Jim Loewen

James Loewen
Debunking History
May 12, 2000
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James Loewen spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution surveying twelve leading high school textbooks of American history. He found an embarrassing blend of bland optimism, blind nationalism, and plain misinformation, weighing in at an average of 888 pages and almost five pounds.

In response, he wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, in part a telling critique of existing textbooks, but also a gripping retelling of American history as it should, and could, be taught.

Jim Loewen taught race relations for twenty years at the University of Vermont. Previously he taught at predominantly black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. He now lives in Washington, D.C., continuing his research on how Americans remember their past. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong came out in 1999.
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His other books include Mississippi: Conflict and Change (co-authored), which won the Lillian Smith Award for Best Southern Nonfiction but was rejected for public-school text use by the State of Mississippi, leading to the path-breaking First Amendment lawsuit, Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed, et al. He also wrote The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, Social Science in the Courtroom, and The Truth About Columbus. He attended Carleton College and holds the Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University.

Transcript

BB Host It's Friday, May 12, 2000, and we are in the town of Conshohocken, PA, located right outside of Philadelphia. It's a fine spring day here, and we are sitting with Jim Loewen, the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong," in part a telling critique of existing textbooks, but also a gripping retelling of American history as it should, and could, be taught. We thank you all for coming.
Rich1 History can be presented in a more vibrant and realistic manner to today's students. Should we just "throw away" the history texts? If so, what sources do you suggest?  
Loewen I don't think history textbooks must be jettisoned. Although I wish they were 200 pages instead of 1200. The best approach is to let many voices bloom. The textbook author, the teacher, and many original sources and other voices. These are available even in tiny rural hamlets, so long as you have a modem. Because there are literally millions of historical documents -- photos, diaries, laws, etc. -- on the Web. And one of the best things about the Web is that unlike the dead, God-like monotone of the textbook, the Web speaks in many voices. Some sites cannot be believed. That's fine. That, too, teaches. Such sites teach critical thinking which is part of what doing history is all about.
Sara If presidents and politicians weren't hero-ified in history, do you think anyone would want to run for office? Is the idea of "doing good for your community" enough of a draw, or is the promise of fame and a glossy paragraph in my history book really what people are after?
Loewen We have an unfortunate tendency in the U.S. just now of emphasizing every bad thing a President or political leader does, including in his or her private life. Such negativity does deter people from running for office. However, I don't think very many people fail to run for office, or choose to run for what they imagine history books will say about them. I do believe that if history textbooks gave more serious credit to our leaders when they did the right thing, and more serious blame or assigning of responsibility when they did the wrong things, instead of using the passive voice to cover over anything bad, then Presidents and other leaders would have a better sense of how history might remember them and it might improve their performance in office.
David Your books are often critical of textbooks and historical markers. Have you received criticism from readers/others that you have been too harsh?
Loewen Yes. Last week I got an anonymous letter from a person in Oklahoma upset with me because her daughter is a devoted fan of JFK...and I badmouthed President Kennedy for his inaction regarding civil rights and his escalation in Vietnam. The next day, a copy of my book, "Lies" was mailed back to me marked up by a distraught reader who thought I attacked Republicans. However, I do have to say that I have gotten thousands of emails and letters from people who like my books and who recognize that at their core both "Lies My Teacher Taught Me" and "Lies Across America" are intensely idealistic.
Sunshine Deganawidah, a legendary peacemaker of the Iroquois nation, has been credited with establishing a complex and comprehensive democracy in America long before the arrival of the colonists. Although Benjamin Franklin did much to promote the genius of the Iroquois League and many ideas from the League formed the basis for the democratic ideals of the United States, there is scant mention of the League and its influence in our history.
Loewen First question ...Historians do not agree whether white Americans actually took ideas from Native Americans, including the Iroquois. I think the evidence indicates that they did. This influence was of 2 types: First, from the first "discovery" of Native peoples by Europeans, philosophers in Europe were shaken by their understanding of nations that lived without hierarchical, hereditary leadership. This influenced the philosophy of John Locke, Montesquieu, and others, who then became influences on our Founding Fathers. Second, the Iroquois in particular influenced Benjamin Franklin and other people in Philadelphia in 1776 and again when the Constitution was being written. There are historians who minimize especially that second influence. Textbook authors are wary to say anything that might not fit with the orthodoxy of the secondary literature in history. Furthermore, textbook authors don't know much about this issue and mostly copy other textbooks written 40 years ago, before this issue surfaced.
Sara In the end of your book, "Lies My Teacher Told Me," you write, "we must introduce fewer topics and examine them more thoroughly." Is there anything you believe all Americans absolutely must study from their history?
Loewen Yes. Many things. For sure, the Constitution. For sure, the Civil War. For sure, Reconstruction and the reactionary period that revered it. I suggest to teachers that they come up with a list of 30 to 100 topics to cover during a school year. These topics might take 20 minutes to 4-5 days. But, if you divide the school year up, you see that you can cover 30-100. Should the removal of the Indians from the Southeastern U.S. -- the Trail of Tears -- be included? I would include it but I would not fault a teacher who did not. Teachers should focus on topics that excite them -- that they think everyone should know. And they should teach them in such a way that every one of those students will remember that topic and why it was important, for the rest of their lives.
Tinky Betsy Ross is a beloved figure in American history. Yet the historical record on her is sketchy at best. What does one "do" with such people?
Loewen Ummm (laughter) .. let's see ...I think it would be fun to teach Betsy Ross as an American myth. What is it about America that causes so many of us to want to believe in Betsy Ross? In my new book, "Lies Across America," I talk about many myths. For example, the hoax of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace cabin. There is an old student blooper, "Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands." The truth is that Lincoln was born in a log cabin built 30 years after his death. What is there about our country that requires us to invent this cabin even though we don't have it? And to make it so little?
Meghan Are "lies" an important ingredient in forming a history for a people?
Loewen Every country has its lies. However, I think the U.S. wins the ethnocentricism contest. That is, I think we have more myths and they make us even grander than the myths of say, Sweden, or Kenya, or Russia. And they make us stupid. Surely we do not have to go about, accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. We become more intelligent about what has caused what in the past, and therefore, wiser about what we should do next, if we disabuse ourselves of the myths about our past and look nakedly at what happened.
David Could you discuss the role of the mass media in perpetuating the "lies" and myths of history?
Loewen I'm concerned about the increasing ownership of mass media by conglomerates. General Electric owns a TV network. Disney owns another one. AOL owns many more mass media institutions. How can ABC-TV do hard muckraking journalism on the safety of rides at Disneyworld? Or on the ideological content of the stupid Coca-Cola movie at EPCOT? However, we do have alternative media from Utne Reader to self-published websites. So there is hope.
Gee How can you be politically correct but honest?
Loewen The label "politically correct" is usually applied to people on the left by people on the right. I reject the label. I'm not excited, in fact, about the labels "left" and "right." There are terminology issues that we all should follow. If, for example, African Americans would rather be called "African Americans" or "blacks" and not "Negroes" any more, that's their business and we -- non-African Americans -- should be "correct." After all, we all want the right to choose what we shall be called individually or as a group. And there are some labels and names that are flatly insulting. I know -- I come from Washington. The major sports team in Washington is called the Redskins. Anyone who knows the background of the name "Redskin" knows that this is offensive to Native Americans. The refusal of the football team to change it is a statement that they don't give a damn about Native American sensibilities and that they recognize that Native Americans don't matter much in our nation today. This is a statement not only of political incorrectness but also of rudeness and indeed arrogance. So to eliminate such terms is not just politically correct, it is courteous and productive and progressive. Now, if the truth about a historical event is something that offends Americans, whether they are on the left or on the right, let it be told. We cannot become more intelligent if we only tell those truths that happen to be harmonious with our political beliefs. There have been Americans, including African Americans, who have attacked "Huckleberry Finn," for instance, for its use of the term "nigger." Mark Twain uses that word to be sure. Maybe he even overuses it, but anyone who reads "Huckleberry Finn" with an open mind realizes that this is a profoundly anti-racist book. Therefore, attacking it for its language misses the point. Let's contrast "Finn" with an even more popular novel, "Gone with the Wind." I don't think Margaret Mitchell uses the word "nigger" in Gone With the Wind"; certainly she doesn't use it often. But "Gone With the Wind" is a profoundly racist novel. It laments the passing of the slave era as "gone with the wind." In the novel, Mitchell states openly that African Americans are "creatures of small intelligence." And this book is by far the most popular book in the U.S. and has been for 60 years. The book is also profoundly wrong in its history. What it tells us about slavery, and especially reconstruction, did not happen. So, while there may not be a political terminology problem with "Gone With the Wind", it is profoundly racist and profoundly wrong. Should we teach it? Of course. Should we teach against it? Of course.
Sara What if a group, such as African Americans, disagrees on what they should be called? (For example blacks vs. African Americans vs. Negroes or even the other N-word that is popular in rap music, but totally unacceptable in history books.) How can a history book label the group fairly and accurately?
Loewen That is a problem right now regarding Native Americans, or American Indians. Every time I say "Native American," to a group, someone from the American Indian Movement suggests they would just as soon be called American Indians. Every time I say "American Indians," someone suggests the "better term" is Native Americans. I try to use both and sometimes include a footnote explaining why. However, in my experience most people of whatever group are more concerned with what is said than with what term is used to say it. So, we all just have to do the best we can trying not to offend anyone on purpose.
Tinky What do you think of the notion of "days" that honor historic figures such as Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Day? Why not a Sitting Bull day?
Loewen South Dakota, I understand, has relabeled October 12th Native American day. Given that Columbus never got to the U.S. anyway, except Puerto Rico, and given that there are negatives as well as positives in his great exploit, South Dakota has a point. I'm also not happy with the movement away from Washington's birthday and Lincoln's birthday to Presidents' Day. Presidents' Day is supposed to not honor Washington and Lincoln, both born in February, but to honor all our Presidents at once. I refuse to honor Franklin Pierce, my candidate for the worst President of all time. Plenty of people right now refuse to honor Bill Clinton and I respect them. I think Washington and Lincoln both displayed, on balance, honorable characteristics. Some say maybe we should rename Presidents' Day "Washington-Lincoln Day," or perhaps "2-Presidents Day" and people can choose which 2 Presidents they wish to honor.
Sharlee What did Franklin Pierce do that was so bad?
Loewen Um ...The Library of Congress, which has over 100,000,000 books has no biography of Pierce. So, when I wanted to learn about him, I went to the Web and typed in "Franklin Pierce + biography" At the time, I got just one hit and it was a paper called, "Franklin Pierce -- A Biography." Great, I thought, until I realized that the word "Biography" was misspelled. It was a term paper from Pierce's hometown in New Hampshire. After Pierce was President, he became so unpopular, even in his own hometown, that he pretty much had to go to England to live out his old age. What did he do? What did he do? He was the tool of the so-called Slave Power. He subverted democracy in Kansas.
Sara Given all the false information on the web, the tainted information in my history book, the glorified info on TV and the idealized memories my grandfather relays to me, how can I do a good research paper? Where can I find good and accurate information?
Tinky Who gets history right? Who are some authors or historic sites that you admire?
Loewen There is lots of good secondary research in university libraries. For the last 30 years, historians have done good work based on primary sources, census data, oral interviews, etc. You still have to read with a critical eye and mind, but you don't have to do it all yourself. Much of the heavy lifting has been done.
Sunshine Do you think we should we honor Thomas Jefferson for his democratic ideals when his personal life was duplicitous as he failed to acknowledge his mistress and the children resulting from that association?
Loewen Yes. The larger problem with Jefferson is not his relationship with Sally Hemings. It is that in his professional life, during his Presidency, and especially afterwards, he never came to terms with his advocacy of slavery and his advocacy of democracy. We must fault him for this. We must at the same time give him credit for his words and actions on behalf of freedom of religion and democracy earlier in his career.
Loewen Time for one last question ....
Andy Do you think it is fair to judge historical figures by contemporary moral standards?
Loewen Good question. Every time I have checked into this issue, however, I have found that people of their time raise the same question about past heroes as people of our time. No more searing indictment of Columbus has ever been made than that made by Bartholme de las Casas in 1510. Similarly, to refer to the last question, Jefferson was attacked in 1802 for fathering children by Sally Hemings. There have always been people in every era in America who fought and argued for just and progressive policies. We must not imagine that we live in an era that is profoundly more tolerant and more progressive than in the past. Thus the question itself relies on a form of chronological ethnocentricity.
BB Host Thank you all very much for participating!
Andy Thanks for taking my question. I enjoyed the chat!
Sara Thank you for your time Prof. Loewen. I look forward to your next book.
Zorba Thanks, Loewen. I really enjoyed your book.
Tinky Thanks for your time....it was very informative
Sunshine Enjoyed the sharing of information, thanks.

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