Behind The Lies My Teacher Told Me It's a battle that's endured throughout so much of American history: what gets written into our textbooks. Today we tag in NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz, and hear from author James Loewen about the book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
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Behind The Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Behind The Lies My Teacher Told Me

Behind The Lies My Teacher Told Me

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JAMES LOEWEN: My first full-time teaching job was at a black college, Tougaloo College in Mississippi.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

That's James Loewen. He's a sociologist now, but like he said, he used to be a teacher back in the day. And Tougaloo, just for the record, is not too far from Jackson, Miss., and it's in a county that's about 70 percent black.

LOEWEN: Well, I had 17 new students in my new second-semester seminar in that course, and I didn't want to do all the talking that first day of class, so I asked them. I said, OK, what is Reconstruction? What comes to your mind from that period?

DEMBY: And James was really taken aback by their answers.

LOEWEN: And what happened to me was an aha experience, although you might better consider it an oh-no experience. Sixteen out of my 17 students said, well, Reconstruction 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.

DEMBY: He said his heart sank in that moment, listening to it.

LOEWEN: I mean, there's at least three direct lies in that sentence. Blacks never took over the government of the Southern states. All of the Southern states had white governors throughout the period. All but one had white legislative majorities. Second of all, the Reconstruction governments did not screw up across the South without exception. They wrote the best state constitutions that the Southern states have ever had, including better than the ones that they labor under today. A third lie would be whites didn't take control. A certain group of whites - of course, it was white supremacist Democrats using KKK tactics. So I thought to myself, my gosh, what must it do to you to believe that the one time your group was center stage in American history, they screwed up?

DEMBY: And so that's when James Loewen decided he needed to do something about it. And so he set out to write his own textbook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen's out this week. So back to James Loewen really quickly - along with some of his colleagues and some grad students, he co-wrote this new textbook for high school students. It was published in 1974. It was called "Mississippi: Conflict And Change." And it had a special focus on slavery and on Reconstruction and the fight for civil rights in Mississippi.

The book got really high ratings from reviewers. And the textbook said things like, quote, "white Southerners created an ideology justifying slavery. They tried to free themselves from the guilt of enslaving their fellow men by telling themselves that their slaves were not really people at all," and, quote, "although lynchings occurred in almost every state, most of them took place in the Deep South. More lynchings have been recorded in Mississippi than in any other state."

As you might imagine, that didn't really go over too well, so the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board, they rejected Loewen's book because they said that it was racially inflammatory. Some teachers who tried to adopt Loewen's book said they were threatened with dismissal if they tried to use it in their classroom. So Loewen and his co-authors took the board to court. And he said that in that lawsuit, there was this "Perry Mason" moment.

LOEWEN: Only your older listeners will understand what that - let's say that it had a dramatic moment. And that came when John Turnipseed was on the stand.

DEMBY: John Turnipseed, by the way, was one of the people on that textbook board.

LOEWEN: Turnipseed was asked why did he vote against it? And he had us turn to Page 139, I think it was, where there's a photo of a lynching. This photo showed a bunch of well-dressed white women and men standing behind the burning body of a African-American who had been killed. Now, our textbook at the time was the only textbook in America - counting all American history textbooks and all other state history textbooks - that included a photo of a lynching. And ironically, almost none do to this day.

Turnipseed's on the stand, and he says, now, you know, some ninth graders, especially black male ninth graders, are pretty big. And we worried, or at least I worried, that teachers, especially white lady teachers, would have trouble controlling their classes with material like this in the book.

DEMBY: Turnipseed said the board had to reject the book because it was a racially inflammatory. And obviously, he justified it by using racially inflammatory rhetoric because irony.

LOEWEN: At this point in the trial, the judge, who was a 83-year-old white Mississippian but a man of honor - he took over the questioning, Judge Orma Smith. And he said, quote, "but that happened, didn't it? Didn't Mississippi have more lynchings than any other state?" And Turnipseed said - and again I quote - "well, yes, but that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?" And the judge said, well, it is a history book.

DEMBY: And the court actually found in favor of Loewen, and the textbook ended up being adopted by the state of Mississippi, at least for a little while. But that controversy prompted Loewen to write another book years later, specifically about the ways that we learn history in the United States. That book is called, "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong." Since it was published in 1995, it sold 2 million copies.

Our colleague Anya Kamenetz, who you've heard on the podcast before - she writes for NPR Ed - she first read Loewen's book "Lies My Teacher Told Me," as a high school junior in New Orleans in her AP U.S. history class. And so she recently sat down to interview James Loewen. There's a new edition of his book out this summer. And Loewen told Anya that these fights over how to teach history, they're as relevant and important as they've ever been.

LOEWEN: I think it's even more important in our current age - and by that, I do mean the age of the ascendancy of President Trump - that we understand that there are such things as facts. There is such a thing as truth in history.

DEMBY: You're going to hear that conversation with Anya and James Loewen after the break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene. Just Gene. CODE SWITCH. And here's Anya's conversation with James Loewen.

LOEWEN: Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but you don't have a right to your own fact. You've got to use facts that everybody agrees upon, that you can prove, that you can footnote and that are legitimate.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: It's so interesting that you get to this point because the book is called "Lies," and there's a number of different areas that you go over, but you do call anti-black racism, I guess, the most pervasive theme in American history. Is that the big lie? Is that the biggest lie in American history?

LOEWEN: I can't say for sure. That's in the eye of the beholder, I'm sure. Usually, when I'm asked - what's the biggest lie? - the overall theme of American history is we started out great and we've been getting better ever since, kind of automatically. And the trouble with that is two things. First of all, it's not always true, of course. Race relations in particular showed a downward turn from 1890 through 1940. This period is called the nadir of race relations. That's N-A-D-I-R. Some people say nadir. It means the low point. And things got worse and worse doing that era, so lynchings went to their highest point. Sundown towns got created all across America, especially across the North. Well, if you've got a narrative that says, things are always getting better and better, you're not even going to notice that things are getting worse in some area, and you're certainly not going to write about it. You're not going to include it in your book. So that's the first problem with this overall-progress lie.

And the second problem is what it does to the high school student because what it does to the high school student is it says, you don't need to do nothing; things are always getting better; what's the matter with you? Well, you should vote, but other than that, you don't need to, shall we say, be a citizen. You know, you don't need to protest; you don't need to write your congressman; you don't need to do any of the things that citizens do because everything's getting better all the time anyway. What's the matter with you?

KAMENETZ: And then the other part about it is these enormous textbooks - I mean, you talk about the way that they present history as being settled intellectually, too, right?

LOEWEN: Yeah. It's so boring. Students are encouraged to not think but just memorize right from the get-go. If you think about it, the very first thing that happened in terms of American history is people came to the land that we now know as the United States. Now, how did they get here? Well, every single textbook that I looked at says that they came across the Bering Strait during an ice age. It turns out they might have. It also turns out they might not have. There is no actual evidence that they did. We don't know for sure. And what we should therefore do is let students in on the fact that we don't know, that there's a controversy here, and invite them to go research it themselves and come up with what they think is an answer for now. And that would be fascinating. That would get them thinking like a historian right from the beginning of a U.S. history course.

KAMENETZ: It's really interesting, though. I feel like there is there is a tension in what you're saying because we do want students to debate and understand where there's genuine uncertainty in history. But at the same time, I mean, I was in a high school civics class a few months ago, and there was a sign up on the wall saying, you know, there's certain things you can't fight in here. You can't come in here with stuff from Infowars and, you know, things that are entirely made up. How do students...

LOEWEN: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: Right? So how do they discriminate against various sources of information?

LOEWEN: Well, I think there's one key question to be asked of any source. And that is, why do you find it credible? And let's suppose that one of your topics - you're a teacher - one of your topics you're having students handle is by having them do a term paper. Now, there's an idea. Well, you can cite anything you want, but you have to, if you're the student citing it, explain why you feel this citation is credible. Now, a KKK site on American history is perfectly credible if you're asking the question, what does the KKK believe about the Civil War? OK. If on the other hand you're asking - why did the Southern states secede? - maybe you don't want to cite a KKK site, you know? And so students have to be helped to understand, what is a defensible site? And that's exactly one of the skills we want students to learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So Anya's joining me now from New York to talk about textbooks. Hey, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: So OK. James Loewen's lawsuit against the Mississippi state textbook board was a pretty good example of how these political fights over history books, how long they've been around and with us. What are those fights over textbooks - over history textbooks, in particular - what do they look like today?

KAMENETZ: You know, it's really interesting because I think what - you know, what unfortunately remains the same is that there's this wariness about making classrooms into places of racial strife even though, I mean, that's not something that you can get away from, necessarily. But there was a really interesting study that came out that we reported on. The Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed high school seniors and also teachers about how history is being taught and specifically about slavery. And they found that only 8 percent of high school seniors - this is 2017 - could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. And then - and 58 percent of teachers found that the textbooks that they had were pretty inadequate.

And then the comments from the teachers were really kind of about, you know, this feeling of, OK, you know, 4 out of 5 public school teachers are white, classrooms are increasingly, you know, still pretty segregated, and they're worried that talking about the causes of slavery or talking about history in general and how American history unfolded. It's like they don't want their students to make those connections to the present. It's, like, too much.

DEMBY: But that's - I mean, so much of the challenge that we face, like, in us doing this show - right? - is this sort of very elemental understanding of American history is opaque to people, people who just don't have any grasp of it.

KAMENETZ: Right. So it's a failing of our classrooms that they tiptoe around it. And so when - you know, if a student can graduate high school in this country and be unclear on the causes of the Civil War, you know, it's not a surprise that then they go out to maybe make choices as a citizen - you know, those connections haven't been made for them.

DEMBY: Right. Right. So Loewen's fight over this textbook was with Mississippi. So many of the major battlegrounds for these textbook wars have been in the South and, in particular in recent years, in Texas.

KAMENETZ: Right.

DEMBY: Why is Texas such a big player in these textbook wars?

KAMENETZ: So it really is a market-based reason. And the point is that, you know, Texas is obviously a very large market for textbooks. And so if you can get your textbook adopted in Texas, then, you know, it's going to do well. And so basically, the publishers adapt for the Texas market. And then the other thing that kind of crashes into it in Texas is that the way that they elect their school board, it just kind of lends itself to people getting elected who have very, like, narrow bands of supporters, let's say, from, like, various groups. And so the battles that happen in Texas, you know, around evolution, how we teach about LGBT issues, HIV and also about history - and this kind of flared up last spring. There was something that kind of went viral on Facebook. It was a worksheet in a charter school in San Antonio. And the name of the worksheet was "The Life Of Slaves: A Balanced View."

DEMBY: A balanced view of the life of slaves.

KAMENETZ: So positive aspects on one side, negative aspects on the other, right?

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And so this became a - you know, it was posted on Facebook. It went kind of crazy. The textbook being used in that school was a Pearson textbook, Prentice Hall Classics published in 2007.

DEMBY: OK.

KAMENETZ: And it included phrases like, you know, there were such thing as, quote, "kind and generous owners" of, you know, of slaves. Or there's something else about - the same paragraph - like, many of the slaves may not have been terribly unhappy.

DEMBY: Wow.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. Yeah. And it really is - I mean, it follows on to what Loewen talks about, which is this - listen; false balance - right? - or a false sense of neutrality, let's say, in a place where it's completely inappropriate. That textbook, we should say, is out of print, you know, hasn't been sold in a few years. But obviously, we know that schools aren't always using the most up-to-date books.

DEMBY: So once that incident went viral on Facebook, what did the school do? Do you remember what the school did in response?

KAMENETZ: They suspended the teacher. They pulled the book. You know, they replaced the book. They made very contrite statements about it. But, you know, but it's - even if they turned to another book, we are still going to potentially be left with this issue, which is, it's very hard for schools, it's hard for teachers to understand or to be able to adapt classroom conversations in ways that allow people to talk about what they call really hard history.

DEMBY: Yeah. I always think about sort of one of the consequences of us not teaching this history directly is that it operates almost like a societal-level gaslighting. Like, all these things that happened to you as a person of color - as a black person, in particular, in a lot of places in this country - seems like it is not being reflected in the history. Like, you know, so you are having these experiences that you know are happening, that your parents know are happening, that all these people are talking to you about. And it's sort of not reflected, this sort of oppression that is coming out of the ether and has no beginning or, you know, it has no sort of context...

KAMENETZ: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: ...Which I think is an incredibly dangerous thing. I think it's an incredibly dangerous thing for society. But one of the effects of it for black children is, like, to make them feel like they're insane - right? - that this stuff is happening to them and they're making it up, you know?

KAMENETZ: I can only imagine. I also - I think about the authenticity - like, the teaching relationship, right? Like...

DEMBY: Absolutely.

KAMENETZ: How do you as a teacher - you know, if you don't talk to your students about these things, you're worried about it's going to start a fight - or, you know, some of these teachers in the Southern Poverty Law Center survey said, you know, I'm worried that there's not enough black people in the textbooks, so if we start talking about slavery, the white kids are going to see the black kids as slaves; I've seen this happen; they make fun of each other. You know, and so it's like - it's a can of worms.

You know, it's how do you make classrooms into places where they can have conflicts and talk about the conflicts of the past, as opposed to this kind of imposed idea that everybody's going to get along, which is so fake? And that's why people don't relate to history classes or lots of other kinds of classes - because they don't feel like they're being told the truth.

DEMBY: Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent for the NPR Ed team. Thank you so much, Anya. Appreciate you.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Gene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line ask code switch. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed or wherever you're listing to right now.

Sami Yenigun and Maria Paz Gutierrez produced this episode. How's my pronunciation, Shereen? It was edited by Sami and Steve Drummond. And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Leah Donnella, Kat Chow and my partner in crime, Shereen Marisol Meraji. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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