What James Loewen Needs to Learn About History Education


Many of the readers of this blog are familiar with James Loewen, the author of the popular 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  In the introduction to a recent interview with Loewen in The Atlantic, journalist Alia Wong described Loewen’s approach in Lies:

In 1995, the University of Vermont sociologist and historian James W. Loewen published a book that sought to debunk the myriad myths children were often taught about the United States’ past. Framed largely as a critique of the history education delivered in America’s classrooms but also serving as a history text itself, Lies My Teacher Told Mewas the result of Loewen’s analysis of a dozen major high-school textbooks. It found that those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways. Take, for example, the false yet relatively widespread conviction that the Reconstruction era was a chaotic period whose tumult was attributable to poor, uncivilized governance of recently freed slaves. Textbooks’ framing of the history in this way, according to Loewen, promoted racist attitudes among white people. White supremacists in the South, for example, repeatedly cited this interpretation of Reconstruction to justify the prevention of black people from voting.

Wong’s interview with Loewen is occasioned by the release of a new paperback edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me.  You can read the interview here.

As I read the interview I was struck by how much emphasis Loewen places on the textbook as a measure of the state of history education in schools.  He seems to be unaware of the changes that have taken place in history education since he first published Lies nearly a quarter-century ago.

Anyone familiar with the work of the Stanford History Education Group or the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History knows that effective history teaching requires teachers to challenge or confirm narratives about the past through the close reading of primary sources and the critical reading of textbooks.

After reading Wong’s interview with Loewen, I ran across a Facebook post written by Nate McAlister, a history teacher in Kansas, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year, and my partner in the Gilder-Lehrman Institute’s “Colonial Era” summer seminar for teachers held each year at Princeton.  Here is his response to Wong’s interview with Loewen and Lies My Teacher Told Me:

I like and dislike the article. And I agree and disagree with Loewen. His analysis based solely on the textbook discounts one major factor, the teacher in the room. He assumes that every history teacher cracks open the textbook and calls it a day. I do agree, that textbooks narratives are often poorly written or plain wrong. I also agree, that if a teacher is reliant on only the textbook the results will be as he stated, poor. But I don’t think this is where history education is in this country. I believe that history teachers are some of the best in the field. I believe that history teachers push students, daily, to think critically and challenged the given narrative. In essence, we—history teachers—are more than the textbook.

“I don’t think this is where history education is in this country.”  Well put.

4 thoughts on “What James Loewen Needs to Learn About History Education

  1. For what it’s worth, I read Loewen’s book with great interest back in the 90’s, but I don’t recall seeing much of a critique of teachers therein–I think I read it more as a critique of a textbook publishing industry that winds up “flattening” history in order to avoid controversy and thereby sell the largest number of books to the largest number of schools/districts. I know many teachers out there who would be successful *regardless* of the textbook, and who would naturally teach their students to read against the grain when warranted. But if the industry hasn’t changed much, then, at the least, the industry is having the effect of saddling a huge number of history teachers with an albatross: a textbook that’s more of an obstacle they have to overcome than a resource they can use to good effect. This seems to happen in many other disciplines, too. Perhaps the most important critique, here, is of an industry that’s more about sales numbers than about educating students.


  2. Since I was a product of the late 60’s- early 70’s I’m somewhat out of the loop for contemporary teaching methods. I know when I was in school, the textbook was most important. However, more to what this discussion addresses, I’ve listened to many people, young and old, who still hold outdated and debunked information regarding the historical roots of the U.S. There may be many good teachers out there. But, I’m not seeing the results of that coming from the mouths and pens of their graduates.


  3. I agree. A substantial tranche of history/social studies teachers always did teach “against” as well as with their textbooks. Way back in 1996, on a panel in Boston with Howard Zinn and Herb Kohl, I estimated that 30% did so. Zinn quipped, “Maybe you should have titled your book LIES 70% OF MY TEACHERS TOLD ME.
    But a majority simply “taught the textbook.”
    Since 1995, when LIES first came out, more teachers deviate from the book. I like to think that LIES was partly responsible for that increase. Certainly I draw huge crowds of teachers whenever I address regional or national gatherings of the National Council for the Social Studies, for example. But Gilder-Lehrman is also responsible. So was the Teaching American History program, and so is Sam Wineburg and his crew at Stanford, etc.
    LIES never bashed teachers and does not do so now. Nevertheless, there are still lots of coaches teaching history (and I do not mean history teachers who also coach). There are still lots of school districts where deviations from the textbook are effectively forbidden. Therefore we all have lots more work to do.


  4. I and my wife are big fans of Colonial Williamsburg, though we don’t believe the Foundation is perfect.
    They have a strong program that brings in teachers, primarily in public school history/social studies over the summer. A big emphasis is on showing them how to use more source material in their courses. I am not involved in that but have read a number of articles on the program. It seems to be something valuable to me.


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