Monday, October 11, 2010

Lies My History Class Taught Me—9/10

(This post is based primarily on facts from Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (first edition); all quotations come from that book.)

I've been distressed lately by how difficult it is to know what is the truth, and what is someone's spin on the truth. This issue is particularly relevant to studying history, which I have been doing; the more I read, the more I begin to wonder if anything I learned in school was true.

When I was in junior high, I remember studying the Holocaust and being told that the Japanese don’t acknowledge that it ever happened. Their textbooks teach something different, some story that they’ve invented to make themselves look good. And I remember being absolutely appalled that a country would do such a thing.

How na├»ve I was! Guess what—America does it too. Since college I have gradually been learning a more truthful history of this country than the one I was taught in school, and I have been shocked at how different it is.

Obviously it isn’t the Holocaust that our country ignores; in fact, it isn’t even as specific as one event (although I suspect that if Japan rewrites the Holocaust, they, too, probably don’t stop there). Starting with Columbus’s “discovery” of America (an already-populated continent that had already been “discovered” by several other people before him), our entire history is full of inconsistencies, distortions, and outright falsehoods that are presented as fact. American history classes do not teach history—they teach patriotism.

Our textbooks create heroes where none existed and ignore the real ones. They omit nearly every wrong ever committed by an American, much less the government. They present a myth of history as a straight line of “progress” in which America was always right—events just happened, never as a result of someone’s actions (or at least not an American’s); they imply that no other path was ever possible besides the one we chose, and that since the founding of this country things have been getting better and better—when in fact there is significant evidence that that isn't true. Textbook authors blatantly espouse the belief that America is the best country in the world, and rewrite our past so that it agrees.

But if we believe that America is a great country, then why must we lie about our history? If we can’t acknowledge our past and maintain the belief that our country is great, then it must not be great at all, and we are just pretending to live in a country which does not exist. If, on the other hand, we believe that our country is great in spite of its mistakes, then it is necessary to acknowledge those mistakes—to stop deluding ourselves and lying to our children. We can’t have it both ways; one of these things has to go.

James Loewen is a textbook author and historian who spent eleven years researching U.S. history textbooks, their publishers and authors, the school boards and textbook adoption boards who control them, and the teachers who teach them. For this book he chose twelve textbooks that are representative of the books used throughout the country (one of them was my junior-year U.S. history book, The American Pageant) and studied them thoroughly. “Textbook authors need not concern themselves unduly with what actually happened in history,” he says, “since publishers use patriotism, rather than scholarship, to sell their books. Publishers market the books as tools for helping students to ‘discover’ our ‘common beliefs’ and ‘appreciate our heritage.’ No publisher tries to sell a textbook with the claim that it is more accurate than its competitors” (285).

No indeed; in fact, accuracy prevents textbooks from being published, since the simple truth is that it is impossible to relate history accurately without offending someone. Each state’s textbook adoption board has regulations that the publishers must adhere to—Texas’s includes one that says textbooks cannot include anything that undermines authority (280). (What an American idea! That sounds just like “government by the people, for the people.”) Since publishers are businessmen—and since school boards, teachers, and the public care more about not being offended than they do about truthful history—we have textbooks and history classes that teach nothing of worth to anyone.

Did you know that two-thirds of seventeen-year-olds can’t place the Civil War within a half-century of when it was fought (300)? (I couldn’t place it within a century until I was in college.) I didn’t know when the Vietnam War was fought until the last few years, and I didn’t know when the Korean War was fought until yesterday, when I asked Mike (who knows because our wars have always interested him).

Did you know that the FBI actively persecuted and tried to sabotage Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement? J. Edgar Hoover—with the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy—bugged MLK’s hotel rooms and tapped his and other civil rights leaders’ phone lines. “A high FBI official sent a tape recording of King having sex, along with an anonymous note suggesting that King kill himself, to the office of King’s organization.” J. Edgar Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country,” and tried to prove that many of the civil rights leaders were communists. For many years during the civil rights movement the FBI (and the government) attacked black and interracial organizations, but none of the twelve textbooks includes any of this information (231).

Did you know that our government tried a ridiculous number of times to assassinate Fidel Castro (224)? (I'm not sure what the actual number is because I saw twenty-four, and then I saw 638. Let's say it was a lot more than none.) It would be no surprise if you didn’t know, since none of the twelve textbooks mentions it.

And did you know that we rigged the 1957 election in Lebanon, which led to civil war the next year (in which our troops then had to fight)? That the CIA was involved in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba of Zaire in 1961 and staged a coup to help bring someone else to power; that we helped overthrow the elected governments of Chile (in 1973) and Guatemala (in 1954); that our troops in Nicaragua arranged the presidency and forced the passage of a treaty that benefited us; that we invaded Haiti, disbanded their legislature, and set up a new one ourselves? Probably not—most of the textbooks don’t mention it. Incidentally, when other countries do these things, we call it “state-sponsored terrorism” (221-226).

Did you know that the government has consistently lied to the American people about what we were and were not doing in these and other countries? 
  • On the same day that we were landing at the Bay of Pigs to try and overthrow Fidel Castro, the secretary of state said, “The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening in Cuba or intend to do so in the future. The answer is no.” Four American pilots died in that failed invasion (227). 
  • President Eisenhower denied that American planes were flying over Soviet airspace, and was caught in his lie when captured airman Gary Powers admitted the truth on Russian television. “Much later, the public learned that Powers had been just the tip of the iceberg; in the 1950s we had some thirty-one flights downed over the USSR, with 170 men aboard. For decades our government lied to the families of the lost men and never made substantial representation to the USSR to get them back, because the flights were illegal and were supposed to be secret” (227-228)
  • The government kept our bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War a secret until years later (228). 
  • Woodrow Wilson tried to keep secret the fact that we had troops intervening in civil war in Russia in 1918 (228). 
  • “In some ways the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan-Bush administrations, a web of secret legal and illegal acts involving the president, vice-president, cabinet members, special operatives... and government officials in Israel, Iran, Brunei, and elsewhere, shows an executive branch more out of control than Nixon’s” (229).
The general public found out about these things, obviously, but textbooks don’t talk about them. Instead they tout the checks and balances of the governmental system to assure us that our country is really run by the people.

How about Helen Keller—did you know that she was a radical socialist activist (20-22)? That Woodrow Wilson actually opposed women’s suffrage, until finally giving in to political pressure (23, photo caption)? That John F. Kennedy tried to stop civil rights marches and sent his VP out of the country because the VP was too pro-civil rights (234)? Yet these presidents are given credit for the social changes that their administrations tried to stop, and Helen Keller—who fought against the inequality of our class system—is sadly, ironically, silenced. Our history hails her for overcoming her physical challenges and learning to speak—and then ignores everything she said.

Did you know that almost everything we were taught about Christopher Columbus’s personal life is either untrue or impossible to verify (39)? That he was personally responsible for the start of the first slave trade across the Atlantic, and that he and his men committed vicious genocide and wiped out entire nations of Indians (60-66)? 
  • “The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike” (61)
  • Not having found gold yet but needing something to send back to Spain, Columbus began a slave raid on Haiti. Then he set up a tribute system, in which Indians had to pay tribute every three months or have their hands cut off. 
  • When the tribute system failed because what it asked was impossible, he set up a system in which he granted entire Indian villages to a colonist or group of colonists. This situation was so horrible that Indians commonly committed suicide and killed their own children so they wouldn’t have to endure it (62-63).
These facts all come from letters written by Columbus and other members of his expedition, but none are mentioned in American history. (Textbooks rarely include primary documents.) “Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith,” President Bush said. “To denigrate Columbus is to denigrate what is worthy in human history and in us all,” said Jeffrey Hart. I sincerely hope that what is worthy in human history is not our ability to violently conquer and enslave peaceful peoples for monetary gain.

And I haven’t even started on the Native Americans! I’m afraid that much of what we learned in school about the early years of our country is complete nonsense. Our history paints a picture of a few primitive, nomadic Indian tribes who just kept getting in the way, of well-meaning Europeans who tried valiantly to include them in their new culture, but were viciously attacked and had no choice but to fight back. This just isn’t true.

For one thing, although a few groups were indeed violent and did attack settlers—and really, can you blame them?—the vast majority of the violence was perpetrated by settlers against Indians, who were themselves helpless against the advanced weaponry of Europe (115-116). Hundreds of thousands of Indians were enslaved, too, in an enormous and far-spread slave trade—but our textbooks don’t talk about this. “Adolf Hitler displayed more knowledge of how we treated Native Americans than American high schoolers who rely on their textbooks. Hitler admired our concentration camps for Indians in the west ‘and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat’ as the model for his extermination of Jews and Gypsies" (126).

It’s true that there were some things to which the Native Americans couldn’t adapt—European illnesses, for instance, which killed off unknown millions of them in devastating plagues. But the tragic inability of Native Americans to merge into European society is a myth.

Frontier life is presented as highly separated—an “us versus them” kind of situation—but this isn’t true. In truth frontier life was incredibly multicultural, with many different Native American tribes, British, French, Mexican, Russian, and other Europeans living together harmoniously. In fact, many Europeans liked Native American culture so much better that they joined it. Europeans had to post guards to keep their men and women from “defecting,” and “the Pilgrims so feared Indianization that they made it a crime for men to wear long hair” (108-109).

“The problem was not Native failure to acculturate. In reality, many European Americans did not really want Indians to acculturate... The Massachusetts legislature in 1789 passed a law prohibiting teaching Native Americans how to read and write ‘under penalty of death.’ The United States claimed to be willing to teach the Indians to farm, but Indians in Ohio [and other states] already were farmers” (129).

Really? Indians refused to settle down and become farmers? It seems that we have already forgotten our good friend Squanto, who taught the Europeans how to farm in America. Unless we think he was the only one, our patriotic stories have just given us the evidence against themselves. The truth is that in many frontier societies, much like in the south after the Civil War, Native Americans were treated as inferior and didn’t have the same rights as settlers. Even when they lived in European American colonies, their homes and land could be taken by colonists who picked fights with them, and they often could not testify in court against whites (130-132).

The information in this post is just the tip of the iceberg; I could go on this way for a long, long time. As much as I’ve written already, I couldn’t include half of what I found in just this book—and as it is a pretty small book (and written fifteen years ago), I  imagine that the amount of what most of us still don’t know is significant.

Even the information that I do know that isn’t in textbooks is significant—how race relations are in some ways worse now than they were just after the Civil War (138-199); how gender issues are still not addressed fairly in schools; how the recent past (the last seventy or so years) gets skimmed over because the fact that the people involved aren’t all dead means the issues are much more controversial, and of course we can’t have controversy in our classes (239-253); how the accomplishments of non-whites are consistently downplayed and even ignored (95; 101-103; 267); how America does indeed have a class system, and the fact that we pretend it doesn’t just perpetrates the plight of the lower classes (because if you believe that your country is a meritocracy and yet you can’t seem to catch a break, it must be because of your own failings) (201-213). Like I said... It goes on and on.

Textbooks aren’t the only problem, though; the entire system of teaching history in our country is warped. Textbook content is determined by the market, which means that nothing meaningful gets in there because it could offend someone. This “content-free” approach could be countered by teachers if they taught against their books—but a survey in 1990 (and again in 1999-2000) showed that only 40 percent of history teachers had a degree in history or something related to it, which means that most teachers probably don’t know how much of their information is wrong (286-287). (Sadly, this explains how all of my history teachers at Wylie High School were basketball coaches, who are required to teach something besides their sport.)

And when the National Assessment for Educational Progress asked the public to help review the guidelines for teaching social studies, guess what the public replied? That “‘references to specific minority groups should be eliminated whenever possible,’ ‘extreme care’ should be used in wording any reference to the FBI, the president, labor unions, and some other organizations, and ‘exercises which show national heroes in an uncomplimentary fashion though factually accurate are offensive’” (292).

A standard American history education teaches archetypes, not facts. Without even going to school, we “know” that Columbus was a great hero—after all, he is one of only two people who get a day named after them in our calendar. So even if teachers do include the facts about the thousands of people Columbus killed or enslaved, we just forget them because they don’t fit with the archetype. This is what I have a problem with—not the fact that we have bad things in our history, but the fact that we pretend we don’t.

It’s not okay to pretend that this country has never done anything wrong when history blatantly tells us otherwise, and to do so does not mean that one is a patriot. Blind allegiance does not make a person a good American. It is possible for good people to do wrong things; is it not also possible, then, for good countries to do wrong things? I think it is—but only if we allow ourselves to learn from them, instead of lying about them.

History textbooks should not be teaching “patriotism”—they should be teaching history. Students do not feel very patriotic when they grow up and learn that they have been lied to. Minorities do not feel patriotic when their classes teach that America is an ideal society, but their personal lives tell them otherwise. And isn’t the state of our country’s politics evidence enough that people are not being prepared for citizenship by our educational system? If in school we are taught to just accept certain information because that's how we were always taught it—even if it turns out that information is wrong—then how can we expect to become educated voters and citizens whose political beliefs are based on actual personal knowledge? 

If we want to believe that America is truly a great country, then we need to own up to our past like adults. Criticizing your country cannot be considered anti-American, since it is exactly that freedom which distinguishes us from other countries. To simply believe what you are taught without question, to teach that authority must be obeyed implicitly, to accept the propaganda that everything the government has done has been for the best, even when it was kept hidden from the people or went strictly against our policies—that is un-American, and I suspect that the Founding Fathers would not approve. 

“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.”

—Maya Angelou


  1. Welcome to the challenge of my profession. Once you get into a "good" class whether you are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who covers the material like that in high school or in college there is just so much to handle. Where to begin? For me I responded most quickly to two concerns. 1.) Some knowledge of when things occurred. I did timelines day one of my US course, and the same time line was on the final. I did it not because the dates truly matter that much, but understanding that the Revolutionary War came before the Civil is just such a basic thing. Having a scaffolding to hang knowledge acquired later is important. 2.) I did my best to not gloss over the less than praiseworthy acts of our country. There is no way to cover all the ones you mentioned, but I did focus on some areas the books entirely gloss over (atomic bombs, Japanese internment, Civil Rights, Vietnam, etc). Most of these topics are never covered because teachers spend so much time talking about founding father, Columbus, and the Golden Spike. It was so much more important to me to cover new material. Thanks for the post, the book is excellent and used as a catalyst for those of us out there in the trenches on this topic.

  2. I actually had a US History teacher my junior year of high school who taught us some of the things you're talking about here, though not all. The difference? She didn't really teach according to the textbook and provided copious amounts of supplementation. I got really lucky.

    Reading things like this makes me want to homeschool. Although homeschooling could become illegal one of these days >:(

  3. Yeah Laura, I've always considered it. I can't decide, though, because I think public school is a good growing-up experience, and the fact that they learn public school history doesn't mean that I can't help round out their education at home. In fact, it might be better for them to see the way the system teaches it, instead of just taking my word for it.

    Stephanie, how did I know that you would be one of those amazing enlightened teachers who doesn't just hand out worksheets with names and dates and expect kids to memorize them? Also, as much as I hate to remind you of this--do you remember playing Catchphrase one time, and the clue was something about a war in the 1900s, and I guessed the Civil War? You were shocked, and that was when I realized that I didn't really know when it was fought. Pathetic, isn't it? But the way I was taught history--the way most people are--I just remembered everything I needed to know for the tests and then forgot it promptly thereafter.

    It's so unfortunate, too, because I was never very interested in history before, but I have really enjoyed studying it more recently. I think a lot more kids would find history fun if it wasn't so watered down.

  4. I, of course, can't speak for other schools, but we discussed many of the things you've mentioned in my history classes growing up, and many of them were in my textbooks. I know that education has moved a lot more toward a "feel good" system (a pet peeve of mine) since then, but a blanket statement alleging that "nobody teaches anything true" simply isn't an accurate reflection of what everyone experiences.

  5. Obviously I'm not saying that nobody teaches anything true. I wasn't lucky enough to have a teacher like Laura's, but to be honest, my classes may have covered some of these things and I wouldn't remember--like I said, I basically forgot everything I ever learned in those classes.

    Unfortunately, the fact that there are exceptions doesn't change the truth that the system as a whole is dysfunctional. Another point in the book was that even when textbook addressed many historical incidents, they presented facts but surrounded by twisted background information. The overall effect is that most U.S. history classes work toward instilling pride in the United States rather than (and often at the expense of) teaching actual history.

  6. Wow.

    Miri, your indignation is well articulated. Thanks for sharing. I haven't gone to the trouble to do a lot of research outside of a bit of Howard Zinn and Dee Brown, but I too resent having been exposed so repeatedly to American History(TM). I think your assessment of textbook propaganda as patriotism is too generous. Nationalism is ugly, but it makes many people feel good about their roots. What you suggest about thinking critically and being honest about where we come from is my favored version of patriotism.

    There is probably a perennial Texas textbook debate, but I found this particularly troubling: Also, this year there have been efforts to purge history textbooks of references to Jefferson, who was particularly vehement about the separation of church and state, and the words "democrat" and "democratic." We shouldn't get to ignore things simply because we find them inconvenient.

    The "facts optional" versions of events frame modern political struggles as well as history and it is still utterly effective at manipulating those who consume the information without thinking critically about it.

    I recently read Dangerous Games: the uses and abuses of history by Canadian historian Margaret McMillan, and I found it really enlightening. I think you would like it . . or rather, be equally moved to action by its content. I'll have to add this one to my reading list. I'm glad you wrote about it.

  7. I am, and always have been, very impressed with your writing ability Miri! I wish I was half as good as you are!

  8. Thanks Anna. :)

    Linds--this book was my first official foray into this field, and I'm planning on looking into Howard Zinn and Frances FitzGerald since they were both mentioned a lot in it. I'd also planned on checking out a book called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, by Diane Ravitch. I'm basing my assessment totally off the title, but it seems particularly relevant to this issue.

    The assessment of "patriotism" in this post isn't actually mine, it comes from Lies; I probably wouldn't be that generous, either. I take issue with what seems to be a common idea of patriotism: Namely, the sincere belief that our country is actually, quantifiably better than all other countries, and should be acknowledged as such by the rest of the world. With this in mind, America must therefore be above reproach in its actions--based on the argument that no matter what America does, some other country is doing something worse. (I have heard this actual argument used.) When asked if they feel this way, people deny it up and down; yet when it comes down to discussions about particular issues, in my experience it seems to hold true. Example: I had someone get mad at me for not being appalled when President Obama bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia.

    This, to me, is not an acceptable definition of patriotism. I believe, like you, that true patriotism involves thinking critically about the issues at hand, and speaking out against those which do not uphold our standards. I have always thought of it this way--a good parent does not ignore everything their child does wrong, but corrects them. Well, a good citizen does not pretend that wrong things aren't happening, and condemn anyone who tries to acknowledge it.

  9. Oh, Linds, I meant to include this in my comment the other day and forgot. About that link you posted--this is definitely a trend. The book talks about how throughout our culture, we have always wanted to sort of demonize Islam, to make Muslims scary, backward, and very "other." This starts in our history as far back as Columbus, and is plainly visible in our culture even just of the last few months.

  10. The biggest lie ever told was that Lincoln loved black people and considered them equal and that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves.

  11. I don't know that I could ever choose one lie that is the biggest ever told, because we have some serious ones in our history. But I definitely agree with you that Lincoln's part in the Civil War has been seriously misrepresented. I suspect that just about everything to do with that war has been, actually. Which is something that I think contributes to the antipathy between the states that is, sadly, still a pretty big issue.

  12. Anyone who claims to factually know what happened for certain in obscure historical situations they did not witness firsthand is a quack. It's like theologians who claim with certainty to know what's beyond life as we know it. Writing can be intelligently forged, video can be edited. Hear all sides and make an educated guess but for pity's sake don't pretend you're absolutely accurate when you weren't there.

  13. Thanks, I'll keep that in mind for the next time I feel like doing so. Sometimes when we're studying history, when it isn't possible to go back in time and have been there ourselves, we have to rely on things like documents written by the people who were. That is a shame, but it's not really something we can change.

  14. Slightly less sarcastic response now: Neither I, nor the author of the book I was talking about, ever claimed to know everything about historical events. My points were that (1) history classes should consult primary resources instead of solely using textbook summaries, and (2) ignoring the unsavory parts of history in order to present a glamorized narrative is deceitful and wrong and very bad educating. That was the clear message of my post, and your comment misses it completely, which leaves me to feel that you have little interest in actual discussion. I'm not interested in bickering just for its own sake.