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.
And there was resistance from every corner of the state to adopt your accurate version of history.
Yes, the state of Mississippi gave it an award of sorts. They rejected it. There was resistance from the state textbook board and we had to sue the state. An Episcopal school sued along with us, and that’s when 26 or 27, out of unfortunately 155, adopted the book across the state.
Later, you studied 12 textbooks from across America to understand how we teach history today, and wrote a book called ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me.’ What’s the overarching lie that you feel history teachers and textbooks have taught for too long?
When I moved to Vermont from Mississippi I realized this was a national problem. The biggest overall lie is, namely: We started out great, and that we’ve been getting better and better kind of automatically. It’s the myth of unrelenting progress.
There are some wonderful things that happened at our constitutional convention, but particularly in the area of race relations, progress looks more like a curve.
What’s the root of that notion? Why has American history been under this false premise that we’ve only gotten better and better?
The first key thing is that publishers don’t want to offend. It’s a sweet narrative. If we talked about the possibility that America’s getting worse in some ways, that’s going to offend someone.
Who really decides what’s being taught and what is in textbooks?
Texas is in a notorious position because it’s the largest state that adopts uniformly across the state in high school. Basically, no publisher wants to not be able to sell in Texas, so they pretty much make any changes that the textbook committee in Texas wants them to.
So are you saying many kids in this country are being taught history according to Texas?
Yes, I’ll give you an example. If you look at the secession of the states that left to form the Confederacy, they all said why: It’s about slavery, period. Everyone knows this in the history field, but when you look at a history textbook, you’re mystified because there’s no clear answer as to why states seceded. That’s because the states in charge didn’t want to mention the real reasons.
For a while, when I talked to people, a majority of them had this misconception that the Confederacy formed to preserve states' rights. We’ve been lying to ourselves for a long time about this, and it’s just now starting to change.
Have history books changed? Are they now more accurate?
To my surprise, they are not much different. The publishers haven’t even caught up with this change in our culture. And what’s really ironic is some of these books are written by famous historians, but they aren’t really written by them.
Let’s talk about some important moments in history, what we’ve been taught and what actually happened. Who discovered America?
We’re taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. In fact, of course there were 100 million people living in the Americas when he got here. Secondly, there were many that came here before Columbus, like the Vikings or maybe others from different places. And third of all, this man who “discovered” America also started the transatlantic slave trade. And we forget about that when celebrating Columbus Day.
What are we taught about indigenous people in this country and what actually happened?
Mostly we’re taught that there weren’t very many people here, and they kind of roamed. Actually, there were as many people living in the Americas, as there were living in Europe. Folks came in, burning their fields and forcing them to roam.
What are we taught about our founding fathers? And tell us what reality is?
Some things we say about our founding fathers are actually accurate. There are some achievements in the Constitution and in the way they set up our government. We are not taught why some of our differences with England led to the revolution. Notably, George Washington wanted [Native American] land. And Great Britain was saying, “No, we’ve got this treaty line with the natives.” And that was one of the biggest single reasons, both for the American Revolution and then for the War of 1812.
Anything else that you think is so blatantly misleading and history books don’t mention?
Many Americans don’t understand what the nature of racial relations was in the period from 1890 to 1940. In 1890, there was the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the passage of Mississippi’s new constitution which limited citizenship to whites, and every Southern state followed suit.
Later, we’re taught about Jim Crow in the South. But we don’t always do it justice because the problem was much bigger. There was national discriminaition. North Dakota passed a law during that time outlawing interracial marriage. Harvard University threw Black people out of the dormitories. The problems of race relations stem from this time period, and we’re still trying to dig ourselves out even today.
You believe there’s a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.
That’s my slogan. When we are able to face the past and tell the truth about even the bad things we’ve done, then that helps us be more open to change and to bring about justice in the present. When we have justice in the present, when we make a change, when we actually get things right, that makes us more able to tell the truth about the past, because now the past becomes kind of a success. So the one helps the other, and vice versa.
Where do we go from here? Do you think this movement that we’re witnessing across the country will begin to focus on how history is taught?
Well, it is already in the sense that it’s focusing on these Confederate monuments. I mean, most people never take the history course when they get out of high school. How do they learn history? Well, they see monuments. I think all the Confederate monuments will probably bite the dust and be seen as artifacts to teach people about the past.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
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