James William Loewen (born February 6, 1942) is an American sociologist, historian, and author, best known for his 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which was republished in 2008, and again in 2018.
Loewen was born in Decatur, Illinois, to Winifred and David F. Loewen, on February 6, 1942. His mother was a librarian and teacher, and his father was a medical director and doctor. Loewen grew up in Decatur. He was a National Merit Scholar as a graduate in 1960 from MacArthur High School.
Loewen attended Carleton College. In 1963, as a junior, he spent a semester in Mississippi, an experience in a different culture that led to his questioning what he had been taught about United States history. He was intrigued by learning about the unique place of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Mississippi culture, commonly thought of as biracial. Loewen went on to earn a PhD in sociology from Harvard University based on his research on Chinese Americans in Mississippi.
Loewen first taught in Mississippi at Tougaloo College, a historically black college founded by the American Missionary Association after the American Civil War. For 20 years, Loewen taught about racism at the University of Vermont, where he is now professor emeritus of sociology. Since 1997, he has been a visiting professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
First Amendment battle
Loewen co-authored a United States history textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change (1974), which won the Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Nonfiction in 1975. However, the book was rejected for use in Mississippi's public schools by the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board on the grounds that it was too controversial and placed too much focus on racial matters.
Loewen challenged the Board's decision in a lawsuit, Loewen v. Turnipseed (1980). Judge Orma R. Smith of the U.S. District Court ruled that the rejection of the textbook was not based on "justifiable grounds", and that the authors were denied their right to free speech and press.
Lies My Teacher Told Me
Loewen spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution, where he studied and compared twelve American history textbooks then widely used throughout the United States. He published his findings in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). He concluded that textbook authors propagate factually false, Eurocentric, and mythologized views of history. Loewen points out in the book that many of the distortions found in American history texts are "not even by the authors whose names grace the cover." In March 2012, the book's publisher, The New Press, listed Lies My Teacher Told Me as their top all-time bestseller.
The book reflects Loewen's belief that history should not be taught as straightforward facts and dates to memorize, but rather as analysis of the context and root causes of events. Loewen recommends that teachers use two or more textbooks, so that students may realize the contradictions and ask questions, such as, "Why do the authors present the material like this?"
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition
Rebecca Stefoff, known for her young reader's adaptation of Howard Zinn's bestseller A People's History of the United States for young readers, makes Lies My Teacher Told Me accessible for younger readers in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers Edition (2019).
Teaching What Really Happened
Loewen builds off of Lies My Teacher Told Me in Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History and lays out an argument for how history should be taught at the elementary and secondary levels. The first four chapters get to the heart of Loewen’s argument on how history should be taught and chapters 5–10 are about specific issues in history and how to teach them effectively. Chapter one makes the argument that history teachers need to free themselves from the history textbooks and go more in depth with specific issues in history. In chapter two Loewen argues that teacher expectations play a role in student performance, and knowing this can help teachers to close achievement gaps among students. The third chapter lays out why historiography is and should be important to students. Chapter four gives teachers ways to help students “Do history, [and] not merely learn it”.
Chapters 5–10 treat special cases in history such as slavery and the South seceding from the United States. At the end of each chapter is a “Focused Bibliography" which lists additional readings that Loewen feels are important to the chapter. The book is focused at current and future teachers, who may be frustrated with the way that history is usually presented at the elementary and secondary levels and provides ideas on how it should be taught and how to get students engaged.
Continuing his interest in racism in the United States, Loewen wrote Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, which was released in 2005. The book documents the histories of sundown towns, which are towns where African Americans, Jews, and other minority groups were forced (or strongly encouraged) to leave prior to sundown in order to avoid racist violence threatened and perpetrated by the towns' majority white populations. A review of the book, in the Washington Post, noted that even though Loewen dedicated an entire chapter to research methodology, his claims regarding the number of communities which supported racial exclusion policies is both widely variable and vague. The review stated "This vagueness, along with Loewen's almost evangelical passion for his material, raises questions of credibility – or at least of potential overstatement." Loewen has written about sundown towns repeatedly throughout his career, including in Lies Across America, where he notably cited the affluent suburb of Darien, Connecticut as meeting his definition of a modern-day de facto sundown town.
Sundown Towns garnered the illustrious Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. It also gained excellent reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. The book inspired a nationwide online initiative to monitor and list sunset towns across the USA.
In 2010, Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta co-authored the book The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth about the Lost Cause, an anthology containing a wide array of primary source documents pertaining to the Confederacy from the time of the American Civil War.
At present, Loewen is researching a new book, Surprises on the Landscape: Unexpected Places That Get History Right. The book is planned as follow-up to Lies Across America, which noted historically inaccurate or misleading historical markers and sites across the United States. Surprises will call attention to historical sites that are accurate and provide honest representations of events. His official website invites the public to comment on what towns and historical sites should be included in terms of presenting history right.