Q. What is Lies About?
Lies My Teacher Told Me is about two things. One is American history. The other is the way young people are taught American history.
I wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me because I believed that although Americans take great interest in their past, they were bored by the history courses they took in school. American history is full of fantastic, important stories. When told right, these stories have the power to hold audiences spellbound—including audiences of young people. Not only do these stories tell us what America has been about, they are still shaping our lives today. Americans of all ages need and want to know about our national past.
Yet too often high-school students hate history. If they can avoid it, they do, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. When students list their favorite subjects, history is always at the bottom of the list, not in every school, but nationally.
Something has gone very wrong. As a college professor of sociology, my specialty was the study of social structure—how social institutions, such as education, kept races and social classes unequal. I was often shocked by how little students knew about U.S. history after studying it in high school, and how misinformed they were about what they did know. This wasn’t the students’ fault. They weren’t stupid. I decided to investigate the textbooks that teachers were using for American history classes, and the overall way we teach history to young people.
For the first edition of Lies, which came out in 1995, I reviewed a dozen thick textbooks. For the second edition, which came out in 2007, I reviewed half a dozen new, even thicker ones. I looked at them in light of what historians, social scientists, journalists, and other professionals know about various topics in American history, from the arrival of the first people to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. I reported the discouraging results of my investigation in Lies My Teacher Told Me.
One of my goals was to show how our textbooks get things wrong, and to suggest how they could do better. But mostly I wanted to open people’s eyes to some of the richness and complications of American history—and show them what a weak, watered-down, colorless version of it they were fed in school. And people got the message, as you’ll see two questions down.
Lies is not a complete history of the United States. I did not have time or space to cover many important subjects, such as the histories of women, immigrants, or the labor movement in America. But Lies will shine a light on some parts of our history you probably haven’t seen before. You might not even have suspected they were there.