How History Classes Helped Create a ‘Post-Truth’ America

Alia Wong:

In 1995, the University of Vermont sociologist and historian James W. Loewen published a book that sought to debunk the myriad myths children were often taught about the United States’ past. Framed largely as a critique of the history education delivered in America’s classrooms but also serving as a history text itself, Lies My Teacher Told Me was the result of Loewen’s analysis of a dozen major high-school textbooks. It found that those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways. Take, for example, the false yet relatively widespread conviction that the Reconstruction era was a chaotic period whose tumult was attributable to poor, uncivilized governance of recently freed slaves. Textbooks’ framing of the history in this way, according to Loewen, promoted racist attitudes among white people. White supremacists in the South, for example, repeatedly cited this interpretation of Reconstruction to justify the prevention of black people from voting.

Loewen didn’t veer from his conclusions with the second-edition release of Lies My Teacher Told Me in 2007, for which he analyzed six new history textbooks. The books’ treatment of what were then new developments, such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, reinforced his belief that history education in the U.S. is fundamentally broken.