James W. Loewen, in my opinion, makes a very valid argument in Lies My Teacher Told Me. He argues that teaching (of history) today relies too much on the textbooks which glorify the United States and its imperfect leaders and heroes. His examples, in fact, are very surprising to those most unfamiliar, or ?deceived,? in their understanding of American History and are painfully obvious to those fairly educated in the events of our nation?s past. Personally, I agree with Loewen?s statements and find his points to be deserving of merit, myself having been taught from various sources other than text books and already informed of some of the incidents he refers to.
The event, or chain of events, which came most surprisingly to me was Loewen?s description of ?the first Thanksgiving;? I had already remotely known about some of the circumstances, but the bitter details of American settlement astonished me. For example, I had learned as early as fifth grade that the Europeans brought disease to Native Americans, but not that the fatality rate was ninety to ninety-six percent. I also knew of the first European settlements of St. Augustine, Roanoke, and Jamestown, which Loewen criticizes as being left out of or only mentioned in some books. He also criticizes the textbooks for having instilled the thought that Europeans had settled America, beginning with the arrival at Plymouth; he states that long before their arrival, Indians had settled the land and had routes connecting the Rockies to New England and the Great Lakes to Florida. Furthermore, black African runaway slaves were the first foreign settlers, he says.
Loewen is truly a very learned historian, listing innumerable details and examples: he corrects the misconception concerning Squanto, who did not openly help settlers, but had no other choice upon finding his tribe dead after smallpox, the bubonic plague, and other diseases swept through. He also mentions things like maps and guidebooks given to the pilgrims and the possibility of a ?hijacking? and forced landing at Plymouth, not the stormy weather problem as taught through grammar and high school. Besides these details, pages are spent on the cause, numbers, and aftermath concerning the ?plague? of diseases, which left one out of twenty living. He continues to discuss the ever-lessening population of Native Americans, stating that wherever the first settlers and explorers found Indians, thousands less existed there years later, once the area had been ?settled.? The information is overwhelming and greatly supports his criticism of the textbooks.
The second part that I found to be of great interest is Loewen?s discussion of Woodrow Wilson and the ?Process of Hero-Making.? Strangely, even though I had never before been very familiar with his administration, I found the comparison between portrayal of Wilson and reality to be humorously different. The point that the author intends to make with his discussion of Wilson is the wrongful making of very ?unheroic? historical figures into heroes. He attempts to convince us that the incidents that Wilson was involved in and/or caused are no reason for him to be seen as the hero he is today. Loewen also says that because of this ?heroification,? the most likely to be chosen if we were to add a face to Mt. Rushmore would be Wilson?s. But, in stating the harsh qualities of Wilson?s life, one being racism, Loewen says ?no black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero.?
He enthralls us with the other surprising and unfavorable events of Wilson?s time in office, mainly concerning his dealings with Latin America. And later, he begins the close of this discussion with the notice that the candidate (Warren G. Harding) opposing Wilson?s successor won the election of 1920 with no campaign. Loewen is showing us just how much Wilson and similar thinkers were wanted out of office. He also mentions here that in this ?hero-making? process, the textbooks strain to explain the election and eliminate his shortcomings at the same time. To explain in one sentence, the United States sought (using military force) to set up a new government and constitution in Haiti and invaded other Latin American nations to better the U.S. position. The textbooks describe this as the president wanting to ?build friendships with the countries of Latin America,? and blame the invaded countries for these military actions, as directly quoted from our own textbook The American Pageant: ?Necessity was the mother of armed Caribbean intervention.?
Loewen also mentions the ?unknown war with Russia,? in which Wilson sent troops to help the ?White? side of the civil war in Russia. This incident is not even mentioned in any of the twelve textbooks that he surveyed.
He explains that Wilson was also radically loyal to America and greatly enjoyed being American, calling opposite believers ?hyphenated Americans? who wish to destroy the Republic. Corresponding to his extreme beliefs, Wilson thought little of anyone with contrasting views in any matter.
Loewen is certainly wise and correct in choosing Woodrow Wilson to support his argument against hero-making in American History textbooks. Wilson is the perfect example of one more undeserving than having the qualities to be considered an American hero. As Loewen says, only after WWII did ?policymakers and historians? begin to look kindly unto Wilson.
Some of the topics that Loewen covers are not quite as interesting or contrasting between the textbooks and reality. But the idea he hopes to leave us with is that people, and the teachers educating the people most especially, must strive to understand history better by incorporating a variety of sources because the textbooks seek to portray our country as best as possible. This is the reason why he tells us that the type of teacher he appreciates, and dedicates this book to, is the one who goes beyond the textbook?s information and incorporates the present with the past.
It may be because I have been fortunate enough to experience this type of teaching for my most recent understanding of American history, but I fully agree with Loewen?s ideas in Lies My Teacher Told Me and found the book to be both interesting and informative. Besides giving me better ideas for going about learning US history, it educated me in the events which will not be mentioned or covered as fully as in Lies My Teacher Told Me.