James William Loewen (born February 6, 1942) is an American sociologist, historian, and author, best known for his 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which was republished in 2008.
Loewen was born in Decatur, Illinois, to Winifred and David F. Loewen, on February 6, 1942. His mother was a librarian and teacher, and his father was a medical director and doctor. Loewen grew up in Decatur. He was a National Merit Scholar as a graduate in 1960 from MacArthur High School.
Loewen attended Carleton College. In 1963, as a junior, he spent a semester in Mississippi, an experience in a different culture that led to his questioning what he had been taught about United States history. He was intrigued by learning about the unique place of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Mississippi culture, commonly thought of as biracial. Loewen went on to earn a PhD in sociology from Harvard University based on his research on Chinese Americans in Mississippi.
Loewen first taught in Mississippi at Tougaloo College, a historically black college founded by the American Missionary Association after the American Civil War. For 20 years, Loewen taught about racism at the University of Vermont, where he is now professor emeritus of sociology. Since 1997, he has been a visiting professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
First Amendment battle
Loewen co-authored a United States history textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change (1974), which won the Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Nonfiction in 1975. However, the book was rejected for use in Mississippi's public schools by the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board on the grounds that it was too controversial and placed too much focus on racial matters.
Loewen challenged the Board's decision in a lawsuit, Loewen v. Turnipseed (1980). Judge Orma R. Smith of the U.S. District Court ruled that the rejection of the textbook was not based on "justifiable grounds", and that the authors were denied their right to free speech and press.
The American Library Association considers Loewen v. Turnipseed, 488 F. Supp. 1138 (N.D. Miss. 1980), a historic First Amendment case and one of the foundations of the "right to read freely."
Lies My Teacher Told Me
Loewen spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution, where he studied and compared twelve American history textbooks then widely used throughout the United States. He published his findings in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). He concluded that textbook authors propagate factually false, Eurocentric, and mythologized views of history. Loewen points out in the book that many of the distortions found in American history texts are "not even by the authors whose names grace the cover." In March 2012, the book's publisher, The New Press, listed Lies My Teacher Told Me as their top all-time bestseller.
The book reflects Loewen's belief that history should not be taught as straightforward facts and dates to memorize, but rather as analysis of the context and root causes of events. Loewen recommends that teachers use two or more textbooks, so that students may realize the contradictions and ask questions, such as, "Why do the authors present the material like this?"
Teaching What Really Happened
Loewen builds off of Lies My Teacher Told Me in Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History and lays out an argument for how history should be taught at the elementary and secondary levels. The first four chapters get to the heart of Loewen’s argument on how history should be taught and chapters 5–10 are about specific issues in history and how to teach them effectively. Chapter one makes the argument that history teachers need to free themselves from the history textbooks and go more in depth with specific issues in history. In chapter two Loewen argues that teacher expectations play a role in student performance, and knowing this can help teachers to close achievement gaps among students. The third chapter lays out why historiography is and should be important to students. Chapter four gives teachers ways to help students “Do history, [and] not merely learn it”.
Chapters 5–10 treat special cases in history such as slavery and the South seceding from the United States. At the end of each chapter is a “Focused Bibliography" which lists additional readings that Loewen feels are important to the chapter. The book is focused at current and future teachers, who may be frustrated with the way that history is usually presented at the elementary and secondary levels and provides ideas on how it should be taught and how to get students engaged.
Continuing his interest in racism in the United States, Loewen wrote Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, which was released in 2005. The book documents the histories of sundown towns, which are towns where African Americans, Jews, and other minority groups were forced (or strongly encouraged) to leave prior to sundown in order to avoid racist violence threatened and perpetrated by the towns' majority white populations. A review of the book, in the Washington Post, noted that even though Loewen dedicated an entire chapter to research methodology, his claims regarding the number of communities which supported racial exclusion policies is both widely variable and vague. The review stated "This vagueness, along with Loewen's almost evangelical passion for his material, raises questions of credibility – or at least of potential overstatement." Loewen has written about sundown towns repeatedly throughout his career, including in Lies Across America, where he notably cited the affluent suburb of Darien, Connecticut as meeting his definition of a modern-day de facto sundown town.
In 2010, Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta co-authored the book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth about the Lost Cause, an anthology containing a wide array of primary source documents pertaining to the Confederacy from the time of the American Civil War.
At present, Loewen is researching a new book, Surprises on the Landscape: Unexpected Places That Get History Right. The book is planned as follow-up to Lies Across America, which noted historically inaccurate or misleading historical markers and sites across the United States. Surprises will call attention to historical sites that are accurate and provide honest representations of events. His official website invites the public to comment on what towns and historical sites should be included in terms of presenting history right.
Loewen has written the following works:
- The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971; second edition, Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press 1988
- Loewen, James W.; Sallis, Charles (1974). Mississippi: Conflict and Change. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Loewen, James W. (1982). Social Science in the Courtroom. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company.
- The Truth About Columbus 1989; second edition as Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, paperback, 2006
- Loewen, James W. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press.
- Loewen, James W. (1999). Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong. New York: The New Press.
- Loewen, James W. (2005). Sundown Towns. New York: The New Press.
- Loewen, James W. (2007). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press.
- Loewen, James W. (2010). Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Loewen, James W.; Sebesta, Edward H. (2010). The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The "Great Truth" about the "Lost Cause". Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-60473-218-4
- Loewen, James W. (February 26, 2011). "Five myths about why the South seceded". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved December 17, 2013.
- ^ abchttp://sundown.tougaloo.edu/
- ^ abcCheney, Matt. "Biography of James W. Loewen". University of Illinois. Retrieved 2010-10-16.
- ^James W. Loewen. "Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong.". The Washington Post, July 1, 2015.
- ^"Loewen v. Turnipseed". Child Rights International Network (CRIN). Retrieved October 12, 2017.
- ^"Notable First Amendment court cases"Archived 2011-12-10 at the Wayback Machine.. American Library Association. Retrieved 2010-10-16.
- ^"The New Press Index," March 2012, "Archived copy"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2012-11-02. Retrieved 2012-06-10.
- ^http://sundown.tougaloo.edu/ The Homepage of James Loewen.
- ^http://store.tcpress.com/0807749915.shtml 'Teaching What Really Happened', Teachers College Press, 2000.
- ^Wexler, Laura (October 23, 2005). "Darkness on the Edge of Town". Washington Post.
Mel. Sheffler's Book Review
- Lies My Teacher Told Me
- By James W. Loewen. Touchstone. 318 pages.
According to James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, American students enter college less knowledgeable about their own history than any other subject. American history is the least liked and worst remembered subject in American curricula. Loewen argues that history is the only subject one has to unlearn in college because high school presents inaccurate information to students. Who is to blame? Despite the indicting title, James Loewen does not appear to be blaming only teachers for student ignorance. Loewen blames textbooks, publishers, and instructors for students knowing too little accurate information, too much inaccurate information, and not caring about any information.
Loewen states the main cause for students lack of awareness is textbooks. Written to meet strict requirements of page length, design, and content, it has become practically impossible to write a history textbook that is interesting and acceptable to a national audience. Loewen proves that between authors, publishers, school boards, approval boards, and undereducated/overworked teachers, American textbooks have become a parade of uncontroversial, boring bites of information to be memorized and then quickly forgotten.
The general trend in history, Loewen says, is overwhelmingly positive. That is the problem. Loewen examined twelve textbooks in circulation during 1994, and every conflict in American history has been boiled down to: there were some problems, but great (white and wealthy) Americans overcame. In an effort to make American history uplifting for modern students and Texas textbook review boards, textbooks have taken agency and history away from American Indians, African Americans, Helen Keller, Lincoln, or anyone else who might have questioned conservative white rule in America. According to textbooks, no one in all of American history did anything because they thought things through, questioned the status quo, or made wrong choiceseven the enemy! People simply win because they are American, or loose because they are in the way of freedoms progress.
The amount of suspense left out of current textbooks was not as surprising as the outright lies that went in! Following textbook-like time order, Loewen focuses on several major events/people in our history that are inaccurately portrayed: Columbus, Thanksgiving, slavery, Lincoln, and the Vietnam War to name a few. Columbus, for example, still leaves Spain to prove the world round, though his contemporaries knew the world was round! What a pointless excursion. Loewen says Columbuss real purpose for leaving Spain (other than discovery) is always left unclear. I think the closest I heard in school was, he was looking for the Indies. No one tells students Columbus was looking for gold and slaves, just what he took from the new world.
Columbus is not the only textbook-favored pillager. Pilgrims, who textbooks say started from scratch, really started with a fully functional American Indian village previously emptied by European plagues (90). Loewen then quotes primary sources that say after Pilgrims settled, they then proceeded to dig graves to find whatever else they needed! These lies about our fledgling colonies are not small, and Loewen states these examples as reasons for African American and Native Americans lower test scores in History. After all, it is hard enough for students to remember lists of facts; forcing facts into their minds that they know from their family history to be incorrect and racist is difficult as well as immoral. Textbooks creators, however, are not interested in difficult. They want whatever will sell textbooks.
Pleasing the majority sells textbooks. In an effort to pacify those who still prefer to remember events like the Vietnam War in a positive light, Loewen says textbooks water down history. Each textbook chapter covered by Loewen leads high school students closer to the present, which should be more detailed and interesting, since we have more information on the recent past than on our founding fathers. Instead, history becomes more blurred. In a chapter called Down the Memory Hole, Loewen cites non-confrontational pictures used to illustrate the Vietnam War. Instead of using pictures that made an impact on American culture, war illustrations depict President LBJ chatting up the troops (246), which is not only uncontroversial, but also uninteresting. That does not mean textbooks need full-color bloody spreads of photos, but something more than a presidential handshake will be required to catch students attention and make them think.
Textbooks also exclude interesting protests and important phrases like Hell, no; we wont go! Loewen reminds us that leaving recent history out of textbooks not only separates youth from truth, but also youth from an interest in the previous generation. All of the information students parents thought of as common knowledge is lost as popular culture, thereby giving the next generation fewer ways to relate to their elders. One can easily to identify with that. I remember reading MAD books from the 1960s and 70s during high school in the 1990s and not understanding various anti-war jokes. I also remember finding Forest Gump war scenes half as dramatic as people who lived through Gumps era. There is a lack of recent history taught in schools, and students do feel this lack of connection to information. If they do not connect with the information, Loewen would argue, they will have problems learning it. However, this may be a mute point for the Vietnam War. As Loewen jokes at the beginning of his tenth chapter, no one ever makes it to the end of the textbook. If schools in America cannot even get past the nineteenth century, the Vietnam War certainly will not receive much of a showing. Having accurate and interesting information available, however, is still important.
Well documented and researched, Lies My Teacher Told Me is astounding. I could never dream of covering all the topics Loewen discusses in his book, and on every topic Loewen not only states what is wrong with the text (i.e. Native Americans were wiped out rather than befriended at Thanksgiving), but also argues why having the facts right is important (i.e. the truth gives Native Americans some exigency and everyone learns accurate knowledge). Lies is an example of what a high school textbook should be: interesting, informative, well documented, and detailed. Loewen clearly has a passion for history that comes through in his work, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Americas true history.
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