The Biggest ‘Lies’ We’re Taught About U.S. History
Historian James W. Loewen breaks down popular misconceptions taught in American textbooks
Americans across the country are grappling with the impacts of decades upon decades of systemic racism. Many are turning to resources from academics, researchers and activists to educate themselves on implicit bias — and important events in history they never learned about. One such resource: Historian James W. Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
For his book, Lowewn studied 12 different history textbooks used to teach across the country, and found falsehoods and omissions in the story of the country’s past. In a new interview, Loewen debunks common U.S. history myths — and tells me why these “lies” are so dangerous.
Katie Couric: Jim, in 1970 — in your first year of teaching at a predominantly Black college in Mississippi — you heard some things from the students about reconstruction that really bothered you. How did you feel when you realized that people were learning history all wrong?
James W. Loewen: I was teaching at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and asked my students what they knew about reconstruction. Most of them thought it was a period when Black people took over the governments of Southern states, but screwed it up, and white people had to take control again. There are so many direct lies in that sentence.
How could this happen? Well, it happened because it’s what students had been taught in high school. And it became clear that Mississippi did this on purpose. Then I thought, what does that do to you? If you believe the one time your group was center stage in American history, they screwed up. When I later moved from Mississippi to Vermont, I heard the same interpretation of reconstruction coming from the pulpit. That’s when I realized that bad history has a lot of power over people, and their destinies.
So I thought, I’m going to write correct, useful history. I got a grant and put some faculty and students together, and we wrote a textbook called: Mississippi: Conflict and Change.