Note: Sorry for the late post.
As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely do book reviews. In this case I wanted to do this review because I was so excited about the book. As a History teacher, truth and accuracy are among the most important tools in my arsenal. Without these, it is all B.s.
Have you ever looked forward to something so bad that it almost hurt, only to be let down so badly that it does hurt? Well, that happens to all of us, but it still disappoints when it does. Recently it happened to me. Starting last year, I saw a book in a bookstore that I wanted. Since it was close to my Christmas, I opted to not get the book. Instead, I had to wait…, Fast-forward to Christmas, and as I opened the gifts that Santa gave me, the book was there!
Okay, there is the preamble. Now we know some history. Let’s get into the deets.
Lies my teacher told me, by James w. loewen, is a book that seems written for me. As a slightly rebellious teacher, I like the idea of cramming truth in the face of those who insist on telling lies to kids. As a history student, I wanted to know if I was taught any lies that I didn’t know about.
I’m man enough to admit that there are things I didn’t know. Loewen seems to have an unhealthy obsession with Helen Keller
but there is some fascinating information that I never knew about her. He also has a bro-crush on Woodrow Wilson (I’m not as much a fan), which is important because he was a president. So, score one for “lies”.
I knew that much of what teachers taught when I was young is highly sanitized, but Loewen was able to add some details that I had never bothered to look up for myself. Since this was the primary reason for my wanting the book, I could stop now and allow the book to be a success in my estimation.
But that’s not my style.
Here’s where “lies” falls flat:
First, I get that right now it is popular to piss on America. America sucks! I get it. Our president has arguably made an administration saying it. I don’t believe it, I don’t subscribe to that particular point of view, but I get it. I also get that it’s fun to talk about how much teachers suck. I’ve been accused of doing it myself, even though I’ve never done any such thing. There’s more than a little of that in this book.
The other thing is that Loewen does exactly what he accuses the other textbook authors of doing. His major beef (aside from inaccurate history) is that he feels textbook editors put their own political spin on everything from which historical stories they cover to what lessons they draw, to what pictures are included. I agree with him there. But he does it too. It isn’t enough to know that Columbus wasn’t the hero we all were taught he was. Loewen wants us to know that he was a terrorist that brutally slaughtered innocent peaceful people for no reason. It isn’t enough to know that the first thanksgiving, covered here, wasn’t a time when Native Americans and pilgrims got together to eat turkey and watch football. Loewen wants you to believe that the whole story of Thanksgiving is evil! After a while, his reverse spin to “correct” the old spin just leaves me dizzy.
Finally, Loewen seems to lack understanding of economics, which has a huge impact on the events in history. In loewen’s version of history, things happen because white people are evil and hate the world while brown and black people derive absolutely no benefit from anything that has happened over the past 200-odd years. He ignores the economic reasoning behind Columbus’ travels. Right or wrong, there was an economic aspect that deserves a fair hearing.
The Bottom Line:
As much as I was disappointed that Loewen took the easy road time and again, and as much as I started getting angry at another ivory tower type attacking the lower profession of high school teaching, I can’t deny that there is some value in this book.
I can’t help but like the thought that there is some little smart-ass somewhere who is using that book to heckle a teacher that shouldn’t be in front of a history class.
I can’t help but like the idea that someone will pick up that book, like I did, and learn a few things about history or develop a desire to learn even more.
I can feel confident in recommending this book because doing otherwise would put me in the same boat as loewen. History is absolute. It happened. While loewen makes the mistake of judging history through the prism of his own myopic world view, which inevitably leads to conclusions that the people he already doesn’t like are evil, I can’t do the same.
I understand that we have to judge history based not on current societal mores, but against those of the period in which the events happened.
All that being said, I recommend this book for anybody who can read it critically and follow through the expressed goal of the book; to learn true history and “unlearn” all the b.s. that we were taught in school.