Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
High school history textbooks are seen, by students, as presenting the last word on American History. Rarely, if ever, do they question what their text tells them about our collective past. According to James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, they should be. Loewen has spent considerable time and effort reviewing history texts that were written for high school students. In Lies, he has reviewed twenty texts and has compared them to the actual history. Sadly, not one text measures up to the author's expectation of teaching students to think. What is worse, though, is that students come away from their classes without "having developed the ability to think coherently about social life"(Lies p.4). Loewen blames this on the way that today's texts are written. This paper will compare one text, The American Pageant, to Lies.
One of the biggest problems with today's texts is the process of heroification. This process turns real people, from our past, into "pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, creditability, or human interest"(Lies p.9). Several examples, including the lions from our history, in Pageant include Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson. Others are defamed, like Stephen A. Douglas, and John Brown.
In Pageant Christopher Columbus is one of the first people named as relevant to our history. He is built up as a hero, with words such as "a man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage" used to describe him (Pageant p.4). We are told that he knows the world is round, but that nobody will believe him. Finally he convinces Spain's monarchs to fund him, and is given "three tiny but seaworthy ships manned by a motley crew"(Pageant p.4). With these, and not much else, he makes a "sensational achievement," but one that turns out to be one of the "most successful failures of history," because he was convinced until his death that he had found the Indies, not a new continent(Pageant p.4). According to Loewen they got his name right, and not much else. Lies points out that there were many groups of explorers that had "discovered" America before Columbus. He probably used some of their information as a basis for his plans to sail west. A full eight pages are devoted to other possible explorers. These groups include ancient groups from Indonesia, Japan, China, and Phoenicia. More recent groups include the Vikings, British Islanders, West Africans, and Portuguese fishermen. There are varying levels of evidence connecting these groups to pre-Columbian America, but still enough to throw doubt into the mix. Columbus got the credit because of the way in which Europe responded to his "discovery."
Other false ideas taught about Columbus deal with what is left out. His original motivation may have been to find another trade route to the Orient, but his real motivation, in subsequent expeditions to America, was money. By...