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Lies My Teacher Told Me is James Loewen's analysis of what American textbooks get wrong about American History. He correctly points out that the textbooks tend to show only the "good" side of American history; that Americans were always right and always won. Much of what students learn in school is either glossed over or made into a myth. He mentions a process called heroification, similar to calcification, in which many American leaders are deified. A classic example is the picture of George Washington in the Capitol Rotunda known as the "Apotheosis of Washington." Most people, including the Capitol aides who conduct tours, don't know the meaning of the word. It is "to make like a God." Washington appears in a statue as a Greek God sitting in the Smithsonian.
He notes that Indians are often portrayed as aggressive and European settlers always right. He also mentions that little discussion is had of Woodrow Wilson's racism or Helen Keller's socialist sentiments.
He appeals for a new approach to American history, one in which the facts--warts and all--are taught to American students so that they may see that the people who created this nation were not gods, but ordinary people.
Like all evaluations and assessments, much of this is going to be dependent on your own opinions of the book. You can use what is offered here as a guide, but in the end, the question asks you to reflect and nothing can substitute for that. In my own mind, I think that an final evaluation of Loewen's work has to include the idea that he is forcing the reader to make a conscious choice in their learning. The reader must decide as to whether or not they will exist the standard, traditional, and textbook manner in how they learn history, of if they will question those presentation modes and seek to probe deeper into the political agendas that filter into how history is presented. Regardless of how one feels about his presentation of evidence and analysis, this is where Loewen is his most effective. He forces the reader, the student, to make a choice in their learning. In doing so, the resulting revelation helps to identify what type of learner an individual is, priceless in the metacognition of how one understands what is taught. In the end, I think that Loewen's value lies here. He would not want to reader to fully accept everything that is being given, but rather consciously make a choice and make a decision as to what is being presented and what is given. From this, real scholarship and learning emerges.
My overall evaluation of this book is that its basic premise is true, but that it puts too much of an emphasis on what is in textbooks.
Loewen criticizes textbooks for presenting an excessively "happy" view of American history. He says that they do not expose students to controversy or to the "bad" side of US history. I agree, but I think that this is somewhat beside the point.
Any good teacher does not slavishly follow the textbook. Good teachers use the textbook as a jumping off point to talk about related issues. A decent teacher ought to be able to use the textbook to get basic facts across to the students and then should be able to supplement those facts with discussions of controversies and with attention to what has been left out of the books.
So, I agree with Loewen's basic criticism of history textbooks, but I do not think it is a fatal flaw the way he does because I believe that good teachers can and do supplement the textbooks and expose their students to ideas not found in the texts.
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