The cliché says that history is written by the winners, but that's not true when it comes to history textbooks.
For the most part, they're not even written by the "authors" whose names grace the covers. Instead, they're written by employees of or freelancers for publishing companies deathly afraid of controversy -- fearful that a passage offensive to virtually any constituency will result in their books not being adopted in schools.
James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me -- first published in 1995, and revised and updated in 2007 -- documents how badly the most popular high-school textbooks teach American history. As part of the Quad City Arts Super Author program, Loewen will discuss his work at seven programs from April 15 to 17. (For a list of events, click here. To read about Chris Crutcher -- the other Super Author visiting our area next week -- see "Innocence, Ignorance, and Experience: Quad City Arts 'Super Author' Chris Crutcher Discusses His Controversial Young-Adult Literature.")
Loewen has also written Lies Across America (which tackles historic-site markers the same way he attacked history textbooks) and Sundown Towns, about communities with written or unwritten laws designed to keep them free of racial minorities. And he co-wrote a textbook on Mississippi history that gave him his first insight into the textbook-adoption process that avoids controversy at the expense of truth.
Accessible, passionate, detailed, and often startling, Lies My Teacher Told Me documents the errors, lies, and omissions that mar history textbooks -- opening with Helen Keller's ignored radicalism and expanding its scope from there, dealing extensively with society's treatment of Native Americans and blacks and also critiquing the presentation of more modern events, including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Beyond the details that are wrong, the core narratives in these textbooks are problematic, Loewen said in a phone interview last week. He said history textbooks suggest "unrelenting, automatic progress," the idea that "we started out great and we've been getting better ever since."