By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Brian Keeler
“Lies My Teacher Told Me” is a terrible title for this book. After a first chapter, there is a great temptation to put it aside because it is patronizing. James W. Loewen demeans himself as well as his audience by inferring that conscientious history-book’ publishers and teachers are liars.
History in grade school and high school are what teachers make them; i.e. history can be exciting or mind numbing. The devil is in the details. Believing America was discovered by Columbus is only a factoid of history. As Loewen writes, that factoid can be argued as an example of euro-centric bias that has great meaning in American history and evolution but–so what?
There are ugly truths in American history. Native Indian tribes are decimated by Anglo-American settlements in the 17th and 18th century. Slavery is a stain that remains and pervades all of what America has become. One percent of America’s population controls forty percent of its wealth. The gap between the rich and poor is as wide as it as ever been. We are here now. Will more accurate knowledge of history make America’s future better?
No period of history is fully understood as truth. History changes with constant revision by historians that search for detailed context of times past. Like examination of infinitesimally small elements of nature, the mere attempt to measure changes the element being measured. Historians are measuring the past. The measurer (the historian) distorts history by explaining it in the contest of personal understanding and experience.
Mark Twain might say “there are two types of historians in the world, liars and damned liars”. History is a lie. No historian can fully reflect the truth of the past. Facts of history are of the past. They are by nature removed from the context of their time, a context that cannot be fully revealed and is always recounted in the context of the present.
It is up to the “Loewens” of history to refine reality of the past and put it in perspective for today and the future.
Loewen’s observation that history book publishers and teachers gloss over many of the details of history is true. Many of History’s distortions noted by Loewen are experienced by students but does one stop learning after school?
Education in history provides a framework for living life; it does not predict or tell the truth of life. The truth of life is living it. There are winners and losers. History is written by the winners. Historians like Loewen can help winners understand why they won and what helped them win but all historian’s truth is, at best, probabilistically true.
Understanding leads to wisdom and wisdom may lead to a better future with more winners and fewer losers but history is not destiny. History is only one of many tools in humankind’s search for wisdom.
Once one gets over the feeling of manipulation by Loewen’s history of America, a great deal of what he writes is interesting and enlightening. Ignore the title; get the book.