Oh What a Web Textbooks Weave…

History Teacher Daniel Falcone Interviews James W. Loewen, Author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”

FALCONE: You have written a great deal about textbooks. What are the things people need to know about the politics and economics of textbook adoption and textbook publishing?

LOEWEN: I think the first important thing is that usually most textbooks are not written by their authors. And so by author I mean the people who did not write them; so it’s a new definition of “author.” In relation to that, we, members of the public and we, K-12 teachers grant all kinds of deference to the textbook, most of us. Textbooks are written in an oracular monotone, so that they claim to be true and important.

Part of that monotone and that oracularity is the credentials and often the reputation of the people who allegedly wrote them. So the reason I listed the falseness of that claim in many textbook cases, is to undercut the god-like monotone that these textbooks come across with. Even if they were by, and once in a while they are, the people whose names are on them as authors, we still have to realize that if you are say a historian of the Civil War, you don’t know anything special about say Columbus or for that matter the 20th century. You are a consumer of that information, especially if it’s stuff like Columbus and the American Indians. That information isn’t even in history, much of it. Much of it is in anthropology or archeology. You are a consumer of it. And almost always, in fact, in every – I have yet to interview an author for, putative author of any American history textbook who had done any significant amount of reading of archaeology and anthropology. So like, say as much as I have done. And this is not my field. It’s sociology. My field is 19th to 20th Century race relations in the field of education. It’s current sociology of education.

So the textbooks don’t have the authority that they claim. Teachers—so my second point then is teachers should not grant them that authority. They need to teach the subject rather than to teach the textbook. And so just staying with the beginning of the course, most of the textbooks are terrible about how Native American culture before white folks—and for that matter, black folks—get here. So teachers could get their students to write a better textbook. I often suggest in workshops that if you have 30 students in your American History course in 11th grade, or whatever grade level, that you maybe triple them up. You put, and have them choose, let’s say 11 different Native American cultures. Maybe you give them a list of 15 and they choose 11 of those 15 so that they have some choice in the matter. Maybe you have some reason to include some native cultures near you if you’re teaching in Idaho or if you’re teaching in Rhode Island. Maybe you have some reason to include some big ones, like Aztec or some big ones like Navajo that have many members today. Maybe you have some reason to choose some very different ones, one from another; whatever it may be. You get them doing 11 different—and for a week or two weeks, they act like journalists, so to speak. They research whatever one they picked. And the three of them divide up the labor in different ways and then they end up writing maybe a 3-5 page summary and analysis of that culture over time. What difference it makes, why we should know about it, where they are today; all kinds of things. You can have different questions to guide that.

When you’re done then, you’ve got maybe 11 cultures done halfway decently that you can use for next year. And maybe next year you give those same students—of course different students—you give them a different assignment. Maybe then they’re researching 11 Native American cultures today in the 20th Century and 21st Century, or you do something else.

Well, your students immediately will become more expert than the textbook authors. And they will immediately see how what they wrote is better than the textbook. And that’s wonderful because then they are critical readers for the rest of the nine-month school year. I can go on. This one question may take me the hour that we’re going to spend.

FALCONE: This is a cliché that you must hear that your book has had an impact on my career. And for me, it has.

LOEWEN: It’s a cliché but I’m always happy to hear if it’s a good impact.

FALCONE: It’s a very good impact. I taught in a suburb of Philly for a while at a high school. Now I’m in Higher Ed community college trying to make my way. But I asked them about the town that we lived in, taught in, learned in. It was a Pennsylvania named after an English town, like a lot of these towns in the northeast. And that’s what they thought it was called. But we were trying to get the students, me and a couple teachers, to get them to dig deeper in that it’s really Lenape. That’s the Lenape Native American tribe that was in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey. We were getting them to see that this area that we were living in was already cultivated, civilized, and established before the whites.

LOEWEN: Well, there are so many specific mistakes like that that most textbooks make, and so does our landscape actually. You go to towns in Massachusetts, Greenfield, first settled in 1686. Wouldn’t it be cool if it said, “Greenfield. First settled c. 13,000 B.P. or approximately 13,000 Before the Present. Resettled.” Maybe we could say even, “Resettled by whites,” Or, “Resettled anyway, 1686.” It would have a different impact. And of course it would help explain why the town is called Greenfield, because it was a green field and the fields were left by Native people who had already been farming them.

Staying general, I would make several other criticisms of textbooks. One of them is they pretty much have no real drama. They have no real storyline. To the extent they have a storyline. It is—and I now put my hand at an onward and upward position. We started out great. We’re getting better all the time automatically. That’s the basic underlying storyline. Because this is their storyline, it’s boring. We know that there’s no real setback. We know that there’s no attention given to something like, for instance, the nadir of race relations when things got worse between 1890 and 1940, because that doesn’t fit the storyline. It’s not even a matter of conscious censorship. I think many people just simply don’t even think of it. They may have heard of the Jim Crow era, but they don’t really think about it.

Another criticism is that there is no excuse for these 1,152 page textbooks. That’s how long they average now. No excuse. There might have been an excuse in 1950 or even 1970 because if you’re in a little bitty town—let’s say out from Williston, North Dakota, your only real resource for teaching history in 1950 might be the textbook. I’ve been in towns where there is no library, or where the library for the high school and the library for the town is one room, and it’s smaller than my modest living room here. So you don’t have many resources in 1950 or even 1970. This is the year, 2013, every town in America is connected to the web. Every town in America is therefore connected to all kinds of resources at the Library of Congress, at 100,000 websites. Not all good. The badness of some of them is part of their goodness, though, in a way. And there’s no excuse therefore, for a 1,152 page book. I think we should all be using 300-page paperbacks. These exist. And do you know they actually have the Civil War starting in 1861 and ending in 1865? They get some of the basic chronology just as correct as does the huge textbook.

And if school districts adopted them, they could supply them free to students for the same price that they now spend to loan a hardbound, or to rent a hardbound, depending on the state, to a student. Because these hard bounds now, list price at maybe $108 or maybe a negotiated price of $72. If you divide that by six, because you can’t get more than six years out of them, that’s about $12 a year, even more if you figure in upfront costs and stuff. And you can, for a negotiated price, get a perfectly good 300-page paperback for that same price, and give it to the student. Then the student can mark in the margin if the teacher persuades the student that the textbook is idiotic in its treatment of, let’s say, when people first got to the Americas, to stick with that time period. Then the student can make a note in the margin, which is not defacing a public textbook. It’s improving the value of his or her own book. It gets the student thinking about books. It gets the student owning a book. Many Americans have never owned a book, and I’m not talking about because of the recent digital revolution. I’m talking about before there even was a digital revolution. Many Americans have never owned a book. And others have never owned a non-fiction book. Providing them with a 300-page paperback would get them started, maybe. And even if it didn’t, at least they’d own that one. So that’s a serious problem.

FALCONE: One fascinating thing you have done is not only to trace the inclusion or the exclusion of historical topics of controversy. But even when textbooks do evolve, you notice and critique layouts. So for example, you’ve pointed out to Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With. It should be a painting known by all. When you talk to teachers, is it hard for them to develop their own critical eye even when they look at the evolved text?

LOEWEN: Well, let me first make that point. The layout of textbooks, I think, has been done with an assumption that students don’t read. What gets lost in the textbook is the overall narrative. It gets lost in all the boxes and all the photos and all the little stuff that’s stuck in all the time. There’s even one of the 12 textbooks in my original sample that has a two-page box, I guess you could call it, even though it uses all of two pages, so it’s kind of a big box. A two-page box on water rights in the west and the need for water conservation – that is right in the middle of the Civil War chapter. Now what is it doing there? Well, it’s interrupting. That’s what it’s doing there. I suppose it’s there because maybe some damn water reclamation board or something started in 1862. I don’t know if there’s any peg or not. But it shouldn’t be there. That’s just the ultimate interruption. Well, nobody would ever want to read a textbook about the Civil War and then interrupt that for two pages about water rights in the west. So whoever did that didn’t really have in mind that anybody would ever be reading these textbooks. And I have to say, I don’t think teachers read the textbooks. And I don’t think adoption committees read the textbooks before they adopt them. I think they look at them.

Now this is a problem. One reason I don’t think they read them is because when I went through, like, the second edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me, in which I analyzed, or for which I analyzed six more textbooks, all written after the year 2000. I discovered that two of these textbooks were identical for page after page in their last chapter, in their treatment of the Iraq War, the Bush Administration, the election in Florida that, or the—we might say the election in Florida that gave Bush the presidency over Al Gore, and so on; identical for page after page. Well, how could it be that I several years afterward am the first person ever to notice that? It certainly made a front-page story in the New York Times, it caused people to call, including the reporter, call the alleged authors. Of course it turned out that neither set of authors—one set was Boorstin and Kelley, the famous Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, and books of Matthew Kelly, former Chief Archivist at Yale. And the other set of authors was mostly a bunch of people at the University of Miami Ohio, including Allan Winkler on the recent past. Well, it turned out that neither Winkler nor either Boorstin nor Kelly had written any of it. As Kelly put it, “they hired somebody to write it. I forget the man’s name.” So the alleged authors don’t even know who wrote it. They don’t know what credentials he or she had. I guess they do know his gender. But that was it. And none of the three ever read a word of what they had allegedly written. So there’s no quality control at all.

FALCONE: Before I started teaching at the community college level, I taught in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And I sort of had to use your book in secret as a supplemental material. Do you find that high school teachers have to use your book in secret?

LOEWEN: There are districts that are the type you mention where, they want nationalism taught, basically, some of them, rather than patriotism. I think there’s a very important distinction. The distinction I make is I take my definition of patriotism partly from Frederick Douglas. He wrote something like, “He is a lover of his country who rebukes its sins and does not excuse them.” First of all, please don’t attack him for sexism. The man was terrific on gender equality. That’s how everybody wrote back then. And I’m sure he’d be happy to put s/he in there today. But the second part I’d make about that is I don’t think he’d have any problem with bragging about what the country does well either.

But a nationalist, on the other hand says, “My country right or wrong, and I don’t think it’s wrong either and if you do to hell with you.” And some districts are run with that mentality. To some degree the State of Texas is run with that mentality and perhaps Arizona as well. And in such districts people, teachers sometimes have to be careful. My book Teaching What Really Happens suggests that there are ways to bring your principal on board and ways to legitimize teaching history more critically. For one thing, colleges like it. Very few college professors want high school graduates in their history class who are simply “gung ho” and “rah-rah” with regard to everything the United States has ever done, have never thought critically in their life, don’t know the meaning of the word “historiography” and have never heard of it. They think that history is something you’re supposed to memorize and that’s about it. That’s not what high school, or what college history teachers want.

So one thing that K-12 teachers can do is to say, “Look. This more critical approach, rather than just teaching a textbook and just learning the textbook, this gets students thinking critically.” This fits. And this new thing, this new movement we have coming along, the core standards, common core standards, which have been signed onto—at one point they were signed onto by 47 of the 50 states. I think it’s decreasing, and it’s now down to maybe 45. That’s still quite a few states. And it’s not a national program. It didn’t come from the federal government. Well, those standards emphasize things like critical thinking. And they legitimize teaching history the way I suggest people do in Teaching What Really Happened or in Lies My Teacher Told Me. So I think that increasingly a lot of school districts are going to be getting onto this bandwagon.

FALCONE: I say “secret” loosely. I mean, it wasn’t as if people looked for the book. I’m just saying that if you had taught in this county (where Romney won) you’d notice a strong Tea Party who’d object to the book and the sentiment.

LOEWEN: I know what you’re saying.

FALCONE: It was a vocal minority with a loud voice.

LOEWEN: I have had problems like that. Not far from Western Virginia hired me, one high school did, to give a talk basically. And after that happened, one parent went public and lobbied, I guess, the school board, certainly the Principal, to rescind the invitation. Pointed out that they had gotten this invitation—I have two different speaker agents. And one of them is a left wing agent and one of them is a right wing agent. They both came to me and that’s not as if I hired them. But so this person kind of red baited me because it was my left wing agent that they happened to have gone to engage me. You can also just engage me directly. But they had gone through this agent. Well, this speaker agency is called Speak Out. And other clients of Speak Out include Alice Walker and Howard Zinn when he was alive, and some other people like that. And so they pointed out I must be a Communist or way left or way weird if I’m in bed with these other people.

FALCONE: Aside from Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, you have additional work. Mississippi Conflict and Change, Sundown Towns. How do those other works tie into or affiliate with Lies?

LOEWEN: My, the genesis of my interest in history comes from the first year I taught full-time, which was at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1968 to 1975. That first year was 1968 to ’69 of course. The first point I’d make is the world, of course, doesn’t come divided into disciplines. The world just is. So my doctoral dissertation, for instance, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, which is, I think it’s a good book. It’s still in print. It spawned a movie. Not a very good movie, but a movie nevertheless. It is a work of history and a work of sociology. After all, the Chinese entered Mississippi late in the Reconstruction period, and they’re still there, although in much lower numbers than they were when I studied them in 1971, ’67 to ’71.

So is that a work of history? Is that a work of sociology? Well, the right answer has to be yes. So I already knew that much and I did minor in history at Carleton College while majoring in sociology. But at Tougaloo College, I got dragged into service as a faculty member of a course called the Freshman Social Science Seminar. This was a course that Tougaloo used to replace the old, and I think outmoded, History of Western Civilization requirement that most colleges—including most black colleges—afflicted their students up until the late ’60s. There was a big splash when Stanford did away with this course in about 1970. But Tougaloo had done away with it in about 1966 or ‘7, and probably in a better way. And Tougaloo had replaced it with this Freshman Social Science Seminar, which was a course invented by the history department and it introduced students to all of the social sciences: poli-sci, anthro, econ, etc. in the context of African-American history. It made sense since after all, 99 plus percentage of our students were African-Americans.

Well, that chronology is of course the same as, shall we say, “regular” –that’s in quotes—U.S. History chronology. So the second semester begins not just after Christmas, but also after the Civil War with Reconstruction. And so I had this “ah ha” experience, or as I say in my talks, maybe it’s better called an “oh no” experience. I was speaking, I was running the first day of class a new seminar, a new batch of students the second semester of the Freshman Social Science Seminar. All of my students were new to me. I didn’t want to do all the talking that first day of class. So I asked them, “What is Reconstruction? What happened there?” And 16 out of 17 of them said to me, “That 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.” Now you’re shaking your head and I’m glad you are. There are at least three direct lies in that sentence. And yet 16 of my 17 students knew it to be true. I’m sitting there saying, “Oh, my God. Where do I start?”

The one student who, I said 16 out of 17 told me that. The one different student, he was very diffident and unsure of himself because he was in the minority of 1/17. He said, “Gee, I didn’t think it was so bad. Didn’t they start like the public schools and stuff?” Which of course they did. I mean he’s absolutely right. And so I asked him thinking, you know, most Tougaloo students come from K-12 schools within the State of Mississippi. And I said, “Where did you go to school?” hoping and expecting that somewhere in the State of Mississippi there’s a teacher who does a halfway decent job on Reconstruction. And he said, “Gary, Indiana.” So as far as I know, there wasn’t a single teacher in Mississippi who did a halfway decent job.

Ultimately that spurred me into writing the book, Mississippi Conflict and Change because I went to nearby high schools to see how my students learned such disastrously wrong history? It’s not only flatly wrong, it’s also flatly not in their interest to learn that the one time their group was center stage, they screwed up and white folks had to take control again. Well, it was being taught. It was particularly being taught in the course Mississippi History, which was required in fifth grade and then again in ninth grade. And the textbook said exactly what my students had parroted it back to me. Tougaloo was a very good school. Students had learned what they had been taught to their detriment. Well, I spent about a year and a half trying to get historians to write a new history of Mississippi, and finally I decided to do it myself with help. And I got a grant. And I got a team together of students and faculty at Tougaloo and at Millsaps, the nearby white college, and we wrote Mississippi Conflict and Change. And it won the Lillian Smith Award for best-selling non-fiction. But it was rejected by the state for public school use, leading to the lawsuit Loewen et al v. Turnipseed et al, which we eventually won. That escapade showed me that history can be a weapon, and that it can be used against you, and that it had been used against my students.

I went from there, after seven years, to the University of Vermont. I continued to teach first-year students, now in huge Intro Soc classes. I didn’t like the hugeness of the classes, but I did like teaching first-year students. Among other things, they gave you a wonderful window on the world of high school. And I found that my UVM students, as they are known, suffered from many other idiotic notions about our past. And I realized that Mississippi wasn’t unique in using history against you and misteaching history. It was an exaggerated case of this the way Mississippi was an exaggerated case of lots of national maladies in the 1960s and ’70s. But this was a national problem. And so that eventually led to Lies My Teacher Told Me.

FALCONE: The Journal of American History, published by—


FALCONE: Yes, The Organization of American Historians had a running section called “Textbooks and Teaching” by the editors Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser from Oberlin College. Which dealt with college texts but I consider you a trend setter in getting university people to look at how they might train high school history teachers. Most people look to how your book impacted the industry of textbooks, which it has. But how about how it has impacted the academic and teacher preparation fields? My methods teachers as an under grad, was Karin Gedge, a historian and Yale PhD. And she used your book sort of like as the central core to how she taught teachers how to teach.

LOEWEN: And where was that?

FALCONE: That was at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

LOEWEN: Good. She should have me come up and visit. Tell her that.

FALCONE: I will. Even my graduate course in historiography, I had sections from your book because it’s a landmark historiography text. And so it’s made a breakthrough in those regards to the students, to the colleges. How about on the industry?

LOEWEN: Well, I think you’ve already given the answer I’d like to give, but I’ll give it back to you so that you can quote me. I did not think that Lies My Teacher Told Me would transform the textbook industry. And I’m right. It didn’t. One of the reasons I didn’t think it would is because 15 years before the first edition of Lies came out, a predecessor book came out called America Revised by Francis Fitzgerald. And it, too, was a bestseller. It might have been a bigger bestseller than Lies My Teacher Told Me. I don’t really know. Among other things, it got serialized in The New Yorker, and of course most textbook publishers even now, and especially back in 15 years before 1994, so that would be 1984, that’d be about 1978, I think it came out. Something like that. They were mostly located in New York. So they had every opportunity to read her book even without buying it, because it was in The New Yorker.

Well, when I came along—and her book is different from mine. It doesn’t focus on the content on the books. It focuses more on the form. It does deride them for their form, as I do. And in particular, for instance, that example I gave you about an hour ago of interrupting the Civil War for two pages on water rights in the West, she derided them for. And then I come along in a book published initially in 1994, and find that the same book now in its 83rd edition or whatever it was, maybe 183rd edition still does that. So she didn’t even accomplish the change of moving that idiotic two-page box out of the Civil War where it doesn’t belong. So with that as a precedent, I didn’t expect to make much of a dent in the textbook industry, and I was sadly not heartened, I mean I was confirmed of not making a dent. But you’re right. The book has made a big dent with regard to how history is taught.

When I now appear at the National Council for the Social Studies, no matter how big of a room they give me—and I’ve been there three times—it’s always mobbed before the session starts. When the first time this happened, I was just astounded. I didn’t know I was in the right room. I came a half an hour early. I was getting there—it’s a long story. But they were meeting in San Antonio. And owing to my speaking schedule, I just got there at 10:30 for an 11:00, my 11:00 session. And so I raced directly to my room to make sure it was set up and everything, only to find it ¾ full at half an hour ahead of time. And I said, I-I had to make sure I was in the right room. I thought I was in some other session. They said, “Yeah.” And I said, I finally said, “Don’t you people have anything else to do?” So we actually started a half an hour early with informal questions and stuff.

Well, it’s nice to be mobbed at the National Council for the Social Studies. And it means that people are really reading and being impacted by and using my book. And you mentioned its impact in Edu Schools. And that has been major. All kinds of Edu Schools use Lies My Teacher Told Me for, as a basic text for at least their social studies education course. And I’m really happy that that’s happened. I think it’s making a difference. For instance, up until about three years ago, or two years ago when I would ask teachers, “Why did the South secede?” Overwhelmingly 60% of the time (there’s four answers that you get) And 60% of the teachers, or of any other audience answered, “State’s rights.” State’s rights is diametrically wrong. The South was delighted with the Federal Government’s response to the issues of the 1850s and upset with various Northern States’ responses. So they’re against states rights. They are seceding for slavery, and also because of the election of Lincoln. And so those are the two right answers. But state’s rights and tariffs and taxes are the wrong answers.

Well now, partly because of Lies My Teacher Told Me, and teaching what really happened, and also maybe the hoopla around the 150th anniversary, I hope, and an article I wrote about that and my newest book, which is called the Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, when I asked that question, the response pool has now been polluted. And now only maybe 20-45% say, “States rights.” And often a majority say, “slavery.” Now it’s still terrible that the percentage of people saying the South seceded for slavery, or slavery and the territories or whatever is only 55%. It should be 99% or maybe 97% and 3% saying the election of Lincoln. That’s okay. But still, 55% is a lot better than the 20% that used to say it. And the percentage saying states rights has dropped from 65% to, in many districts, as low as 20 or 25%. That’s still terrible, but it’s a big improvement. So I think that we are slowly “winning,” and I think this new movement that I had nothing to do with, the common core standards, which in fact, history and social studies don’t have much to do with it. They’re kind of coming into that discipline from English and math. But I think that all of the common core standards stuff about critical reading and critical thinking and so on can only be positive. So I’m looking forward to the future, which is a good thing, because it’s coming. That was maybe an ending.