Restoring the Past.

A History Teacher’s Response to
James Loewen’s
Lies My Teacher Told Me

by Dick Parsons
Institute for Learning Technologies
Teachers College, Columbia University, 1999


"Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade.”                                                                                                                                                           James Loewen


(Author’s Note: This paper is also written in hypertext and  published on the World Wide Web to allow the highlighted links to support the lesson suggestions made in the article itself. By clicking on any of the highlighted links or images in the left-side frame, the reader will be able to view full versions of the proposed lesson ideas with active links to the websites indicated in the right-hand frame. The size of the frames may also be adjusted for easier viewing.)  


The Trouble With Textbooks

    On the opening page of his popular book, James Loewen proposes a new twist to the old adage about understanding the past. Indeed, even the most cursory reading of his indictment of high school textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me, will reveal that the social price we pay for having a false sense of our history is far more consequential than repeating the eleventh grade. Today, young people leave most social studies classrooms with the illusion that history consists of committing to memory a finite number of settled and disconnected facts, that it is a boring and predictable story without conflict or real suspense, and that there is little connection between what happened in the past and what we experience today. But perhaps worst of all, “high school students hate history (Loewen, 1995)."

    Loewen’s critique, which centers on the lack of student engagement with historical controversy, the absence of analysis and interpretation, the “heroification” of our nation’s historical figures, and the subordination of cause and effect to the memorization of disconnected factoids, is a charge that reaches far down into the wellspring of current educational practice in the United States. And, for those of us who practice our craft in social studies classrooms in public schools across the nation, it stings.

    In fact, the education establishment has had a long and profound romance with the ubiquitous textbook. Textbooks have provided an inexpensive, standardized and structured foundation for schooling since the Reformation. And, as Robbie McClintock, Director of the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University argues, since the 16th century and the emergence of print technologies, textbooks have created a divide separating public schooling from the intellectual resources of the academy. Textbooks provide an alternative to the expensive scholarly community that emerged 500 years ago, when serious investigation became increasingly dependent upon costly libraries and laboratories. It is the textbook then, which has been responsible for a unique school culture that is defined by structures which

·  Confine students to well defined spaces in frames of limited time

·  Sort and motivate students by reward systems based on competition and examination

·  Structure curriculum standards around concepts of literacy based on traditional notions of narrowly-defined intellectual disciplines

McClintock further suggests that, “ …In the process of making books usable, people not only shaped effective presentations of knowledge, but also the effective presentations began to shape the knowledge presented (McClintock, 1999).”  The result has been the familiar contemporary institutions of schooling that feature classrooms consisting of twenty-five desks laid out in neat rows in order to focus attention on a single teacher at the front of the room. The student’s day is divided into seven (or eight) forty-five (or fifty) minute periods each devoted to a single, departmentalized discipline .

    When students are questioned about their school experiences, they invariably cite history and social studies as among their least favorite classes. Social studies is generally perceived to be undemanding, uninteresting, and irrelevant. When they are asked to describe what it is that might make the discipline more interesting students tend to suggest that a greater variety in instructional methods (including simulations, role playing, group projects, etc.) less repetition, and greater relevance to student experience would improve their learning environment. Investigations by Loewen and others reveal that textbooks which burden students on the average, with huge (four and a half pounds), long-winded (888 pages on average) narrations, typically promoting 444 main ideas and 624 key terms and “countless other factoids”, provide the keystone that supports a very shaky structure. In their report on the first national assessment of history and literature in 1987 Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, Jr., found that 59.6% of high school juniors used a textbook daily and that 71.4% of these students took a history test at least once a week.  Yet these high school juniors could respond correctly to only  54.5% of the questions on the national assessment. In summarizing their findings, Ravitch and Finn, Jr. write that, “In the eyes of the students, the typical history classroom is one in which they listen to the teacher explain the day’s lesson, use the textbook, and take tests…They seldom work with other students, use original documents, write term papers, or discuss the significance of what they are studying (Ravitch and Finn, Jr., 1987)." When the NAEP's comprehensive American history test results were made public in 1990, it was clear that America's history students were still achieving at a level of C- in history (Nash, et al, 1997). Small wonder high school students find little relevance in their study of history and continually rank social studies at or near the bottom of their list when it comes to school subjects (Schug, et al, 1984). 

    Despite the very apparent lack of success that textbooks provide and the force of the criticism that has accompanied the techniques employed in their production, adoption, and use, the textbook continues to provide the basis for the making of curriculum and pedagogical decisions. For the last two decades, careful investigators have continually charged that American History Textbooks are:

And yet the system remains intact largely because pressure groups and adoption boards force publishers to avoid controversy in their appeal to the marketplace; because teachers and administrators, too often inadequately trained in the historian's craft, find comfort and confirmation in their textbooks; because textbooks over time have assumed a credibility and importance and, in effect, provide the canon of historical literacy; and because textbooks can save time when coaching, after-school activities, or grading homework assignments become higher priorities than abreast of the discipline. In short, textbooks survive because they are created for the adults in the system much more than for students. (Fitzgerald, 1979; Gagnon, 1989; Loewen, 1995;  Nash, et al, 1997; Sewall, 1987).


Restoring the Past

    We can do better by our students and for our discipline. Since moving from the social studies classroom to become the curriculum and professional development manager at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University, it has become increasingly clear to me that the new media offer substantial opportunities to teachers and students for restoring the past.  The purpose of this article is to propose that the thoughtful integration of classroom technologies can allow the emphasis currently placed on history textbooks to be redirected in an effort to resolve at least some of the issues raised by Loewen’s accusations. The New Deal Network (, an on-line archive of documents, teaching resources, and curriculum strategies, provides one model for restoring credibility to the way we approach the teaching and learning of history. By providing access to these intellectual resources the New Deal Network transcends the demarcation that separates the school and the university and paves the way for the construction of meaningful understandings through generative and authentic academic activity.

    Among James Loewen’s most disturbing charges is the proposition that the men and women whom we venerate as historical heroes are depicted as one-dimensional caricatures. This issue which Loewen raises under the standard of “heroification” not only limits students’ understanding of the human role in shaping historical events, but seriously damages the connection that young people can establish with realistic role models. In Loewen’s words, ”…when textbook authors leave out the warts, the problems, the unfortunate character traits, and the mistaken ideas, they reduce heroes from dramatic men and women to melodramatic stick figures. Their inner struggles disappear and they become goody-goody not merely good (Loewen, 1995)."

    This unfortunate condition is effectively illustrated by The American Pageant’s coverage of Eleanor Roosevelt. The American Pageant, is one of the most widely used high school texts in the United States. In its 1,037 pages it offers but a single paragraph and one accompanying photograph of  “tall, ungainly, and toothy” Eleanor Roosevelt who is intriguingly depicted as “…the most active First Lady in history.” The paragraph asserts that she was “condemned by conservatives and loved by liberals” and portrays her as having been “…one of the most controversial—and consequential—public figures of the twentieth century (p. 795)." Here then is precisely the superficial caricature that has produced the “Disney version of history” that so effectively stands between public school students and their meaningful engagement with the characters of America’s past.

Text Box:  Teachers might turn the intriguing few sentences offered by the textbook to their advantage by inviting students to embark upon a WebQuest ( This web-based research strategy, developed by Bernie Dodge and his colleagues at San Diego State University, provides a structured process that allows students to construct meaning from complex sources and/or contradictory information. Teachers and students for example, might work together to shape portions of the general content of the paragraph cited above into a significant research question. For example, why was ER condemned by conservatives and loved by liberals? What actions during her life and career made her a controversial and consequential public figure? What policies enacted by the national government bear her unmistakable influence? By providing students with a suitable number of Web-based resources to accompany the more traditional resources found in their school library, a more complete and satisfying picture of Eleanor Roosevelt will hopefully replace the toothy cartoon that is so frequently left in the minds of students.

      The award-winning New Deal Network is but one of many archival sites that has responded to the potential offered by the new media to provide digital resources for students, scholars and other interested investigators. These evolving collections make important contributions and offer teachers great opportunities for overcoming the criticism by Loewen and others that textbooks provide students with little occasion to connect past and present and to understand the interaction of cause and effect.

     Text Box:  The New Deal Network, The American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress, History Matters, and other similar archival collections of historical materials offer an alternative to our textbook-developed tendency to think of history as chronology— a timeline of facts and dates pressing to be memorized for the inevitable test and then as quickly forgotten to make room for the next set of dates and facts and the next exam. How were the conditions of the Depression period both different from and similar to the conditions we experience today? How did the actions of the New Deal inspire the system of government we know in the 1990’s? How did the administrations of earlier Progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, pave the way for the New Deal? One model for this more meaningful approach is suggested by Douglas Perry and Wendy Sauer, fellows in the American Memory’s Summer Institute, who have prepared a lesson that compares and contrasts the New Deal with contemporary America. Their lesson entitled, “The Great Depression and the 1990s”, draws on the Federal Writer’s Project and the “Life Histories” that the program’s unemployed writers and journalists gathered during the ’30s.  Students that work in this way with primary sources to make connections between the past and the present inevitably find more authenticity and relevance in their study of history.  

      Because the new technologies offer a context that makes the presentation of multimedia possible, the power of interdisciplinary learning is increased accordingly. Audio clips of speeches and video clips of film previously only accessible to privileged visiting scholars are increasingly made available to students and teachers. Some of the most compelling images of the Great Depression, captured by photographers such as Rondall Partridge or Dorothea Lange, or the literary contributions of authors such as Zora Neale Hurston or John Steinbeck, offer creative and compelling ways to integrate the disciplines and offer project-oriented activities that call on students to exercise a broader range of their intellectual skills.

Text Box:  “Every Picture Tells a Story" offers an enticing and creative approach for assisting students to understand the world of documentary photography while instructing them in the cautions required when using photographs as historical evidence. Intriguing photographs by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans are used to demonstrate the emotional and political content that powerful images may contain. The activity challenges students to view the use of photographs as a strategy for justifying federal legislative proposals and, in the role of editor, decide which of several photographic compositions best serves the editorial viewpoint desired.

    Many textbooks suggest an interdisciplinary approach for combining art and literature with history, but offer few of the resources necessary for a successful teaching experience. The John Steinbeck Links page provides a remedy for a textbook’s superficiality. Here students and teachers will find a wealth of resources useful for teaching of the Depression period in an interdisciplinary way. The site offers a portal to bibliographical information, literary criticism, and excerpts from Steinbeck’s works as well as the full text of his 1962 Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize. Beyond that, however, students of Steinbeck and the New Deal era will find audio files of folk music, links to first-hand accounts in “Voices from the Dust Bowl”, and photographs from the Federal Farm Security Administration of the Library of Congress. Particularly intriguing is the “Ballad of Tom Joad,” written by Woodie Guthrie shortly after seeing the movie version of Grapes of Wrath in 1940.

    By offering a broader range and depth of resources, gateway educational websites such as the New Deal Network can contribute immensely to the toolkit of strategies available to teachers and the resources helpful to students in their investigations of the past. For example, FDR’s “court reorganization” plan offers one of the most colorful and intriguing episodes of the New Deal era and some fascinating insights into the mind and character of the President.

Text Box:  Loewen rebukes textbook authors for avoiding controversy and for their unwillingness to portray our forefathers in other than a positive and patriotic light. In fairness, most textbooks, including The American Pageant, mention FDR’s arrogance in attacking the composition of the Supreme Court in 1937, suggesting that his decision was “…to be one of the most costly political misjudgments of his career” and that “…at best, Roosevelt was headstrong and not fully aware of the fact the court, in popular thinking had become something of a sacred cow.” (p. 817)  The superficiality of this cautious approach leaves students out of the loop. It is both unsatisfying and condescending in that it disconnects students from the full telling of this important story. Typically, the textbook approach disallows the antagonists from speaking for themselves, and even FDR is permitted only three sentences from his 1937 radio address, reproduced in a box at the top of the page.

    The court controversy offers an excellent opportunity for students to inquire into issues related to the separation of powers, investigate the appropriate roles of each of the three branches of our Federal government, and explore the world of political action in all its complexity. Participants in the New Deal Network’s week-long institutes at Vassar College during the summers of 1998 and 1999, have contributed impressively to the resources available on the NDN website. One suggested strategy proposes that students examine the archive of political cartoons that has been collected in the resources section of the New Deal Network, thanks to the efforts of Paul Bachorz and his AP students at Niskayuna High School. Another is presented by Jim Molloy and framed as a Document-Based Question activity. Interested teachers have access to the full texts of FDR’s “fireside chat” of March 1937, as well as many of the speeches made by the President’s friends and adversaries during the reorganization debate. These resources offer students the chance to play roles in a structured simulation of the legislative maneuvering that characterized the contest of wills around the “court packing” issue. Or, they might be presented with a number of preselected documents and asked to write a position paper from a particular point of view.

    As the Depression worsened many thoughtful Americans turned in their frustration away from traditional notions of capitalism and toward alternative economic systems. Textbooks then, and the curriculum they reflect, seriously neglect to serve students by leaving out any internal discussion of the very ideas that were generating such interest at home while inspiring such controversy in the capitols of Europe. By ignoring the appeal that alternative economic systems presented to American intellectuals, these same textbooks create little context for student understanding of the post-war witch-hunting that defined the McCarthy era and which resulted in the destruction of the careers of so many disillusioned intellectuals.

    It is unfortunate that textbooks so offhandedly assign these controversial voices of protest to stereotypical categories or write them off as foolish demagogues, whose contribution was merely to offer up a few crackbrained proposals. Loewen argues that textbook authors and the adoption boards which they must satisfy proceed under the notion that their mission is to instill a sense of nationalistic pride and patriotic duty in their  impressionable young audience.

Taking ideas seriously does not fit with the rhetorical style of textbooks, which presents events so as to make them seem foreordained along a line of constant progress. Including ideas would make history contingent: things could go either way, and have on occasion. The “right” people, armed with the “right” ideas, have not always won… Including ideas would introduce uncertainty… (Loewen, 1995)

   Consequently, the tactic as characterized by a representative of Holt, Reinhart and Winston is: “When you’re publishing a book, if there’s something that is controversial, it’s better to take it out. Loewen, 1995)” It may be better for the publishers, but the impact on teachers and students is reflected in the fact that 44% of students think that their social studies class is boring (Schug, et al, 1984).

Text Box:  Yet, Father Coughlin’s Sunday radio addresses may have reached as many as 40 million listeners while Dr. Francis Townshend may have attracted 5 million to his Old Age Revolving Pension Fund (Brinkey, 1982).  Despite his popular appeal, each man receives but one short paragraph in The American Pageant. Huey Long, perhaps the most well known of all these voices of nonconformity, also finds himself relegated to a single paragraph and even that he must share with his chief organizer and lieutenant, Gerald L.K. Smith. In any event, there is virtually no serious discussion or analysis of their contentious ideas. Again, in an effort to avoid controversy textbook authors allow blandness to substitute for the textured excitement that distinguishes the lives and ideas  of these colorful characters.

    Sources available on the World Wide Web invite teachers to challenge students to analyze and confront the intriguing world of alternative ideas. While textbooks avoid thoughtful engagement with controversial people and the opinions they promoted, it is often these very men and women who provide the connection and interest that is so remarkably absent from the traditional textbook-driven, history curriculum. The appeal of both Long and Coughlin to a middle-class constituency that increasingly found itself  subject to the overwhelming effects of an encroaching industrialization and an accompanying loss of community, provides a coherent connection to the Populists of the late 19th century and indeed, is reminiscent of a good many contemporary concerns.  An investigation into the lives and careers of men such as Upton Sinclair, Francis Townsend, Huey Long, and Father Charles Coughlin will permit students a chance to actually hear audio files from the Louisiana Kingfish’s broadcasts and discover for themselves whether Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice was actually an appeal to undercurrents of Anti-Semitism or latent Fascist tendencies.



There is no other country in the world where there is such a large gap between the sophisticated understanding of some professional historians and the basic education given by teachers.” 

(Marc Ferro in Loewen, 1995)


    As the 21st century looms before us, the promise of technology to bring the traces of the past into the classrooms of our nation’s history students carries with it the power to reform not just the study of America’s past, but the archaic structures that dictate the culture of schooling. Teachers need to find the courage and policy-makers need to offer the kinds of respectful support that allow for risk-taking and venturing out into new territory- a bold pedagogical inquiry into places where students and teachers alike can work authentically to add to and create for themselves the resources that permit a more compelling and meaningful investigation of our country’s story.  The current tendency to define standards in terms of facts and events, packaged as “content literacy,” have not and will not in themselves restore the truth to “the lies our teachers told us” nor will they provide the mechanisms that will support and encourage important changes in history education.  Technology and the resources made available on the World Wide Web can move us a long way toward a more thoughtful pedagogy and a more respectfully mature understanding of our complex, occasionally troubling, but always fascinating national story.



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