James W. Loewen, author of the freshman reading project selection “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” spoke about his book and the future of American history in the classroom in the Great Court of Mitten Hall, Sept. 23, 2003.
Marta Rusek: In the first chapter you define the concept of heroification, a process by which contributors to American history are stripped of their humanity and elevated to a divine status. In your opinion, who is the greatest American hero who has not been subjected to heroification?
James W. Loewen: Print Matthews. He is both important as an individual and because he stands for a class of people like you and me. Print Matthews was a white Southerner who opposed secession [to the Union], who opposed the Civil War and managed not to fight in it. Black folks loved him because he was in favor of black rights and about a third, even more, of the white folks in his county voted for him and supported him. So he got elected.
MR: What office did he hold?
JWL: I believe he was sheriff at one point and/or he was on the county board of supervisors in a county just south of Jackson, Mississippi. He was killed while in the act of voting in November 1881, when the Democrats took back the county by force, destroying his interracial coalition. He’s a hero of mine because most people, North and South, don’t know who he is. White Mississippians should be venerating him instead of Jefferson Davis. Davis committed treason on behalf of slavery while Matthews was murdered for believing in and fighting for interracial cooperation and the rights of all.
MR: Who made the greatest contribution to racial equality in the course of American history?
JWL: Wow! I’ve never been asked that.
MR: Really? Well, I always thought of LBJ for his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement during the Sixties.
JWL: You’re absolutely right. There are several possibilities. Lyndon Johnson had a serious commitment to civil rights. But, I don’t venerate him for his foreign policy. Then there’s Abraham Lincoln, who was a racist but also an anti-racist, whose Second Inaugural is the best statement ever made by an American President on the subject of racism. John Brown, a bit violent, but nevertheless…
JWL: (Laughs) Yes, but seriously committed to the cause of black rights. I respect him, but at the same time, I don’t respect him for his violent methods.
MR: What textbook lie that is passed as truth surprises you the most?
JWL: During the past 15 years textbooks, are gradually getting worse, especially in their discussions of the Vietnam War. I would have thought that textbook coverage of the war would be getting better because it’s less controversial in a way. But, textbooks seem to be getting worse. That’s disappointing.
MR: How does the future of textbooks look to you?
JWL: Hopeless. I say this because of the Internet. There used to be a place for a 1,100 page textbook on American History. Now students have the Web to look to for unlimited information. That is going to negate the need for a 1,100-page textbook. But hopefully, we’ll end up with a 200-page textbook that just presents the central information of American history, and encourages students to turn to the World Wide Web for more information and answers to questions they might not get in the classroom.
Marta Rusek can be reached at email@example.com.