Lies My Teacher Told Me By James W. Loewen Book Summary

If America is a land of equal opportunity and individual freedom, why is it still plagued by class divisions, racial tension, aggressive foreign policy, and damaging mythologies? In this Snapshot, you’ll learn about the gross historical inaccuracies that pervade high school history curricula and uncover the uncomfortable realities they hide. You’ll also discover why a more honest understanding of the American story is essential for improved civic engagement.

Lies My Teacher Told Me Book Summary:

  • Want a more accurate account of US history
  • Are frustrated by the sugar-coated misinformation that pervades American mythos
  • Are curious about the racial and social realities that truly shaped the nation
Lies My Teacher Told Me Book Cover


In an era when elected leaders speak in “alternative facts” or tell blatant lies about their reasons for going to war, American citizens must be able to critically engage with their government and their history. 

However, Americans struggle with this crucial task because they’ve internalized numerous inaccurate notions about their country. Many Americans still believe that a conflict over states’ rights caused the Civil War, that class divisions are easy to overcome, and that American military interventions overseas are always efforts to promote democracy. These false narratives prevent Americans from recognizing the continued detrimental effects of slavery, dealing with income inequality, and demanding transparency from their elected leaders. 

To fix these problems and become a truly democratic nation, the people of the United States must begin by identifying and debunking misinformation in their textbooks and learning the truth about American history.

The Dangers of Making Heroes  

One of the most egregious trends in American history textbooks is the tendency to present glib biographies that glorify historical figures and provide simplistic descriptions of their lives and work. This process of heroification allows textbooks to conveniently overlook individual blemishes and water down the oppressive forces that shaped American history. As a result, students are prevented from learning from the nation’s mistakes or appreciating the complexities of its pivotal players. 

One classic example of this phenomenon is Helen Keller. Teachers, educational films, and made-for-TV movies emphasize Keller’s childhood, describing how a little girl who was both blind and deaf managed to overcome these challenges and learn to sign, read, and write. Her complex and difficult childhood is used to support bland maxims about the importance of human service and perseverance. While these descriptions certainly honor Keller’s personal fortitude, this narrow depiction of Keller’s childhood obscures the achievements of her adult life. As a young woman,

Keller became a radical socialist, joining the Socialist Party of Massachusetts and the Industrial Workers of the World after graduating from Radcliffe College in 1904. Keller became a fervent socialist precisely because of her experiences as a disabled person, which motivated her to help other people overcome the barriers they faced in life. Through her political activities, Keller quickly realized that disabilities were a social issue. For example, she noticed that blindness was concentrated in the lower classes, as poor men were more likely to take dangerous industrial jobs that put them at greater risk of suffering accidents that could cause blindness. Additionally, poor women were more likely to engage in prostitution, which could lead to syphilis-induced blindness. No matter the cause of their conditions, poor people usually didn’t have the resources to pursue adequate medical care for these issues. Keller’s socialism motivated her work on behalf of these marginalized people, even after newspapers vilified her for her political conversion. In addition to her political activism, Keller raised funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, and donated to the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. 

Keller wasn’t a perfect hero, and not all students might agree with the tenets of socialism or with Keller’s fervent praise for the USSR. Nevertheless, omitting her politics from her narrative obscures the complexity of her character as well as the difficult social realities that justifiably motivated her ideas. To present a portrait of US history that’s faithful and accurate, it’s important to provide biographies that are comprehensive and complex.

Hidden Racism  

Another glaring inaccuracy in textbook descriptions of American history is what is promoted as the cause of the Civil War. The majority of high school textbooks claim the Civil War was motivated by the issue of states’ rights, but nothing could be further from the truth: Slavery was the real reason why South Carolina and 10 other states seceded from the Union. 

This motivation becomes abundantly clear in any examination of the decades preceding the war itself. When white Southerners were in power during the 1850s, they launched flagrant attacks on the rights of Northern states. In 1857, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney reduced states’ rights by ruling that, regardless of state legislation, blacks couldn’t have any rights that were respected by whites. The following year, President James Buchanan wielded federal power to legitimize slaveholding in the new state of Kansas, even though the Missouri Compromise of 1820 forbid slavery in this area. White Southerners had no complaints about these violations of state sovereignty; only after they lost control of the executive branch in 1860 did they begin to decry perceived assaults on states’ rights. 

Textbooks also tend to gloss over the true extent of white complicity in racial oppression. For instance, when describing the Founding Fathers, many sources minimize slaveholding by painting it as the widely accepted norm of the era. In this light, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren’t bad guys; they were simply doing what everyone else was doing. Textbooks even minimize racism in their sentence structures; discussions of slaveholding with reference to early American leaders tend to occur in a subordinate clause. For instance, a textbook might casually mention that Jefferson was an advocate for the everyman despite being a slaveholder. These strategies depict racism as an innocent side note, but in reality, racial divisions have always been the driving force of American history. 

Sometimes, these shameful details are omitted entirely. Almost every student knows about Patrick Henry’s heroic speech at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775 that coined the quotation, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” However, no textbook mentions the fact that Henry also set up a special patrol to prevent slaves from accepting British offers of emancipation in exchange for Loyalist solidarity. 

Hiding the realities of white complicity also masks the fact that racial ideologies have long been at the core of US foreign policy. While American rhetoric glorifies freedom and self-determination, slavery caused the US to side more frequently with imperialism. Much of the expansion of US territory that occurred from 1787 to 1855 happened to meet slaveholder needs. Further, some of the most vocal supporters of the War of 1812 were slaveholders greedy for Spanish and Indian lands who wanted to drive indigenous communities far from slaveholding states because they’d become a common refuge for escaped slaves. In 1816, General Andrew Jackson initiated the First Seminole War by attacking a Seminole fort that was harboring slaves, which sparked a series of wars that ultimately led to Florida’s inclusion in the United States. In other words, Florida became part of the nation because of racist agendas. Other conflicts, including the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War, were primarily motivated by slaveholders who wanted to put more distance between their assets and free land. These examples demonstrate how racism caused the United States to contradict its belief in self-determination in order to reap the benefits of imperialist politics. 

Finally, many of today’s textbooks treat racial discrimination as a phenomenon of the past. None of them discuss how centuries of racial oppression have shaped modern forms of discrimination, such as the racially biased policies of the War on Drugs or the impunity with which police officers murder unarmed black people. Denying the racism that has defined American history effectively hides the racial discrimination that still happens today.

The Truth about Opportunity  

The majority of high school graduates lack a clear understanding of the country’s social inequalities, due in part to the curriculum’s limited portrayal of labor history. While textbooks often mention the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago, in which dozens of workers were murdered, or the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 women, no book describes the labor disputes of the recent past. By omitting these historic moments, textbooks subtly place labor disputes firmly in the past and hide the fact that labor inequalities still have a debilitating influence on today’s workers. 

Textbooks also fail to provide any analysis of social class. Of the 18 textbooks that James Loewen analyzed, half of them lacked any index listing for relevant terms like social class, social structure, income distribution, or stratification, and not one had a listing for upper class or lower class. Instead, textbooks make a point of discussing how wonderfully middle class all of America is. Particularly in discussions of colonial culture, most textbooks claim that social mobility set American society apart from Europe and claim that most colonists, except for slaves, belonged to the middle ranks. These statements completely overlook the fact that two of the most violent class-related conflicts in American history — Bacon’s Rebellion and Shays’ Rebellion — both occurred around the colonial era. 

Even if the colonial myth of class fluidity were true, this narrative hides the fact that American society is highly divided today. Since the late 1960s, the proportion of households that earn between 75% and 125% of the median annual income has continued to decrease; in other words, the distance between wealth and poverty is widening dramatically. The tax cuts of the second Bush administration, which were clearly aimed at helping the wealthiest Americans, have only exacerbated this division. 

Unfortunately, class continues to be one of the most influential components of American society through all stages of life. Impoverished mothers are less likely to enjoy sufficient prenatal care, and on average, the babies of wealthier parents have better health and higher birth weights than their less affluent peers. Poor children are more likely to encounter lead and other poisons in their drinking water and homes and are less likely to attend childcare or pre-kindergarten programs that could give them a leg up in school. Wealthy children reap the benefits of affluent schools that spend two or three times more money per student as less privileged schools, while working class kids living in impoverished urban communities have to deal with larger class sizes and less funding. As a result, dropout rates are higher among the poor, meaning that, while wealthy students go on to attend prominent universities and enjoy white-collar careers, poor students deal with the stresses of low-income labor. When poor individuals become parents, the cycle repeats itself. 

America likes to describe itself as a land of equal opportunity, wherein anyone can improve their life by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But the harsh reality is that most people who are born poor also die poor. By failing to discuss this reality, textbooks prevent students from having a more accurate understanding of the effects of class. This absence also prevents students from having a clear understanding of themselves. A working-class student who learns that America is purely meritocratic and that social mobility is easy might be more likely to feel ashamed of her family’s poverty because they’ve learned that this perceived shortcoming is caused by individuals. 

Take a moment to consider just how ludicrous this notion is. Blaming the poor for their poverty is not unlike blaming women or racial minorities for their underrepresentation in politics and the continuation of workplace discrimination. In reality, they endure these challenges because they didn’t have equal voting rights for a huge portion of the nation’s life and didn’t have any legal protections in the professional world until the second half of the 20th century. Because women and minorities live in an unjust system that privileges white males, it makes no sense to blame them for the outcomes of a system designed to promote their disenfranchisement. In the same way, the class system is rigged against the lowest echelons of society. When textbooks fail to name this fact, they reinforce the belief that poverty is the fault of the poor.

Misconceptions About the Federal Government  

Just as textbooks gloss over the true history of race and class in America, they also put an undeservedly positive spin on the activities of the federal government, describing global events as morality plays in which the US has always stood up for democracy and freedom. Even if textbooks do describe America’s foreign policy failures, they tend to justify these events by claiming that America had good intentions that it failed to properly execute or that the other countries misunderstood our noble efforts. In this way, the United States gets to play the role of the international good guy. 

These narratives are blatant lies; the US has a long history of intervening in the self-determination of other nations. For example, in 1944, Guatemala’s citizens overthrew the country’s dictator and set up a democratic government, which, in the following decade, granted rights to Indians and women and ended forced labor on coffee plantations. Then, in 1954, the CIA threatened to invade Guatemala when its president proposed land reforms and infrastructure improvements that would weaken the monopoly of the United Fruit Company. As a result of this threat, the president of Guatemala sought asylum in Mexico, and a repressive regime, led by a man chosen by US leaders, took over Guatemala and reversed its democratic reforms. This intervention was clearly not an example of misunderstood intentions or democratic impulses; instead, the US chose a foreign policy strategy that would serve its best interests at the cost of Guatemalan sovereignty. 

Unfortunately, Guatemala is but one of many examples of US foreign policy run amok. The US also rigged the 1957 election in Lebanon, which led to revolt and civil war; participated in the assassination of Zaire’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1961; and helped bring down Chile’s democratically elected government in 1971. 

Another casualty of America’s sugar-coated federal history is that it hides the political influence of multinational corporations. American oil companies have a troubling history of supporting oppressive governments overseas. In Equatorial Guinea, for example, oil companies give money to politicians in order to dominate the nation’s oil reserves. While millions of dollars go to wealthy elites, none of that money reaches the poor in a nation where three-quarters of the population suffer from malnutrition. Oil companies choose to pay royalties to politicians that perpetuate inequality because it’s cheaper to do business there than in truly democratic countries. The US federal government ought to impose regulations that would prevent American companies from supporting tyranny and perpetuating poverty, but American leaders have failed to take this initiative.


American citizens have an amazingly limited understanding of their nation’s history, which is largely because school textbooks and curricula fail to teach the truth about their country. By burying racism and class inequality and sugar-coating US foreign activities, the American education system puts forth more propaganda than truth and prevents citizens from critically engaging America’s past and present. As a result, leaders and citizens are less likely to be held accountable for their actions. Rather than learning from the past, the United States insists on repeating it. Since ignorance is what allows inequality and oppression to continue, it’s time for all Americans to learn the truth about their nation’s history, so they can work toward a better future.

About the Author  

Hames Loewen

James W. Loewen is an American sociologist and historian. He spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution studying American history textbooks and their influence on educational outcomes.

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