The most important lie we nonetheless train in American historical past lessons

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“The concept we’re all the time getting higher retains us from seeing these occasions after we’re getting worse.”

One in all my favourite writers, Gore Vidal, as soon as described his nation as america of Amnesia. “We be taught nothing as a result of we keep in mind nothing,” he wrote.

Vidal’s level is straightforward sufficient: America’s idea of itself is formed by mythology, not by information. And it’s tougher to handle errors should you’re unwilling to face them truthfully.

In 1995, James Loewen got down to resolve this drawback. He revealed a landmark ebook, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that went on to promote greater than 2 million copies. Loewen taught race relations for twenty years on the College of Vermont, and spent two years on the Smithsonian Establishment, the place he surveyed previous American historical past textbooks.

The results of his analysis was a large tome that identified all of the distortions and falsehoods taught in US historical past lessons.

Like Howard Zinn famously did earlier than him, Loewen shattered myths round Christopher Columbus, the primary Thanksgiving, the Civil Battle, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln, American labor historical past, and the roots of racial inequalities. The issue, Loewen argued, was our impulse to show historic occasions and figures into “ethical examples,” which normally concerned whitewashing the previous in an effort to reinforce a well-recognized story about American greatness.

Lies My Instructor Advised Me was republished final month, so I reached out to Loewen to speak about what has modified, what lies we nonetheless inform ourselves, and the way he thinks about historic fact within the age of “different information.”

A evenly edited transcript of our dialog follows.

Sean Illing

In accordance with your ebook, the largest lie we’re taught in US historical past class is that the nation began out nice and we’ve simply been getting higher ever since.

However on a protracted sufficient timeline, isn’t this partially true?

James Loewen

It’s true sufficient. My drawback is the implication that progress is automated, which it most actually isn’t. Second, the concept that we’re all the time getting higher retains us from seeing these occasions after we’re getting worse.

Take into account the interval of 1890-1940, when race relations bought systematically worse yearly. America really bought extra racist in its ideology than at every other time in historical past. After slavery, white folks satisfied themselves that there have been equal alternatives, which was a lie. They informed themselves that black folks had been criminals and incompetent and unable to succeed.

The purpose isn’t that life was higher for folks underneath slavery; it’s that the story of ethical and political progress isn’t so clear. And after we fake that it’s neat and clear, we trigger lecturers to show and college students to suppose that progress occurs mechanically, and that destroys the impulse to vary issues — to grow to be an activist.

Sean Illing

What’s probably the most consequential lie we train?

James Loewen

That’s an attention-grabbing query. I’d return to 1892, 400 years after Columbus is alleged to have found America. For those who regarded around the globe at the moment, white folks dominated most of it. The massive lie is our failure to ask how that got here to move. We merely assumed that we dominated as a result of we had been higher, or smarter, or labored tougher.

A lot of what has handed as “historical past” since has been invested with white supremacy, though the the reason why historical past unfolded the best way it did are extraordinarily difficult and should do with luck, and geography, and all types of things that aren’t captured in our oversimplified narratives.

We by no means critically requested the query, and so white supremacy turned the default reply. What may very well be extra consequential than that?


Sean Illing

Is a really authoritative model of historical past ever attainable? Isn’t historical past all the time a self-serving narrative formed by actors who’re deeply invested in it?

James Loewen

Sure and no. I actually agree actually authoritative model of historical past, as you place it, isn’t attainable. And there are all the time extra views, extra questions, extra issues to be taught. On the identical time, we are able to take this too far and lose the capability to say that one model of historical past is extra authoritative than one other model. After which we’re on this planet of “post-truth” and “different information.”

All the things isn’t a matter of nuance: every little thing isn’t up for grabs. It’s merely true, for instance, that the South seceded from the Union due to slavery, and never due to states’ rights. We all know this to be true, and an alternate model of historical past that denies this can be a lie. Interval.

Sean Illing

Why do highschool historical past lecturers proceed to assign books that they know are full of falsehoods?

James Loewen

I feel quite a lot of them don’t even know they’re full of lies. Lots of them, it seems, aren’t historians and haven’t taken a single course in US historical past in faculty. And but right here they’re, instructing US historical past on the Ok-12 stage.

For those who don’t know any historical past, then you definitely don’t know sufficient to show the ebook and to say the ebook is awful. Not solely that, you haven’t any curiosity in doing so since you’re counting on it. You’re utilizing it as a crutch. You might be instructing the ebook as a substitute of instructing historical past, utilizing the ebook. That’s a profound distinction.

Sean Illing

What do you imply while you say that some historical past textbooks are “anti-citizenship manuals” or “handbooks for acquiescence”?

James Loewen

That will get again to the purpose about progress. I feel that textbooks fail to show what causes what. All the things is only one rattling factor after one other. It’s good to be taught all these little information. Subsequently, they fail to impart the concept that we, as folks, ought to be attempting to realize issues, issues that gained’t occur with out our efforts.

For instance, if we wish to make our society much less racist, there are specific issues we’ll should do, like we did between 1954 and 1974. Throughout this time, you possibly can really see our society grow to be much less racist each in attitudes and when it comes to our social buildings.

If we wish to make society extra racist, then we are able to do a few of the issues we did between 1890 and 1940, as a result of we are able to really see our society changing into extra racist each in practices and in attitudes. So by not instructing causation, we disempower folks from doing something.

By instructing that issues are just about good and getting higher mechanically, we take away any motive for residents to be residents, to train the powers of citizenship. However that’s not how progress occurs.

Nothing good occurs with out the collective efforts of devoted folks. Historical past, the best way it’s generally taught, has a manner of obscuring this reality.

Sean Illing

The preface to your newest version addresses the issue of fact within the age of Trump. How would you analyze what’s taking place proper now?

James Loewen

I really suppose our state of affairs is much worse than it was previously. For instance, our federal authorities, underneath Nixon and Johnson, lied to us in regards to the Vietnam Battle, however they by no means made the case that information don’t matter or that my information are nearly as good as your information.

They assumed one thing needed to be seen as true in an effort to matter, so that they lied in an effort to additional their agenda.

Trump has principally launched the concept that there isn’t any such factor as information, no such factor as fact — and that’s basically completely different. He’s attacking the very concept of fact and thereby giving his opponents no floor to face on in any respect. That’s a really harmful street to go down, however that’s the place we’re.



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