Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen uncovers the various ways that textbooks mystify students into believing an alternative, Eurocentric American history. Loewen drops truth after truth, revealing the extent to which textbooks both educate and shelter students from the fluid, grey reality that is our country’s history.
That being said, here are 15 of the most shocking revelations from the book.
Helen Keller was a radical socialist.
Most textbooks only cover her early life, learning to read, write and speak while being both deaf and blind. Keller joined the Socialist Party of Massachusetts in 1909, inspired by her learning that blindness often depended on class status, with lower income people being more likely to suffer from it. Her commitment to socialism turned the tide of admiration against her, with many publications that praised her in her early life condemning her. They even went so far as to blame her socialism on her blindness and deafness.
The pilgrims weren’t exactly the picture of civilization.
The Native Americans that interacted with the settlers, according to Loewen, tried to encourage them to bathe, for their stench was quite strong. The settlers also didn’t know a thing about cultivating the land, or how to survive in their new environment. The Native Americans had their own, robust societies (before plague brought by the settlers decimated them) built on knowledge that the settlers relied on for their survival.
Columbus was far from the first person to “discover” America.
Vikings, Africans, and many others might have landed on the American east coast far before Columbus did. Some even believe that the Africans interacted with the land, and left behind giant sculptures of their heads, although others say that the Native Americans of the area might have constructed them.
Reconstruction wasn’t a struggle to integrate newly freed slaves, but racist white Americans and ex-members of the Confederacy.
When the government stopped cracking down on racial violence practiced by white citizens, Reconstruction apparently ended, leading to the “nadir”, or one of the most racially violent periods in American history, targeting Black Americans.
More Europeans fled to Native American societies than vice versa.
So many European settlers joined native society that it became a problem for the colonies themselves. Many women and Black slaves fled to native society seeking freedom or elevated status among the community. The colonies ended up banning others from joining in order to retain community members. This practice might even explain the mysterious “disappearance” of the Roanoke colony in North Carolina.
During his time as President, Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal government for the first time since Lincoln desegregated it during his term.
Wilson, known for passing progressive bills, actually wasn’t the forward thinking figure found in textbooks. Wilson was open about his white supremacy, and also segregated the Navy, sending Black people to the kitchen and boiler room. He even attempted to further limit the civil rights of Black Americans, but Congress refused to pass the legislation. The segregation had immense repercussions, with the Democratic party turning away African Americans for the next twenty years, and the government remaining segregated past the 1950s.
John Brown, famed abolitionist, wasn’t crazy at all.
It was the desire of the Confederacy, and post-Civil War Democrats, to paint John Brown as crazy. To them, a white man fighting to the abolition of slavery was, in fact, crazy, and textbooks continue to perpetuate this unsympathetic retelling of Brown’s storming of Harper’s Ferry. Brown was actually impressively intelligent, according to his articulate speeches, before his hanging and those who saw him in prison.
Class status affected who was saved off of the Titanic.
The “lower-class” citizens on board suffered the most from the sinking. Only 4 of the 143 first-class women and girls passengers were “lost”, and 15 of the 93 second-class passengers drowned. A startling 81 of 179 third-class women and girls drowned. Some third-class passengers were even held at gunpoint on the lower decks, preventing them from escaping before the first and second-class passengers.
The US doesn’t give as much international aid as you might think.
Loewen writes that at least 20 European and Arab nations gave more international aid than the US (at the time the second edition was published in 2018).
Kennedy wasn’t always (if ever) a champion for civil rights.
Kennedy reportedly tried to stop the now famed march in Washington, D.C. for civil rights. Arthur Schlesinger, who Loewen referred to as a Kennedy partisan, said “the best spirit of Kennedy was largely absent from the racial deliberations of his presidency.”
Canada has offered shelter to American dissenters since 1776.
Canada housed Tories during the Revolutionary War, free Black Americans escaping the Dred Scott ruling, and men of draftable age who disagreed with America’s participation in the Vietnam War.
Most of our presidents came from the upper class.
According to Loewen, 40% of our presidents came from the upper class (most from the “elite” upper class, 15% from between upper and upper-middle class, 25% from upper-middle class, and 15% from the middle and lower-middle class. Only Andrew Johnson came from the lower class, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came from the working-class.
The FBI terrorized Black civil rights groups and regular Black citizens.
The FBI tried to break up the marriages of civil rights leaders, including that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. They falsified records of regular people they terrorized, to make the defense of the officers who attacked them easier. They refused to protect civil rights groups, despite knowing of threats against their lives. The FBI didn’t even have an office in the south at first, and relied on the records of local police and sheriffs, until they were pressured by Black activists to open an office to investigate attacks on the community.
The Louisiana purchase wasn’t France’s to sell.
France never obtained a rightful claim to the land from the Native American societies that lived on the Louisiana Purchase, so it was never actually theirs to sell to the U.S. This happened frequently in America, with settlers either purchasing the land from a tribe that didn’t own the land, or stealing it outright.
A lot of what is written in textbooks is conjecture, half truths, or just outright lies.
Loewen said many textbooks focus on the positive impact that America has had on the world, and defends our country’s negative history (the Vietnam War, intervention in other country’s democracies, racial violence) by omitting details or painting other countries as the attackers.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDITS: VIA AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE BOOK CLUB, SLIDESHARE.NET