Lies My Teacher Told Me

I’m on a bit of a history jag right now, and just finished reading the excellent “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by J. W. Loewen. The book is fascinating not only for the facts, insight and interpretation it gives to American history, but in its sociological analysis of how history is taught in America. It’s simultaneously a significant work of scholarship and a fascinating and fun read. Good enough that I had to write the author to tell him about my American history experience. I think my observations might be entertaining or edifying for others, so I’ll go ahead and post it here:

I just finished reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, and I wanted to write you and tell you it had a powerful impact on me. My wife is a sekondar teacher here in Switzerland, and history and social-studies are among the subjects she teaches. Although American history plays a lesser role in her lessons, and her teaching doesn’t seem to suffer from the same failings that the American curriculum does, I’m giving the book to her next, as I’m pretty sure she will find it fascinating and inspiring.

You might be interested in my experience with American high school. I went to a Canadian school grades 1-11, and then attended an American high school (in Sarasota, Fl) for the last year. There I had to take American History and American Government classes to satisfy the graduation requirements.

While some of the problems you address in your text were present in my earlier education (in grade 9 my social studies class was taught by the phys-ed coach), in grades 10 and 11 I had a fantastic social studies teacher (Mr Huff). We spent months discussing Indian culture and government, particularly the Iroquois. We staged a mock trial of Louis Real. His tests were always of the same form: He would take a particular issue from Canadian history, demand that we form an opinion on that issue, and then back that opinion with facts. We were graded on how many relevant facts we could bring to bear on our opinion.

Then I arrived in Sarasota. My history teacher there was named Mr. Bassett, a sextagenarian with died, brylcreamed hair. I think he was striving for a Southern Ronald Reagan look. The first thing I balked at was when Mr. Bassett proudly declared that Columbus had to convince the King and Queen that the world was round. I was shocked at the coverage of the Indians. I often tried to initiate discussion, as up until that point I had found history and social studies fascinating.

Some of the highlights:

– When we got the point of the constitutional convention, Bassett proudly explained to us that “I believe that there is nothing truly new under the sun. Everything has been done before. But on that day the founders creating something truly new, something that had never been seen before: a democratic government founded by the people, for the people and of the people”. At that point I said “well, what about the Iroquois? They had a democracy”. Bassett explained to me that this was the first time “a Nation” was a democracy. I recall learning that the Iroquois were called the “Iroquois Nation” in my history books, but Bassett wasn’t interested in discussion and just thundered on.

– It was election year (Bush Sr. vs Dukakis), and one day Bassett came in talking about an interview he’d seen on TV where the primary candidates had talked about what their favorite foods were. He looked down his nose at the black half the class and made a funny comment about how naturally J. Jackson’s favorite food was chicken. Now, in the town I grew up in there were no black people, and I was actually completely unaware of the “blacks like chicken” stereotype. It wasn’t until years later that I got what had been going on, and I got really pissed off.

– We learned what made a slave owner a good slave owner, and what made one a bad slave owner. A couple years later I was watching a black protester discuss how much having to answer that question on a test pissed him off, and I thought “holy shit yeah, that would piss me off too”, but at the time it never even occurred to me.

– After reading some of the inspiring quotes by Thomas Jefferson, I went to the library and looked up his writings. As I was scanning through, I found some stuff he’d written about black people and I was completely flabbergasted. Old TJ was a wonderful writer, and he came up with some extremely eloquent prose to point out how blacks were inferior because of the coarseness of their features etc. So I brought the book in to class with me, wanting to discuss the disconnect between what we were learning about T.J. and what I was reading by T.J. I read the offending passage out loud, at which point he asked me if I was a white supremacist.

Eventually of course I started to just sleep in class and write out the answers to the test questions by rote. Bassett gave me a B on the first test, so I went around and collected all the tests of students who got A’s. I laid them on his desk and demanded that he either explain to me how the other tests were superior to mine, or to give me an A as well. After I threatened to take the matter to the principal, he eventually capitulated.

Months later, I was working on a paper for English class (It was called “Is the CIA a Fascist Force?” — hey I was 17, but in my defense I started out by carefully defining what I meant by fascism, and then investigating if the CIA acted in a manner which pursued goals which could be characterized as fascist by the definition given. I lost my research material, and asked Bassett if I had perhaps left it in his classroom. He replied in the negative. I was pretty sure I had left it there, so I came to class early the next morning and rifled his desk —
sure enough I found it in one of his desk drawers. I took it back, and neither one of us ever mentioned it again.

Well, that’s all I got. Thanks for writing an excellent book. You can be sure I’ll try to share the reading experience with everyone I can. I’ll also be sure to pick up some of your other stuff.

One thought on “Lies My Teacher Told Me

  1. Well, there you have it. I can’t believe you still remember your high school teachers name.
    Actually, school systems here in Canada, and specifically Manitoba/Winnipeg, have changed to such an extent that I don’t recognize it any more.
    1. Kids can never fail. That is just plain idiotic. But I have spoken to a number of my teacher friends, and they all basically state the same thing… although it’s not “official” failing just does not happen anymore…
    2. Along with the above no failing, they’ve stopped giving letter grades… WOW.
    3. Often, kids are in multi grade environments… they combine 2 or 3 grade levels in one class… And this isn’t even because of lack of resources or small class size… it’s just the way they do things these days. I’m thinking that the teaching has to be “dumbed” down to the lowest common denominator… i.e. the youngest kids in the class… so how will the older kids ever learn anything?

    Just my 2.5 cents worth. (It’s begining to bug me more as now Adam will be entering school in fall).

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