For my birthday this year, one of my friends gave me the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. The AP U.S. History class I took in Junior year was one of my favorite classes in high school —I happened to enjoy the textbook too— so I was not expecting to learn of any bombshells that would shatter my conception of American history. Luckily, I was spared that fate —thank you Mr. Combs and America: A Narrative History— but this book still taught me much about the importance of revisionist history and historiography.
Mr. Loewen starts out by attempting to figure out why history is so unpopular among high school students: the seemingly endless facts to memorize and the apparent lack of relevance and importance. This investigation leads him to make a number of salient points about how history is taught.
History is a very imperfect discipline, very much shaped by the circumstances around an event. As such, histories written about figures and events often vary in critique as time goes on. For instance, President Herbert Hoover was widely reviled by his contemporaries for his handling of the Great Depression, yet historians more distant from the events have revealed that he had made legitimate (though somewhat feeble) attempts at resolving the crisis. One of the beauties of history is that it reinterpreted constantly and evolves through time as diverging viewpoints come in conflict to synthesize a picture of the past. This process is known as revisionism and is central to the nature of studying history. However, many textbooks paint a bland, “whitewashed” picture of events, failing to depict all sides and thus distorting the picture.
One of the central points Mr. Loewen makes in his book is that American history textbooks leave out information that reflects badly upon the “heroes” and central figures in our culture and history, thus disfiguring the portrait. Textbook critic Norma Gabler believed that textbooks should “present our nation’s patriots in a way that would honor and respect them.” Meanwhile, the American Legion stated in the 1920s that textbook writers “are at fault in placing before immature pupils the blunders, foibles and frailties of prominent heroes and patriots of our Nation.”
These positions are irresponsible and misguided, playing a part in turning off students from history. The duty of history is to present a complete picture of prominent leaders and analyze their virtues and flaws, not white-out shameful lines of their resumes. I cannot even begin to overstate the great disservice their idea, which had been adopted among high school textbooks, does to this discipline. The truth is muted so that we can hear what we want to hear, so that our heroes will really seem to be faultless—a psychological phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance.”
Revisionism is a central tenet of history. In no other discipline is it so important to continually reexamine and interpret the facts. In fact, history cannot thrive as a discipline without shedding its limbs and regrowing them. Even if the ideas espoused by historians such as Loewen may not always be accurate, they still contribute to the debate between historians and thus help to stimulate intellectual growth and expose facts.
Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York:Touchstone. 1995. Print.