Lies My Teacher Told Me

Next year I’m scheduled to teach AP United States history at my high school.  As part of the summer assignment, I’ve requested that my students read the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.  Given that I have never read the book myself, I figured that probably should do that.

I’m only into the first chapter.  The ideas that Loewen puts forward are things that I’ve largely already encountered, though not necessarily in as much detail as he supplies.  For example, I’ve figured that not all US presidents are as peachy as history books make them out to be, though I was unaware of the specific blatant racist tendencies of Woodrow Wilson, which Loewen supplies as an example.

Those specific examples have been interesting to say the least, but I ran across a passage that I found to be particularly interesting.  Loewen had talked about the socialist career of Helen Keller, and then included a passage from one of Keller’s written works:

“I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate–that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased….I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle.  But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about.  I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment…Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.” (reprinted in James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, Touchstone: New York, 2007, p. 27)

This passage had been written in response to Keller’s own experiences followed by a tour of the country where she entered mills, mining communities, and encountered workers on strike.

This passage caught me because of my students.  Most of my students come from situations with so much to overcome–from poverty to family matters to health issues.  And, unlike Keller, they are not part of the social class that can afford them opportunity for success.  Yes, there are chances for them to change the circumstances, but they face a significantly greater number of obstacles than the wealthier counterparts.

If Keller is actually right, then my students don’t realistically have much of a chance.  Granted, Keller lived in a little bit of a different country than the one we live in today, but we still face similar issues in the nation today.  So I hope that Keller is not right.  Because my students deserve more than that and they should have the power to rise.


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