In my Intro to Sociology courses, I often recall a story I told students when I was teaching at Little Rock’s Parkville High School in Little Rock, Arkansas while working on my masters in secondary education. While analyzing a canonized text on King Arthur to a group of 10th graders, I pointed to many of the problems centered around gender, class, violence, and history. At one point, I got heated and yelled, “they don’t want you to know this!” The students looking somewhat confused, asked who doesn’t want us to know? Surprised by their responses, I scrambled and replied, “the school board.”
I laughed thinking about it and the story warms me, in part because it reminds me of the book the Lies My Teacher Told Me. James Loewen, who passed away on August 19, 2021, published the book in 1995. It became an instant classic as it challenged the Eurocentric, white, patriarchal, narrow views of classroom texts by presenting an alternative text that corrected many of the myths and lies that are taught by the education system.
In a 2018 interview with NPR, he said that inspiration for Lies My Teacher Told Me came while he was teaching at the historically Black college Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and asked his students for their thoughts on Reconstruction:
Well, I had 17 new students in my new second-semester seminar in that course, and I didn’t want to do all the talking that first day of class, so I asked them. I said, OK, what is Reconstruction? What comes to your mind from that period?
And what happened to me was an “A-ha” experience, although you might better consider it an “Oh-no” experience: 16 out of my 17 students said, “Well, Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when Blacks took over the government of the Southern states. But they were too soon out of slavery and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.”
My little heart sank.
I mean, there’s at least three direct lies in that sentence. Blacks never took over the government of the Southern states. All of the Southern states had white governors throughout the period. All but one had white legislative majorities. Second of all, the Reconstruction governments did not screw up across the South without exception. They wrote the best state constitutions that the Southern states have ever had, including better than the ones that they labor under today. A third lie would be whites didn’t take control. A certain group of whites –of course, it was white supremacist Democrats using KKK tactics. So I thought to myself, my gosh, what must it do to you to believe that the one time your group was center stage in American history, they screwed up?
This kinship with Tugaloo remained a guiding light as Loewen used a research fellowship from the Smithsonian Institute to conduct two years of research on classroom texts. The product was a book that challenged many of the social truths taught in the education system. Chapters include “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving,” “Gone with the Wind: The Invisibility of American Racism in American Textbooks” “Red Eyes,” “The Land of Opportunity” and “See No Evil: Choosing Not to Look at the War in Vietnam.” The book challenged the way key historical topics were presented and taught in our education system.
With these chapters, Loewen pointed out that early Europeans struggled to survive, sometimes eating Indigenous corpses. He also described the socialist beliefs of Helen Keller, discussed the diversity of American Indigenous cultures, and explained how ignoring the history of labor unions and leaving students with the impression that the mistreatment of workers was something “that happened long ago, like slavery, and that, like slavery, as corrected long ago.”
He wrote many other great books that all challenged the narrow way the country teaches and frames people of color experiences. But it was Lies My Teacher Told Me that started it all.
It was this book among others that help me find a sense of what I wanted to be at a point in my college career where I was unsure. It expressed how I felt about my experiences with courses and verbalize it in a way I couldn’t. Reading the book was like finding a voice to all the problems and questions I had about the education system. In grad classes sometimes I refused to read certain books, I just couldn’t take it, and I couldn’t fully express why.
This is the legacy of Loewen’s book. Beyond the sales numbers, fame, or how many awards is won, the dramatic way it helped young minds and older minds too understand the world we live in illustrates the power of the sociological imagination.
Many of us academics dedicate our teaching, researching or writing to changing the world, creating paradigm shift– radical shift around a topic or worldview. The book is a reminder that not only is this goal possible, but attainable as long as we are open to new ideas and perspectives while simultaneously challenging your own world view. Listen to minority group members. Let the data tell the story. And lastly, a reminder that the adventure of learning is what generates brilliance.