Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

by James W. Loewen

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What does Loewen mean by "heroification"?

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In chapter one of his book, Loewen defines heroification as doing the following:

Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.

Loewen, for example, discusses the way history classrooms and texts often elide (omit) Helen Keller's long commitment to socialism to focus on her as a child who overcame adversity and became a "humanitarian." In fact, she helped found the ACLU when supporting free speech was a radical stance, gave generously to the NAACP in a time before supporting civil rights was popular, supported Eugene Debs (a socialist candidate for president), and wrote to imprisoned communists. All of this is erased from standard histories because it is uncomfortable—but doing so distorts the truth and replaces a true story with a false one that happens to be more pleasant for most people to believe in.

Likewise, Loewen shows that though President Wilson is often heralded as a "progressive," he supported racist policies of segregation and acted as an imperialist who wanted to impose US power on weaker countries, such as Mexico and Haiti.

Loewen argues that we distort and tell lies about important figures like Keller and Wilson to sanitize them and use them to support central mythologies about American life. For example, he states that Keller is deployed to exalt the comforting idea that success comes through

the virtues of self-help and hard work. Keller herself, while scarcely opposing hard work, explicitly rejected this ideology.

Loewen says he learned

“There are three great taboos in textbook publishing,” an editor at one of the biggest houses told me, “sex, religion, and social class.”

He was stunned that textbooks don't discuss social class.

Loewen explains that making heroes of historic figures based on false premises treats older students as children and keeps them intellectually immature. He calls heroification "potentially crippling to students."

Loewen argues that students become better citizens and more mature thinkers if they have real role models to interact with, flaws and all, not one-dimensional heroes whose life stories are told in ways that distort reality.

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Heroification is a process described in James W. Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong.

Loewen describes heroification as a "degenerative process" that strips historical figures of their humanity and reduces them to the actions for which they were most renowned rather than presenting multifaceted views of them as people. This is usually accomplished with the omission of atypical or undesirable details.

Loewen provides an example of heroification with details about Helen Keller’s little-known participation in the radical socialist movement of her time, which included participation in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an industrial union which historically had ties to socialist and anarchist labor movements in the US and UK.

Without this detail of Keller’s life, her story is easily misinterpreted as one of mere inspiration in the face of adversity rather than a historical account of someone who was in need of social services in order to survive and subsequently chose to fight for the provision of those services for all of those in need.

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In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen discusses heroification extensively in chapter 1. He defines the term as "a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest" (page 9). Simply put, history has made heroes out of people by painting them as flawless, lifeless, and uninteresting. Loewen's point: People are not flawless, and each individual has many sides to their personality that history has ignored. He proposes that history has omitted information which reflects badly on the national character in making heroes out of our country's historical figures.

The author uses examples such as Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, and Betsy Ross to illustrate his point. He asserts that Keller is revered for overcoming obstacles because of her disability, yet few people realize she was a "radical socialist" and that "she sang the praises of the new communist nation" of Russia after the revolution (11). President Wilson is remembered for establishing the League of Nations, yet few people realize he supported "racial segregation of the federal government and [know about] his military interventions in foreign countries" (13). As well, Loewen states that Betsy Ross had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of the first flag; the story of her sewing it is a myth.

The result of heroification disallows for realistic role models and, according to the author, places a Disney-like spin on history where key historical figures are viewed as larger-than-life.

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The concept of "heroification" is one of the elements that Loewen feels makes history textbooks historically inaccurate.  Loewen feels that part of the challenge in American History textbooks is that there is an obsessive need to deify American Historical figures.  Loewen uses Columbus as one such examples.  Rather than present the complexity in assessing these figures and individuals as part of the American Historical Dialectic, Loewen argues that these individuals are raised to a platform that is beyond reproach or question.  In doing this, Loewen argues that this heroification is something that enables readers and teachers to overlook the conflicts that enable a full reading of historical narratives and bring in other points of view.  The "heroification" process is done to make textbooks more appealing to school districts and to also present an artificially "exceptionalist" view of American History.  At the same time, "heroification" enables students to assume a role of passivity in constructing the next wave of American social and historical dynamics.  If all that is read are about heroes, it creates the mentality that there is nothing left to do and this enables those in the position of power to continue doing what they do without any sort of questioning or analysis.  It is here where Loewen's argument is probably the most persuasive in that heroification actually does more to inhbit youth than inspire them.

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