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James W. Loewen, who challenged history lessons with ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me,’ dies

A man with his arms crossed.
Author James W. Loewen stands in front of a monument honoring Confederate soldiers in 2000.
(AP)

James W. Loewen, whose million-selling “Lies My Teacher Told Me” books challenged traditional ideas and knowledge on everything from Thanksgiving to the Iraq war, has died. He was 79.

Loewen’s publisher, New Press, announced that the author died Thursday at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. A professor emeritus at the University of Vermont who lived in Washington, D.C., he had been diagnosed two years ago with Stage 4 bladder cancer, enough time for him to post “Notes toward an obituary” on his website.

“Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present,” was his guiding principle, he wrote. “Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.”

Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” was published in 1995 and became a favorite of students and former students as it challenged what Loewen considered a white, Eurocentric view of the past. He based his findings on his research while on fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where he spent two years looking through textbooks.

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My daughter’s Advanced Placement text teaches Black history, Indigenous history, labor history and more very, very badly.

In a 2018 interview with NPR, he said that inspiration for “Lies My Teacher Told Me” came while he was teaching at the historically Black Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and asked his students for their thoughts on Reconstruction.

“And what happened to me was an ‘A-ha’ experience, although you might better consider it an ‘Oh-no’ experience: 16 out of my 17 students said, ‘Well, Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when Blacks took over the government of the Southern states. But they were too soon out of slavery and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.’

“My little heart sank.”

Loewen’s book won the American Book Award and was sometimes likened to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” as an alternative text for progressives. A Publishers Weekly review called “Lies My Teacher Told Me” a “politically correct critique of 12 American history textbooks” that was “sure to please liberals and infuriate conservatives.”

He continued the series with “Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus,” “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong,” and “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition.” He revised the original work in 2018, during the Trump administration.

Loewen is survived by his second wife, Susan Robertson Loewen; children Nick Loewen and Lucy Loewen McMurrer; four grandchildren; and his sister, Mary Cavalier.

“Fathering was his happiest role,” Loewen wrote in his prepared obituary.

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He was born in Decatur, Ill., his father a doctor and his mother a teacher and librarian. While studying sociology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., during the height of the civil rights movement, he spent the early part of 1963 auditing courses at Mississippi State University while also visiting Tougaloo College and the Tuskegee Institute.

“He enjoyed all three Southern colleges but felt a particular kinship with Tougaloo, where students actually bought and read books not assigned them in courses, a rarity at MSU,” Loewen wrote on his website.

Before establishing himself as an author, Loewen co-wrote a textbook that helped lead to a legal battle that anticipated current debates over how race should be taught. In 1974, he and Dr. Charles Sallis published “Mississippi: Conflict and Change,” an intended corrective to what they saw as the racially biased information that his Tougaloo students had been assigned for a required ninth-grade course on the state’s history.

The book won the Lillian Smith Award for nonfiction, presented by the Southern Regional Council, but officials in Mississippi voted to reject it for classroom use, alleging that “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” devoted too much time to Black history. Loewen and others sued. In 1980, U.S. District Court Judge Orma Smith ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor and ordered the book placed on the “approved list.”


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