The following entry constitutes my notes and thoughts as I read:
Lies my Teacher Told Me. Everything your American History Teacher got Wrong.
by James W. Loewen
While this entry covers much of the same material that is presented in the book, it should not be considered a replacement for the book. Those with an interest in the topics presented should avail themselves of the original source material. It’s available for 1 cent plus shipping on Amazon.
Firstly, from a personal and philosophical viewpoint I think the use of the word ‘lies’ in the title is a bit more provocative than it needs to be. Yes, clearly the history books are guilty of many, many instances of omission and even outright invention, but I don’t tend to think the teachers are the ones necessarily at fault for promulgating this information. To be even more whitewashed, lies is such a dark word that I’m not sure it has a place here. Though doubtless it was viewed that “Factual Omissions” had much less marketing sting to it.
Why would anyone want to lie to schoolchildren about their history? The author points out a few basic reasons but primary is that telling them the truth might have an undo negative influence on them. If we told our kids everything about how our forefathers womanized and carried on then it seems a lot more likely that they might grow up to do the same. Not that people don’t do that anyway but why set them a bad example right off the bat? Secondly, taking out the white paint to history reinforces the idea that anyone can grow up to do anything, that matters of social class and birth just don’t matter. If children realized that they are already at a disadvantage right out of the canal then they’re less likely to strive to be something more than their birth assigned to them. I can see some grain of truth in both arguments but I’d humbly suggest that it’s nowhere near that simple. I’m guessing the author will illuminate at length.
The author points out early on three examples of historical wrongness that have made it firmly into our history books.Helen Keller, as is well known, was born deaf and blind but still went on to earn a college degree and became a productive member of society. What is less well known is what she did later in life. Many assume that she was a great humanitarian but few realize she was a vehement socialist and stern suffragette. Initially, she became an advocate for the blind but quickly learned that blindness was a condition that afflicted poor factory workers who lost their sight in workplaces with unsafe working conditions. This realization turned her towards socialism and support of the Russian revolution. When asked who the three greatest men in the world are Lenin was at the top of her list. Because of the unpopularity of her position, newspapers simultaneously praised her accomplishments at having overcome her personal obstacles and derided her for her misguided beliefs that must, they insisted, be foisted upon her by her close confidants rather than consisting of well-reasoned personal beliefs. Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president, is similarly cleansed by the sponge of history. Credited with creating the League of Nations and ushering in the era of Women’s suffrage, history books tend to forget that he was a profound racist and interfered with legitimate elections in Central America.
Wilson was an outspoken white supremacist who worked to segregate government jobs and even worked to re-segregate restrooms and cafeterias that had previously been desegregated. Outside U.S. borders, Wilson placed troops in Nicaragua to control the government and force ratification of treaties favorable to the U.S. Wilson even went so far as to put boots on the ground in Russia to influence the Russian revolution. This prolonged the war significantly and contributed to decades of Cold War enmity between the two countries. Meanwhile, back at home Americans are serving lengthy prison sentences for violating the Sedition Act. In one case a filmmaker served a 10-year sentence for producing a film about the American Revolution that dared to cast our now British allies in a negative light!Lastly, and saddest to those of us who grew up with the apocryphal tales of the American Revolution ringing in our ears, is the case of Betsy Ross. Commonly accepted history reports that she crafted the first American flag but truth be told, if you’ll pardon the pun, the whole story was made up out of whole cloth. There’s no documentation of any sort that says she had anything to do with it.
So suffice to say that Chapter 1 is off to a roaring start. While I’d suggest that the author’s text, like his title, is a bit overblown for dramatic effect, the spirit of the text is correct enough and does remind us that history and our commonly held beliefs about it do bear some close inspection and verification.