BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN “The most important era in US history that you’ve never heard of, and why it’s especially important today.”
That will be the theme when author and professor James Loewen visits the Delano Senior Center, 234 Second St. N., at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7.
“No, I’m not going to tell you what that era is,” Loewen said in an interview with the Delano Herald Journal.
Loewen, the author of the best-selling book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” is enthusiastic about participating in the event, which is sponsored by the Delano United Diversity Task Force, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Delano Senior Center, and Facilitating Racial Equity Collaborative.
“I’m excited that small cities like Delano and Hastings have reached out to me,” Loewen said. “I look forward very much to speaking to the audience.”
Loewen grew up in Decateur, IL, a town that was racially desegregated. He specifically remembers white students from one school being bussed to another school that otherwise would have had a majority of black students.
Though Decateur was desegregated, he still knew African Americans were not hired to do all jobs in the town. For example, they weren’t allowed to work in the major industries or as receptionists in legal offices or hospitals.
Loewen’s father, a public health doctor, worked to change that, hiring a black woman to be a receptionist at the tuberculosis hospital he operated.
“I was proud of him for that,” Loewen said.
He learned about race and class from his mother, who served as a junior high librarian and remedial math teacher. Her students were considered the dumbest class in school and said she was too hard on them.
“I still remember that story that relates to equality, which is one of the things I’m all about,” Loewen said.
After graduating from high school, he attended Carleton College in Northfield.
When he was a junior there, he spent a semester at Mississippi State and visited Tougaloo College, a historically black school in Jackson, MS.
“I wanted to learn about segregation,” Loewen said. “ . . . People there told me, ‘You have to go to Tougaloo.’”
Teaching and learning at Tougaloo
After earning his PhD from Harvard University, he had multiple offers for teaching jobs, but solicited one from Tougaloo.
“The most important thing I learned from teaching at Tougaloo was some of my students were absolutely as intelligent and ‘with it’ as my best students at Harvard or best friends at Carleton, and yet they had SAT scores that would be, for example, at their best 550, while a Harvard student would have one at 800 or 790,” Loewen said. “I came to realize these so called ‘standardized tests’ were not really standard at all.”
It was also there that he had his “Aha!” or “Oh, no!” experience, as he describes it in his book “Teaching What Really Happened.”
When he asked them to explain reconstruction, they told him, “Reconstruction was that time, right after the Civil War, when African Americans took over the governing of the Southern states, including Mississippi, but they were too soon out of slavery, so they messed up, and reigned corruptly, and whites had to take back control of the state governments.”
“I sat stunned,” Loewen wrote. “So many major misconceptions of facts glared from that statement that it was hard to know where to begin a rebuttal.”
That inspired him to do research, sitting in on history classes in high schools and reading their textbooks.
“I saw black teachers teaching black students white-biased pseudo-history because they were just following the book and the textbooks were written from a white supremacist viewpoint,” Loewen wrote.
He tried to encourage Mississippi historians to write a more accurate textbook about the state’s history. When those efforts were unsuccessful, he took the matter into his own hands with the help of students and faculty from Tougaloo and Millsaps College, a nearby white school.
That book, “Mississippi: Conflict and Change,” won the Lillian Smith Award for best Southern nonfiction book, and yet the Mississippi State Textbook Board rejected it as unsuitable, prompting him to sue the textbook board in federal court.
In Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al., the judge ordered Mississippi to adopt the book for a six-year period and supply it to any school system that requested it.
“Although we won the lawsuit, that experienced proved to me that history can be a weapon, and it had been used against my students,” Loewen wrote.
Teaching and learning in Vermont
Loewen went on to teach at the University of Vermont after eight years at Tougaoloo.
“These students were also ignorant of even the basic facts of our past, as were my Mississippi students, despite the hours spent in most high schools memorizing them,” Loewen wrote.
He went on to write that his students were particularly bad at learning and applying the basic concepts of sociology, that he coined the term soclexia to describe it.
His definition of sociology states, “Social structure pushes people around, influences their careers, and even affects how they think.”
While Tougaloo students understood this in the context of their own lives, he wrote that UVM students did not. Not only did their class position affect this lack of understanding, but their high school education contributed, as well, Loewen believes.
“Unfortunately, American history as presented in high school textbooks (and by teachers who rely on them) not only leaves out social class entirely, it also avoids any analysis of what causes what in our society, past or present,” Loewen wrote.
Just as he had done in Mississippi, he visited high school history classes and reviewed their textbooks, deepening his concerns.
“Although American history is full of gripping and important stories, these books were dull,” Loewen wrote. “Their basic storyline was: the United States started out great and has been getting better ever since! . . . They failed to let voices from the past speak; instead, they told everything themselves, in a boring monotone.”
‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’
His experiences led him to write his best-known book in 1995.
“I sometimes hold up my best seller and say, ‘I could have subtitled it ‘Revenge Against Coach DeMoulin,’” Loewen said, referencing his high school history teacher, who also served as the school’s basketball coach in a region of Illinois dominated by the sport.
“We never thought,” Loewen said. “We only memorized. I didn’t learn anything from history as taught in school.”
Even his education at Carleton was Eurocentric, he said.
When asked about the worst inaccuracies he has found in history books, he pointed to the secession of Southern states.
“In 1860-61, they all passed documents saying why they were seceding,” Loewen said. “Textbooks, to this day, make secession murky. Not one textbook I’m aware of quotes a southern secession document on this point.”
This angers Loewen.
“It’s 158 years after it started and we still can’t teach accurately what it was about,” Loewen said. “I think it’s an outrage. I think it makes us all stupid.”