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What History Books Don’t Tell Us

Mary Claire O'Donnell | Tuesday, November 29, 2011

We trusted them. We listened to them for years. We put our education in their hands. And they lied to us. That’s right, I’m talking about our history teachers.

That’s what James Loewen believes, and what he will talk about today. Loewen, a sociologist, is the author of a number of books on the subject, best known for his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”

As this year is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Loewen will center his talk around this era in American history and the issues that have been overlooked in typical textbooks.

Loewen said he will draw from research he did for his latest book, “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” a look at the reasons behind the secession of the southern states in the early 1860s.

“Last December was the sesquicentennial of when the first state, South Carolina, quit the Union,” Loewen told The Observer. “In [my book] is why, why South Carolina, why each of the 11 states left the Union. This is information that even though it’s totally clear in 1860, it’s totally murky today.”

In his talk, Loewen will clear the muddy waters and bring to light some truths about the Civil War that are important and relevant today. In his studies and experiences, he found that an overreliance on textbooks has hurt history students of all ages.

“In this day, when we have the web, there’s no excuse, either in high school or college, for just relying on the textbooks,” he said. “Now, back in 1970, when you’re thinking about a small town in Indiana that hardly has a library, then maybe there’s an excuse to have a 900 or 1,000 page history textbook.”

Times have changed though, according to Loewen, and now those small towns have access to the Internet and all sorts of primary historical documents. These primary documents are hugely important to really learning history and unlocking the secrets that aren’t revealed in our textbooks, he said.

Loewen hit upon this problem at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi, where he taught for eight years.

“I had an experience, which I will talk about at my talk, an interesting experience my first year teaching, that blew my mind,” he said. “It convinced me that my students had been lied to, and in fact they had … the fact that history can be a weapon, that history can be used against you, that was taught to me in Mississippi.”

But it wasn’t just Mississippi that had been lying to its students. Loewen encountered the same problem when he moved to Vermont and began teaching at the University of Vermont there. And so he spent two years at the Smithsonian Institute surveying leading American history textbooks, discovering more lies and misinformation. With his books, he calls on students to challenge, not blindly follow, textbooks and seek the real historical truth.

And for his talk today, Loewen wants to try and test his ideas.

“I think I am going to be able to demonstrate in the room that most Notre Dame students have been lied to,” Loewen stated. “We’ll see if I can.”

Have you been lied to? Come find out.

On campus

What: James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me”

Where: Debartolo 101

When: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 6:30 p.m.

How Much: Free

Learn More: http://nd.edu/~sub/