A Few Thoughts on the Passing of James W. Loewen

I was very saddened to hear that sociologist and historian James W. Loewen passed away yesterday at the age of 79 and feel compelled to write a few lines about the influence of his tremendous scholarship on my own work as a public historian.

I took a serious interest in history as a middle schooler in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and read Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me while I was still in high school. It was probably the first book I ever read that seriously questioned the way history was taught in the classroom. Loewen clearly demonstrated that difficult aspects of U.S. history were often swept under the rug in the interest of promoting a consensus version of history that promoted loyalty to the nation at the expense of historical accuracy, and that trivial facts and rote memorization of dates often replaced discussions of causes, context, and consequences in the history classroom.

High School students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history “the most irrelevant” of twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school. Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it. When students can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even whey they are forced to take classes in history, they repress what they learn, so every year or two another study decries what our seventeen-year-olds don’t know.

James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pg. 12

These were the sorts of words that inspired me to originally pursue a history teaching degree in undergrad so that I could be a part of the solution to poor teaching in the history classroom. Of course, that career track did not work out for me (I was even turned down from a position once “because we need a basketball coach”). But as I began pursuing a career in public history, Loewen’s Lies Across America probably played an even bigger role in my career development than Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen’s critical interrogation of public monuments, historical markers, and historic sites demonstrated the ways public history sites, just like history classrooms, often left out important stories from U.S. history in the interest of promoting consensus history. I wrote about one particularly influential story Loewen discussed in the book about Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” statue here a few years ago. His ten questions for historic sites remains an excellent foundation for critically analyzing the interpretive focus of a given site:

Two important insights are worth further mentioning here. One is that Loewen was a gifted writer whose engaging and often humorous style really made the words jump off the page. As evidenced in my own story, a high school student could read his books and understand the arguments he made. The other insight is that many of Loewen’s arguments were not only right at the time these two books were written in the 1990s, but remain relevant to our own conversations today about history education in the classroom and public history across the United States. For example, In Lies My Teacher Told Me Loewen famously criticized the ways Christopher Columbus was hailed as a hero in the history classroom. He convincingly demonstrated the genocidal nature of Columbus’s voyage to the Western Hemisphere and forced readers to challenge their old, mythical understandings European voyages to “The New World.” While Loewen’s interpretation of Columbus has much more credence today, that was not the case in the 1990s. In Lies Across America, Loewen argued that public monuments were more reflective of the moment in which they were erected than the history they tried to commemorate, therefore demonstrating the inherently political/ideological nature of public monuments. Again, this insight is a fairly common talking point among historians today, but Loewen was already on the ball with this type of thinking thirty years ago. It’s easy to read Loewen and think that his books were written a year or two ago and not in the 1990s.

I never met Dr. Loewen personally but I’m grateful for his scholarship, which goes far beyond the two books under discussion here. You can learn more about Dr. Loewen’s scholarship by visiting his website, which had recently been created only a few months ago.

Cheers