BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me," can you remember a lie that your teacher told you?
JAMES LOEWEN, AUTHOR, "LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME": Oh, yes. Some of the lies, I have to admit, are lies of omissions. I remember learning when I was 42 years old that the United States had put troops into the Soviet Union in order to support the white side of the white-red civil war that was going on in 1918, and I learned that those troops stayed there two years in conjunction with Japanese troops and some British and French naval support. They went all the way to Lake Baikal in the middle of Siberia. We also had troops up in Murmansk and Archangel up near Norway. I thought, how is it that I, a history minor in college, never learned that, so I went back to my college history book, written by Richard Hofstadter et al., and I found everything that Hofstadter had deigned to tell me about that invasion, we could really call it. It was the following half sentence speaking about World War I: "American troops were withdrawn from Europe by 1918 with the exception of a contingent from Vladivostok in 1920." So there's a half sentence about how we took our troops out of Vladivostok on April Fool's Day, it turned out, in 1920; nothing at all about how we put them in. That's an example.
LAMB: What was the origin of this book?
LOEWEN: I taught for many years at Tougaloo College, a college in Mississippi that is predominantly African-American. Then I moved to the University of Vermont, so I went from the blackest to the whitest college in America. When I was at Tougaloo, I was distraught by the fact that my students believed the following myth about Reconstruction. They believed that Reconstruction was that time period when blacks took over the government of the Southern states right after the Civil War, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they messed up and whites had to take control again. Now, that's a terrible misstatement of what happened in Reconstruction. For one thing, the Southern states were governed by a black-white coalition led by whites; they did not go under black control. For another thing, many of the Southern states, particularly Mississippi, had good government during Reconstruction. In Mississippi the state government during that time period started the public schools for both races, whites as well as blacks, wrote a terrific new constitution and did other things.
I thought, what must it do to people to believe erroneously that the one time that they were on the center stage of history in the American past they messed up? What does that do to your self-concept? So I looked into how had my students learned this. Why did they believe it? And Tougaloo was a good college, is a good college. They had learned what was in their high school state history books, so I put together a coalition of students and faculty, and we wrote a new history of Mississippi called "Mississippi: Conflict and Change." The state rejected it for public school use, and it's another story but we actually took them to court about that and won a First Amendment victory.
So then I moved to Vermont and I realized that in this way, as in so many other ways, Mississippi was not exactly different from the United States as a whole. It was just an exaggeration. In other words, I got interested in American history, not just state history, and realized that it too suffers from tremendous distortions and omissions and even lies.
LAMB: What's your reaction when you drive down the highway and you see "Historical Marker Ahead"?
LOEWEN: I stop.
LAMB: And then you stop and you read it. How often do you believe it?
LOEWEN: I haven't done a percentage, maybe half the time. It's a very important question because I call it "lies on the landscape." I mean, we've got these historical markers all over the United States. The first problem with them is what isn't commemorated. All kinds of major events go unremarked because they're controversial or because they don't, maybe, show the United States in the best light.
A recent one I drove past in fact, I was situated near it for a week is in upstate New York, and I was on one of the Finger Lakes teaching a bunch of history teachers actually. There's a marker there for General Sullivan's raid against the Iroquois during the American Revolution, and it's got some very interesting doublespeak in which the marauding Indians messed up the settlers, and therefore the Army came in and punished the Indians and moved the frontier a couple of hundred miles west. Well, if you think about who's the settlers, the settlers are actually the Iroquois, and in fact part of what Sullivan did was burn their corn fields, destroy their orchards and tear down their houses. They were settlers; these were not wandering people; these were not nomads. The marker could best be understood using a phrase from William Buckley, "history as the polemics written by the victors."
LAMB: You say in the back that you worked on this book for 11 years.
LOEWEN: At the University of Vermont. I spent two years also at the Smithsonian Institution. I'm possibly the only living American who has slogged through 12 high school history textbooks from cover to cover. And then besides that, I had to do a lot of research on the things I just talked about, for instance, the putting of troops into the Soviet Union, so that I would make sure that I got the facts straight.
LAMB: On the back flap are the 12 textbooks that you wrote about. How did you choose these 12?
LOEWEN: Well, for various reasons. I wanted to pick some of the best sellers so that I would cover at least the textbooks that more than half of our students read, and there's one book in particular it used to be called "Rise of the American Nation", and after we lost the war in Vietnam it got retitled "Triumph of the American Nation." It has over a fourth of the market by itself. Publishers are leery of divulging sales figures, so it's a little hard to know after that one what's the best seller, but I tried to include several of the very popular books. I also included two older books. These are called "inquiry textbooks," and they were written during the 1970s, and they were a little different. The other 10 books we would call narrative textbooks. They just tell a straight chronology, and they tell it pretty much in the authorial voice, the kind of omnipresent, omniscient, god-like "here's what happened and then here's what happened next." But the inquiry textbooks include more emphasis on primary sources, and then they ask students questions that, hopefully, get them thinking. These textbooks are no longer in print. The inquiry text movement didn't find favor with teachers, and it went out of existence.
LAMB: Do people who write high school texts for history make a lot of money?
LOEWEN: They do if they wrote "Triumph of the American Nation"; that is, if you get one-fourth of the market. That is a bonanza, and every textbook, it seems, and every publisher wants to have that book and therefore these books end up clones of each other. It surprises me. If you think about it, the city in which we are speaking, Washington, D.C., the school board is under black control. The same is true for Detroit, for New York City, for many other cities and for some districts in Mississippi, for instance, but there is no black-oriented U.S. history. There's no U.S. history that in fact is what we might call multicentric. I would say they are all Eurocentric. They are all clones of each other because each one wants to be the next "Triumph of the American Nation."
LAMB: How does a book start?
LOEWEN: If you or I were going to write a history book, I think the first thing that Scott Foresman or Macmillan or whoever was engaging us would do is they would send us five or six competitors, and they would say, "This is what you're up against." I believe they would be saying also, "Make sure your book includes the stuff these books include." The result of that is that the process is supposed to be one in which the textbook is based on the underlying secondary literature in history. There's a terrific secondary literature in history. It's what I read; it's what I based "Lies My Teacher Told Me" on. It is not a matter of, you have to go back to the primary sources in every little detail, but the textbooks are not based on the huge secondary literature in history. They're based on each other, and thus they repeat some errors that go all the way back to the 1890s.
LAMB: Is there anybody out there that kind of puts their imprimatur on textbooks, that say, "OK, this one's all right; that one isn't"? If they do that, who are they?
LOEWEN: That's a good question. In one sense, no, there isn't; that is, you would think the history profession might or there might be a review journal. Basically, history textbooks are not reviewed, at least high school textbooks. Even college textbooks are generally not reviewed.
LAMB: By anybody.
LOEWEN: By anybody. The history profession considers them a little bit dirty; that is, like, if I were a historian and I were applying for a new job at the University of Washington and I'm already at the University of Vermont, the fact that I might have written a history textbook would not count in my favor if I'm looking for tenure, if I'm looking for advancement. They are looking the deans and the history departments they are looking for me to write a wonderful monograph on Andrew Jackson or whatever my wonderful monograph is about. They're not looking for a textbook. They consider them kind of dirty, kind of done for profit. At the University of Vermont the former dean made a distinction between scholarship and what he called pedagogy, and textbooks would fit under that latter theme, heading and get very little credit. The same holds even for the review journals. They're busy they take their time writing reviews of monographs. They do not bother reviewing textbooks, particularly high school textbooks.
LAMB: When is the first time you ever got interested in history?
LOEWEN: I got interested in history as a result of being interested in sociology; in fact, I have to say that to me good history is the sociology of the past. This will probably exercise some historians listening, but it seems to me that the important thing we want to know about the past is how did it shape us. What are the main things going on that caused us to be what we are like today? And going to Mississippi, which I did actually as an undergraduate for a semester and then going back there as a faculty member ...
LAMB: Where were you in school when you went?
LOEWEN: I was at Carleton College as an undergraduate in Minnesota and I took my junior semester abroad, as it were. This was way back in 1963, and it was right after the Old Miss riot, and I went to Mississippi State, which was then the largest all-white segregated institution of higher learning outside of South Africa. It did not have a single black student; in fact, the only black student in any white school in the state was one person, James Meredith, at Old Miss. So that was a great time to go. It was a great time to see social change happening right before my eyes, and naturally I got interested in the past.
LAMB: How did you get to Carleton College in the first place, and how many African-Americans were there at Carleton College?
LOEWEN: When I went to Carleton College -- I started in 1960. I applied from Illinois. It's not an unusual thing to do from the Midwest. I had good SAT scores and fairly good grades, and actually I had some family involvement at the college, so I had known about it. I went to school with a person who was the sixth black student in the history of the college, and the college was 100 years old. Now, since then Carleton has done a much better job. I understand the school is now 8 or 9 percent black, which is quite good for a college located in rural Minnesota. That meant, however, that when I was a junior I had almost no experience with black people, particularly in college; actually, I did to some extent in high school, which is another reason I wanted to go to Mississippi. I wanted to learn about a society that was different from the Midwest in which I grew up.
LAMB: What was the town in the Midwest you grew up in?
LOEWEN: Decatur, Illinois.
LAMB: What did your parents do there?
LOEWEN: My father was a doctor; my mother was a housewife and then also a junior high school librarian.
LAMB: What kind of family was it? How many brothers and sisters?
LOEWEN: One sister. We lived in the white part of town. We were Republicans and just pretty straightforward, but there was a strain of idealism in the family, maybe both my father and mother, and I think that got imparted to me. I hope it has because I think that there's a lot of idealism in American history, some of which I bring out in the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me."
LAMB: You dedicate this book to "All American history teachers who teach against their textbooks."
LOEWEN: That's true.
LAMB: How come?
LOEWEN: I think that's actually what needs to be done. If we think about textbooks, now, this is a very interesting point just think about the titles of textbooks. In chemistry, a high school chemistry textbook is likely to be called "Chemistry" or "Principles of Chemistry" or "Introduction to Chemistry." The same is true in mathematics. The same is true even in English literature. But in history very few books are called American History or something bland like that. They're called "Rise of the American Nation"; "Triumph of the American Nation"; "The Great Experiment"; "The Great Republic"; "Land of the Free." These are real titles.
What is that saying? I think that's saying that we are not just entering another subject; we are not just going to learn about history; we are going to salute it. We are going to salute the flag; it's going to be an exercise in nationalism. I think that's wrong because I think we develop stronger citizens and certainly people more knowledgeable about how we got where we are if we teach history with all of its dirt and its glory, with all of its questions, with its good guys and its bad guys instead of only good guys. So how can a history teacher deal with that?
People often ask me, "What book do you recommend?" I don't recommend a book. I don't know a history textbook that treats history the way a chemistry textbook treats chemistry, as something to be studied, worth learning about, period. So I think that a good teacher has to use a history textbook, but then maybe from reading "Lies" or from reading other works of secondary history, teach against that textbook, get students thinking about, get students thinking about why is the textbook leaving out this stuff, why is it saying this when it's false or this when it's misleading?
LAMB: This book is done by New Press.
LAMB: Who are they?
LOEWEN: The New Press is a bunch of folks who were, as I understand it, thrown out of Pantheon when a millionaire named Newhouse took over Random House, and so for about the last three or four years they have been a very interesting press. They get foundation grants. I think they call themselves a nonprofit commercial press, and they're the only such thing. A couple of their famous books are the book "Race" by Studs Terkel, and they also published the Supreme Court tapes that caused a great controversy a year or two ago when the Supreme Court wasn't sure that they wanted their tapes published.
LAMB: Peter Irons' book.
LOEWEN: Yes, "May It Please the Court."
LAMB: I notice that the cartoon on the cover is done by Jeff Danziger, who is also a Vermonter. Do you know him?
LOEWEN: Not personally. He actually illustrated a short story I wrote once, and so I know him professionally.
LAMB: Where is the University of Vermont?
LOEWEN: It's in Burlington.
LAMB: How did you decide to go there?
LOEWEN: At the time, when I decided to leave Tougaloo, there were several universities that were interested in me. The University of Vermont particularly appealed because it was setting up a Ph.D. program in applied sociology, which is one of the things I do. This means sociology often used in court, and I'm an expert witness in civil rights cases particularly, but in other kinds of cases too. So they wanted me for that reason, and I wanted to go to a pioneering Ph.D. program in applied sociology. After I got there, the next year there was a retrenchment, and the Ph.D. program never went through. I enjoy the landscape, it's a beautiful town, and I'm there.
LAMB: You say that, what is it? Four out of five high school students that go to college do not take history courses.
LOEWEN: I think the statistic is something like 83 percent of folks who graduate from high school never take another history course. That includes the folks who don't go to college at all as well as those who go to college and don't take history.
LAMB: You start the whole book out by saying that high school students hate history.
LOEWEN: Yes. There's poll after poll that shows that history is the least liked subject, history and social studies and things like it. To my surprise, because I always had trouble with foreign language, foreign language is much better liked than history. Mathematics often is the most-liked subject, English, science history always comes in last. I think there's some reasons for that. One is the incredible, boring nature of the textbook. These textbooks average, I think, 888 pages.
Probably every viewer will remember the incredible list of questions at the end of each chapter that you're supposed to memorize answers to. There's no way that you can learn -- I counted them for one textbook and came up with over two thousand questions. There's no way that you can remember at the end of a semester, at the end of a year these two thousand plus factoids, and what you're not learning is the basic, important questions and issues, so you don't have any skeleton to put all these little details onto. It's not a very liked subject. Anybody who's black or female or Asian American or whatever is going to feel alienated from it, but in my experience affluent whites are just as alienated or at least just as bored.
LAMB: You talk about someone by the name of Helen Keller. Who was she?
LOEWEN: Helen Keller is, of course, known to most of us as the famous blind and deaf girl who "overcame." I've asked hundreds of people, mostly my students, also other audiences, to tell me what she did with her life after she overcame. Exactly two people out of over a thousand have known, and one of those learned it indirectly from me and the other one is married to a deaf person, and in the deaf community they do know what she did. But it's very ironic that, although we get all these educational films about Helen Keller there's something like a dozen of them on the market and although almost every student gets some indoctrination as to this wonderful woman who did something, no one knows what she did once she learned how to read and write and speak.
LAMB: What did she do?
LOEWEN: She became a radical socialist. She first became a member of the Massachusetts Socialist Party, and when that wasn't far enough left for her, she became a Wobbly, a member of the International Workers of the World, the IWW. The reason she did this is actually related to her blindness, because she wanted to do something to help blind people, and she came to realize that blindness is not distributed amongst the social system just randomly. Particularly back then, maybe even today, it's concentrated in the lower class. That's because of industrial accidents that blinded people, it's because of syphilis carried by prostitutes, who were mostly poor, and it's primarily, of course, due to bad medical care, so she realized that if she were just to spend the rest of her life working on the braille alphabet, which she had done some work on improving, or doing other things like that, she was merely treating the symptom, not the cause, so she became a socialist.
Well, I'm not here to push socialism, but it's very interesting that when she became a socialist, she was probably the most famous woman on the planet because of all the attention that had been given her when she learned how to speak, when she graduated from Radcliffe College and so on. Suddenly, from the most famous she became the most notorious, and all these newspapers that had lauded her now proceeded to distance themselves from her and say, "Of course, she's the captive of people around. She really doesn't think independently," and so on.
And she took them to task. She wrote letters to them saying, "I blush to think how highly you spoke of me a couple of years ago. How stupid I must have become in the interim." She wrote a letter to the Brooklyn Eagle, which was a very major newspaper. It was the newspaper that Walt Whitman had written for in the 19th century, that had been one of these newspapers that now attacked her and she said, "It is the Brooklyn Eagle that is socially blind and deaf." She says, "I may not have been able to see the sweat shops and to see the factories or to hear them, but I have smelled them." In fact, she did go on tours all across America, so she became really quite a humanitarian on behalf of decreasing social stratification.
LAMB: Do you remember what year she died?
LOEWEN: I think it was 1969 or so. She lived a long life and until quite recently.
LAMB: If I understand it right, she is buried at National Cathedral ...
LAMB: ... along with Annie Sullivan, her teacher.
LOEWEN: I don't know about Annie. Probably ...
LAMB: The reason I mention it is that she's also buried in the same place that Woodrow Wilson is buried, and you combine the two as you start off here. Why did you mention the two up front?
LOEWEN: My first chapter is about heroes and what textbooks do to heroes, and the two heroes I pick on are, in fact, Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson. Both of them did some heroic things and deserve to be treated as heroes. Both of them also are talked about with amazing omissions.
The omission about Helen Keller we've already discussed. Wilson, of course, issued his Fourteen Points, attempted to argue for democracy at Versailles, also passed various things through the Congress during his progressive era as president, but Wilson had at least two, shall we say two feet of clay maybe, two blemishes. One was his incredible racism. He was surely the most racist president since before the Civil War ended slavery. He was of course a white Southerner, and when he came to power, which was with the aid of considerable black votes who were trying the Democratic Party and trying its claims for progressivism, he proceeded to segregate Washington, D.C. He segregated the federal cafeterias, federal work places. If two people, one white and one black, had been sorting mail together, they now had to be in separate rooms or have a screen between them. He also stopped blacks from various political appointments that had been routinely given them since the days of Lincoln and Grant. It's no coincidence that late in his term the signals that he was giving off about race relations penetrated the nation, and we had a wave of race riots from about 1917 through at least 1920.
I mentioned in "Lies My Teacher Told Me" possibly the first example of bombing civilians by aircraft, certainly the first example in United States history, came about in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when there was a race riot against the black community in Tulsa, and it even included flying a bi-plane, probably, airplane above the black community and dropping dynamite into it, killing more than 70 people. So these were race riots that actually far outdo the riots that we hear so much about in terms of the Rodney King riot in Los Angeles or the Watts riot.
LAMB: Do you find any of this in any of the 12 textbooks you looked at?
LOEWEN: There's a little mention of it. Some of the textbooks, let's say maybe five of them, will mention that Woodrow Wilson did some segregation, usually without an active verb. For instance, one textbook actually says that work-rooms in the federal government were segregated, and then Woodrow Wilson undid that and called a halt to it. The second statement is just totally false; he never did that. He never called a halt to it, but there's a common practice of whenever anything bad is mentioned, it's put in the passive voice as if nobody did it. It just happened. The other problem with Woodrow Wilson, of course, was his invasion of the Soviet Union and of so many countries in Latin America. He put troops into Mexico a total of 13 different times, and also Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic. Some of the things that American soldiers ended up doing and some of the people they ended up supporting have come back to haunt us, from the dictatorship in Haiti which we helped install to the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and so on. Now, I'm not trying to just badmouth Woodrow Wilson, but I am suggesting that we need to put him in perspective, that we need to be aware of the bad as well as the good, but somehow the textbooks have trouble with any wart, with any blemish on somebody who's supposed to be a hero.
LAMB: Was this a tough book for your publisher with legal problems? Did a lot of lawyers have to go over this?
LOEWEN: Not that I know of.
LAMB: I mean, aren't the things that you say about these 12 textbooks of concern to the lawyers at New Press?
LOEWEN: I don't think so. For one thing, unlike textbooks, this book is footnoted, so whenever I'm asserting that this is how things really were as opposed to this is what the textbooks say they were, I do provide documentation for that. Otherwise, I was generally quoting textbook authors and quoting what they said, and I think people can be quoted from, held responsible.
LAMB: Would you use any of the 12 books that you reviewed in any history course?
LOEWEN: Yes, I would have them available basically as backup. I personally wouldn't teach a high school history or even a college history textbook in a course because they cover so many things. There's no need to have 888 pages of all kinds of little details. I would rather focus on 10 or 12 major issues, chronologically arranged, that bring forth what the important points are that still have relevance to the present; but for teachers who do want to use a textbook maybe they feel that they will get too much parental criticism if they don't or maybe they feel there's all these little facts that their students are going to be asked on the SAT or on the New York Regents exam or something like that. Fine, I have no quarrel with using a textbook so long as the teacher helps the students learn against the textbook. Put the textbook in perspective, critique the textbook for its omissions.
LAMB: You have a picture in your book of a T-shirt that you can buy, you say, at the Library of Congress that has six different faces of Columbus on it. What's the point?
LOEWEN: The point is -- incidentally, my son Nick is modeling that T-shirt -- the point of those six pictures that the Library of Congress makes is, we don't know what Columbus looked like. There's no known picture for sure that was painted of him while he was alive. The six pictures are very different, one from another. This gets then into the question of why does each textbook include a picture of Columbus. I had to show this picture, and I think it's for the purpose of iconography not inquiry. Unless you believe we can read character from eye set, I think these head-and-shoulders pictures are pretty boring in the first place; but in the case of Columbus, we don't even know what his eyes looked like, so we aren't reading anything from it that's legitimate. So why include it? Because it's heroic, because it's an exercise in hero worship. That's the point I'm making by including it, and I think that's kind of why they sell the T-shirt.
LAMB: Thanksgiving Day.
LOEWEN: A wonderful day.
LAMB: What about it? Where does it stand in history?
LOEWEN: That's very interesting. A lot of people think, of course, that Thanksgiving goes back to 1620 to the Pilgrims, that we've had Thanksgiving Day ever since. I gave a whole talk for an hour at the Smithsonian about Thanksgiving a year and a half ago.
The first point to know about Thanksgiving is that it was actually invented by Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War, and the first Thanksgiving that is in our modern series happened in 1863, and it was basically giving thanks for the slow victory of the troops, particularly that previous summer in Vicksburg and at Gettysburg and the fact that the Union was going to be held together and that slavery was going to be ended.
It may be more interesting to go back to ask the question -- what were the Pilgrims really thankful for? This gets into the issue of the famous plague. I shouldn't say "the famous plague" because almost nobody's ever heard of it. This is the plague of 1617 or 1618, happened just two or three years before the Pilgrims set foot in Massachusetts, and it was a plague of enormous proportions. In fact, I use the perhaps unfortunate one-liner that it made the Black Death in Europe pale by comparison. The Black Death killed one out of every three Europeans over a period of three years. This plague in Massachusetts killed between 90 and 96 percent of all the people living there.
Who were these people? These, of course, were Indian people, and so the Pilgrims were very aware of this. In fact, King James, the king who of course commissioned the King James version of the Bible, he called it "that wondrous plague among the salvages," because back then they spelled savages with an L. Various Pilgrim and Puritan leaders considered that this plague and some later plagues were sent by God to wipe out the Indians' title to this place and confer it onto the Pilgrims, and it's one of the reasons, therefore, most likely, that the Pilgrims ended up in Massachusetts rather than in Virginia, where they were thinking of going or in Guiana, which they were actually contemplating.
They get to Massachusetts, and what the students all know about it is that they had a tough winter and then an Indian named Squanto comes along, and Squanto can speak English, miraculously, and he helps them plant fish heads among the corn and it grows tall, and the rest is all Thanksgiving. What's ironic about that story is that Squanto himself provides a wonderful hook, a wonderful point of entry to the whole plague story. The plague is one of the most important geopolitical events happening anywhere on the Earth in the first quarter of the 1600s, because it means that nobody's going to oppose the British settlement of Massachusetts.
In fact, the Indians are going to welcome it. And Squanto played the following role: He missed the plague. Why? Because he had been enslaved probably twice, quite possibly taken once to England, spent several years there in the service of a rich man, who then finally sent him back to Massachusetts. Then he gets enslaved again in about 1617, taken to Malaga, Spain, enslaved there. He escapes from slavery in Malaga. He escapes from Spain, makes his way to Britain, talks his way back to Massachusetts on a fishing boat. Actually, it took him two trips because the first boat only went to Newfoundland, and he thought maybe he could get a ride from Newfoundland to Massachusetts, couldn't do it, went back to Britain.
This man has been across the Atlantic six times. He's more traveled than any Pilgrim, and yet what the textbooks say, one textbook, for instance, I quote says, "He had learned English, he explained, from passing British fishermen." Period, that's all they say. I guess that's true, although they not only passed, they sold him into slavery in England and into Spain. Well, he missed the plague.
He gets set back onto American soil, he walks to his home village only to make the unbelievable discovery that every person there is a corpse, and it's at this point that the Pilgrims come on the scene. He's a man without a tribe; his community is ended. That's why he throws in his lot with the Pilgrims. Now, that's a story where some drama is a lot better than this pious thing about planting the fish heads in the corn and it grew tall. He was then very important to the Pilgrims for the first two or three years until he did finally die of a different disease. The Pilgrims all knew this; for instance, there's one who writes in a diary, "In this bay where we now live formerly dwelled 2,000 Indians," because they moved directly into the village with all the corpses. They moved into the village that Squanto's people had lived in, renamed it Plymouth. The rest is history, as we say, but it isn't history because it keeps getting left out of our history textbooks.
LAMB: You do an analysis of the number of pages devoted to the different decades, and you say the closer you get to the present, the less pages devoted in these history books.
LOEWEN: That's true.
LAMB: How come?
LOEWEN: I think it's, again, because the recent past is controversial. You and I, for instance, might talk about the Vietnam War; we both remember it, I hope, at least I do. We might talk about the woman's movement; we might talk about the civil rights movement. And we're the age of parents. Parents have opinions about these things. They lived through it, and they don't all hold the same opinion, and therefore there's some controversy going on. It would be difficult, I suspect, for any group of parents to have an argument about the War of 1812. There are actually some controversial details and issues about the War of 1812. We could talk about them later, but they're not hot topics. They're not going to get history books rejected. I quote a Holt, Rinehart and Winston representative who says the following ...
LAMB: By the way, who's Holt, Rinehart and Winston?
LOEWEN: A major textbook publisher. I think they're not part of Harcourt Brace and that's probably part of something else, and it's probably all ultimately owned by Newhouse. I don't know. Anyway, this representative said, "If there's something controversial in a history book, better to take it out."
Well, the recent past has the potential for being controversial. The Vietnam War is an interesting case in point. If you actually look at public opinion polls on the Vietnam War, you see that at this point and for the last 10 years at least, 70 percent of the American people believe that the Vietnam War was neither politically correct nor morally correct; that is, it was a mistake for us to do it and it was also morally wrong. That's at least 70 percent.
Well, that's a whopping 70-30 majority, so that's not very controversial, but nonetheless the textbooks leave out everything about the Vietnam War that has any guts to it, that has any controversy to it. The photos that they show, for instance, there are maybe half a dozen famous photographs of the Vietnam War. I've asked people who lived through that era to tell me what are these photos, and there's remarkable consensus the photo of the naked girl having just been napalmed, I actually get emotional with this photo, running along Highway 1, the photo of the monk burning himself. I have only to cock my hand, and people say, "Oh, yes, that photo." They remember it.
These are famous photos; they're still used in the news today. Even some of my students have seen it. The My Lai massacre photo, the famous photo of the evacuation from Saigon, these are the five that I concluded are the most important photographs of the war because they moved American public opinion, and they also show some of the issues of the war, such as the fact that there were no front lines and that we were firing upon the civilian population.
LAMB: You include this photo (pointing to a picture of Lyndon B. Johnson, from the book). How come?
LOEWEN: Because that's a typical photo that the textbooks do include. This is a photo of Lyndon Johnson surrounded by happy troops at Cam Ranh Bay, a naval base that we built in Vietnam, and it's a very different mood and a very less important image, an image that didn't move American public opinion and it didn't really describe very much about the war in Vietnam, so I counted in all 12 books how many of the textbooks included any of these five famous photos. The result: One book included one. Eleven books included none of them. They just included photos like the LBJ photo.
LAMB: Did you try to reach any of these 12 book authors and ask them?
LAMB: Did any of them talk to you?
LOEWEN: Oh, yes. About the Vietnam issue, it's very interesting that you raise that question. Two authors, Davidson and Lytle wrote two different American history books, I believe. Certainly they wrote one that is in my sample. They also wrote a fine book called "After the Fact," and "After the Fact" is aimed maybe primarily at college history majors, and the title itself is a pun indicating that history is written after the fact, afterwards, but also that historians go after the fact. In "After the Fact" they have a chapter on each of various issues in American history that they think deserve a lot of attention. They have a chapter or most of a chapter on the My Lai massacre, and they argue that the My Lai massacre is very, very important. They say it's important because, first of all, it influenced American public opinion. When these famous photos of the children and the old ladies and the old men lying in the ditch, having been shot by American forces point blank, when those photos hit Life or Look magazine, I think it was Life, when the story of the massacre occurred, that moved American public opinion, and in fact Davidson and Lytle argue that it influenced Hollywood, that we hardly ever see a movie about Vietnam that hasn't been influenced by My Lai imagery, so they're important.
The second reason that they say they're important is because they claim, I think correctly so, that the My Lai massacre was not an isolated incident, that it was maybe an exaggerated incident, but nonetheless an exaggerated case of practices that happened a lot, that there were continued attacks on the civilian population of Vietnam. I even quote William Westmoreland about that -- he of course was the general in charge of the entire war from our side -- saying, "Well, it does deny the enemy population, doesn't it?" So it was an issue in Vietnam and an issue in terms of policy, so it's very important, they say. What do they do in their textbook? They don't mention My Lai. It doesn't occur in the index, it's not in the textbook, and they don't mention the type of anti-civilian act that My Lai symbolized. Now, that's bad history. In fact, when I was talking with them, I complimented their wonderful book After the Fact, and I asked them what about their textbook. Mr. Lytle was speaking with me and he said, "I call my textbook a McDonald's version of history." I asked him, "What does that mean?" He said, "It means it's bland. If it had any flavor it wouldn't sell."
LOEWEN: He believes and his publishers believe, obviously, that if it had any flavor, anything interesting in it, then it would upset some people and that the way to sell the textbook is to make it as bland as possible, as uncontroversial as possible.
LAMB: Do you know in fact that all the teachers who use these textbooks do not teach a lot more of Vietnam? I notice that you have a statistic in here that says the average teacher spends between 0 and 4.5 minutes a year teaching Vietnam. How do you know that?
LOEWEN: I footnote that. That's research done by someone else who did study it, at least in the state of Massachusetts where he was from. I suspect that it's true. I've talked with a lot of students, hundreds actually, because I asked my introductory sociology students about their experience with American history and I've asked many of them whether they ever got to Vietnam.
I know when I took history, of course, the Vietnam War had not happened, but we didn't even get to the Second World War. We got just to the end of it, and I did take history after the Korean War and after lots of other things happened. What happens is, these books are daunting and teachers just don't reach the end of it. In fact, one famous example, there's the book I think there's a book called Teacher; anyway, it's a big best seller of a couple of years ago in which the author followed a teacher in Holyoke, Mass., as she went through the school year. By the end of the year she had just gotten to Reconstruction; she was still back in 1866 or so. Well, such a teacher is obviously not going to teach about the war in Vietnam.
LAMB: You say that Disney World has a 29-minute presentation, the history of the United States, in which it completely leaves out Vietnam, the ghetto riots of the 60s and the 90s. Did you ask anybody why that's the case?
LOEWEN: No, I didn't talk with anybody yet.
LAMB: Why did you point it out?
LOEWEN: I would think it's a reasonable description of Disney history. I remember also another example of Disney history. I went to the New York World's Fair of 1964 or whenever it was, something like that, and they had an animated version, like a three-dimensional sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that walked and talked and said stuff, and he spoke for three or four minutes without ever mentioning slavery.
So we're in the amazing situation that we don't remember the Vietnam War, we don't remember slavery as an issue even connected with Abraham Lincoln, and this is what I call feel-good history. Somebody else might call it Disneyland or Disney World history. I think there must be some belief on the part of someone in the publishing houses or in the textbook adoption boards that the way to promote strong citizens is by lying to them, by giving them this feel-good history that just tells them that the United States is the best country as ever been and we never did anything wrong. I don't hold that belief. I think the way to develop strong citizens is to get them involved in the issues of history and see that there have been Americans who have argued for positive, wonderful, just principles and are remembered around the world, and there have been Americans that have argued for oppressive principles and are remembered around the world for that, and sometimes even the same Americans have argued on both sides, and that I think would get students involved with the issues of history rather than just kind of rote patriotism.
LAMB: You quote from "The Challenge of Freedom," which is one of the history books, the following: "President Kennedy and his administration responded to the call for racial equality. In June 1963 the president asked for congressional action on far-reaching equal rights laws." Why did you quote that?
LOEWEN: The textbooks, again, want to heroize everybody, and the number one hero becomes the federal government. As I mentioned earlier, if they can't have a blemish, then when they talk about the federal government as the hero, they can't have a blemish in their treatment of the federal government. This is very unusual because after Watergate and after "Iran-Contragate" and all of our other scandals of the late 60s and 70s and even into the 80s and 90s, I think the American people have grown rightly suspicious or at least thoughtful about the federal government and don't just think that it always does the right thing.
Our textbooks still present it as the be-all and end-all and the do-gooder of everything. Now, I participated in the civil rights movement. I've mentioned that I was in Mississippi, and there was a poster that the movement offices had up on their walls during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, and that poster said, "There's a street in Itta Bena called Freedom. There's a town in Mississippi called Liberty. There's a department in Washington called Justice." That's a bitter poster because, of course, there was very little freedom in the little delta town of Itta Bena. There was very little liberty in the nasty Mississippi town of Liberty. And they were arguing, therefore, there's very little justice coming out of Washington.
During the Kennedy administration, the main response of the federal government was made in fact by the FBI. Now, what did the FBI actually do with regard to the civil rights movement? Well, first of all, we have to realize that the FBI didn't have an office in Mississippi and didn't have very many offices in the South at all. When it did, those offices were all staffed by white Southerners. The FBI at this time had not a single black officer. Hoover claimed he did because he counted his two chauffeurs; they were black, but that was it. But beyond that the FBI claimed that it was not its job to protect or even to investigate threats of violence that came to civil rights workers, and, again, beyond that J. Edgar Hoover made it his policy, he thought that the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was wrong and outlandish, and he made it his policy to investigate civil rights movement people.
So, as we know, he tapped King's phone; he tapped the hotel rooms that civil rights organizers operated out of or met in. FBI agents made a tape of King's phone calls and conversations in his room, often having to do with sex, and sent it to Coretta Scott King hoping to persuade King to commit suicide. This is a documented fact. Again, I'm not inventing this fact; I'm just citing the professional literature in history. That's why there's not going to be lawsuits against the New Press because of this. So that's the kind of role that the federal government played with regard to the that's part of its role with regard to the civil rights movement.
Even a very thoroughgoing Kennedy supporter like Arthur Schlesinger writes something like, "In the area of civil rights did not bring out the best of the Kennedy presidency" or something like that. My own college, Tougaloo College, was investigated by the FBI as a threat to America because it was in favor of civil rights. What's the result of all this? A lot of bitterness on the part of the civil rights movement. But what do the textbooks say? They say that the federal government did the civil rights, that is, that it passed the 1964 civil rights bill, the 1965 voting rights bill and so on, that it just kind of did it. This has a terrible payoff for the present, I think.
To my surprise, I've had a lot conversations in the last year with young African-Americans, and a lot of black people these days think that integration actually is wrong, and they look back with nostalgia to the days of segregation and separate black schools. These are people who generally were not born in that era, and they don't realize what a terrible era this was, but the textbooks play right into their hands because the textbooks have the entire integration movement as being done by the federal government, when actually the integration movement was done by mostly black private citizens who risked their lives to get the federal government to enforce the civil rights laws dating back to Reconstruction.
So there's kind of room, therefore, for a paranoia that the textbooks feed by telling the black community and, for that matter, the white community that the federal government has always done things for black people. Blacks become paranoid -- what are these things? Are they a good idea? And I think it encourages whites to become racist and say, "If the federal government has always been doing these wonderful things for black folks, haven't we done enough? Why do we need to do more? What's the problem?"
LAMB: How would you describe your own politics?
LOEWEN: Oh, very mixed. In the last five years I have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and we have also in Vermont a Socialist Progressive. He's called congressperson, the only non-Republican, non-Democrat in the Congress, and at the risk of invading the sanctity of the ballot booth, I have to admit that I voted for him on occasions.
LAMB: Bernie Sanders.
LAMB: Where do you live?
LOEWEN: In South Burlington, Vermont
LAMB: How big is the university?
LOEWEN: About 10,000 --11,000.
LAMB: And how many courses a semester do you teach?
LOEWEN: Five a year, two some semesters, three the next.
LAMB: What are the names of them?
LOEWEN: I mostly teach sociology. I'm not in a department of history. I like to teach race relations, and I teach it almost every semester. It's a searing experience. Some of my black students get angry with me, some of my white students get angry with me for various reasons, and so you have to develop a thick skin to teach race relations, even in a place that might seemingly be as removed from the issues as Vermont.
LAMB: What's the percentage of students at the University of Vermont that are African-American?
LOEWEN: Well, I had her in class last semester. She was -- no, to be serious, we have done a terrible job of recruiting African-American students. When I first went there, there were 75 black students. That's out of approximately 10,000. You might say, what's the matter with that because Vermont's so white, and Vermont is the whitest state, but we recruit over half of our students from out of state and not only from out of state but from metropolitan areas, including this one and including New York and Philadelphia, but when we have recruited in Washington, we typically recruit from Bethesda or from the suburbs of Philadelphia, not so much when I got there, when we had 75. We then had an admissions director who cared and who was making efforts to increase that percentage, but he left, and the person who followed him, who's thankfully now gone, didn't care about this issue, and we actually fell down to something like 28 black students. I think now we're back up to 50. In other words, it's a minuscule percentage.
LAMB: In the acknowledgements in the front of the book, you say, "The people listed below in alphabetical order talked with me, commented on chapters, suggested sources, corrected my mistakes, provided moral support." I just want to go over some of them. Lucy Loewen?
LOEWEN: That's my daughter.
LAMB: How old is she?
LOEWEN: She's now 22. She and my son, Nick Loewen, who's also listed there, did read chapters, and I also had them doing some fact finding for me.
LAMB: What does your son, Nick, do?
LOEWEN: Right now he works in a delicatessen in San Francisco. He's been accepted into the Peace Corps and hopes to go to Guinea in West Africa.
LAMB: You list Frances Fitzgerald. Who is Frances Fitzgerald?
LOEWEN: She wrote possibly the most direct predecessor to my book, a rather famous book called "America Revised." That came out, I think, in 1979, and that was a hard-hitting study of history textbooks also, that first got serialized in the New Yorker and then was a best seller. Her book is different from mine in that she mostly looks at the form of textbooks and how the form has changed over time, and she decries the fact that, for instance, instead of telling a story, they now interrupt it with all kinds of blobs of pictures and little boxes with special things. She doesn't get as far into the facts of, for instance, the plague and the Pilgrims and so on, and decry what they are saying. It's not so much a content book as it is a form book.
LAMB: Richard Current, James McPherson, Roger Kennedy. And is John Franklin, John Hope Franklin?
LOEWEN: No, John Franklin is John Hope Franklin's son, who works at the Smithsonian. But the first three you named are major historians, and they either responded to my pleas for help on specific points or they read chapters and commented on them or both.
LAMB: Anybody upset with you?
LOEWEN: I hope so. I certainly hope that publishers will be upset with me, not personally, but I hope that they will realize that it just doesn't do to attempt to write noncontroversial, boring history. There may be a couple of other groups that are upset with me; for instance, Mel Gabler is a textbook critic in Texas, and for the last 20 or 30 years he and his wife and an organization that he started have greatly influenced textbook adoption because Texas is an adoption state. I mentioned that about half the states are adoption states. Texas is the biggest one. Publishers don't want to lose that market. Vermont has no influence over textbooks. States that don't adopt statewide have no influence over textbooks because they have 500 or 200 or whatever school boards and school districts that are adopting districtwide, or sometimes even different principals or different high schools are adopting just high school wide, so that's not going to sway a publisher.
But Texas, I think Texas has just passed New York to become our second most populous state. It's certainly up there anyway. So Gabler used to be able to really influence the state textbook board in Texas to throw out textbooks that had a different point of view than his, and his was a pretty rightwing point of view, but he also did a really good public service. He also pointed out all kinds of little bitty factual errors that publishers made and are still making. The most famous recently was about a year or two ago, I think it was people connected with Gabler, found a textbook that actually claimed that the Korean War was ended when Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb. Now, Truman wasn't even in office when the Korean War was ended, and of course the bomb that was dropped was dropped on Japan a decade earlier. That's a pretty horrible mistake to make. So I share with Mr. Gabler the idea that we need to critique these textbooks, but I think he and I critique them from rather different viewpoints. He may be upset with me.
LAMB: Speaking of that, didn't you cite that something like 22 percent of the students you surveyed thought the Vietnam War was between North and South Korea?
LOEWEN: Yes. Isn't that a killer? I thought that I had given out the answer, when you say, "Who fought in the war in Vietnam?", and 22 percent say North and South Korea.
LAMB: Did they tell you why they thought that?
LOEWEN: No. I don't remember. I don't remember. The question in that case was just a little blank, and I didn't ask a why question so I didn't get it in writing. We did discuss it. When we discussed the why, what came up was, "Well, we never got to that in history." Back to the issue of what is taught about the war in Vietnam. Nothing is taught about it, so my students ended up knowing a lot more about the War of 1812 than about the war in Vietnam.
LAMB: James Loewen is our guest, and this is what the cover looks like "Lies My Teacher Told Me." Thank you very much.
LOEWEN: Thank you.
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