition immensely. Second edition comes across as super preachy.
Some of his conclusions, I think miss the mark. Would you call a band of migrating inians "Settlers"?
LibraryThing member brangwinn
REQUIRED READING....particularly if you are student brighter than your high school history teacher and are bored in class. Should be read by educators as well
LibraryThing member aseikonia
Amazing revelations about how American history is taught in U.S. high schools. I was instinctually and completely skeptical about the history I was learning in high school and now I know why.


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480 p.; 6 inches


1620973928 / 9781620973929


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