Heroification: the Impact on American History

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James Loewen’s 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me captiously, explores twelve idealistic high school textbooks and establishes the Eurocentric and factious sentiments of American history. In a critique of prevalent historical themes, Lies My Teacher Told Me analyzes how American history courses and, more notably, their textbook counterparts act as an injustice to students and the nation they aspire to conserve. In the opening remarks, Something Has Gone Very Wrong, Loewen scrutinizes the rampant dislike of history courses within American high schools.

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The author goes on to compare history with other subjects as means of expressing the severity of the issue. Loewen indicates that there is something queerly wrong with American history- that is, its miseducation within US schools.


Heroification and its Effects

In the following chapter, Handicapped by History, Loewen assays the certification process by which riveting, contentious individuals are denatured into dull and undeveloped figures within history. Through the vivid portrayals of both Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, Loewen explores the certification process. Helen Keller was a bold and intellectual woman who devoted her life to social justice. To American high school students, Keller’s relevance to their education ends when she learns to read and write. Despite being an exceptional woman whose endowment rose far above her deaf-blindness, no history book seems to mention such ideas. According to American textbooks, Woodrow Wilson was a praised president during the Progressive Era. Yet, in spite of such devoir to a liberal and inclusive nation, Wilson was not committed to these values when they put the supremacy of the United States at risk. Astonishingly, history textbooks seem to either ignore or defend his actions. Loewen concludes that students disassociate from history textbooks because flesh and blood individuals are transformed into undeveloped heroes. In agreement with Loewen’s position on the matter, textbooks are to blame for the miseducation of American history.

Alienation and Disconnection

According to James Loewen in “Something Has Gone Very Wrong,” high school students hate history. Reflecting upon such dislike, Loewen discusses the poor education students of color receive and blames disheartened teachers for low morale within classrooms. He points out the significant importance of American history, claiming that it is necessary to know our history in order to understand ourselves and the world around us. Questioning what has gone wrong, Loewen leads us to believe that textbooks are to blame for the distortions and omissions of American history. As outlined within the introduction, Loewen’s thesis defines the wrongdoing of educational history within the United States and, more importantly, its textbook counterparts. His conclusion is that history textbooks alienate American students from creating a connection between their lives and the past because textbooks fail to reflect upon the corrupt facets of our history. “We have not avoided controversial issues, announces one set of textbook authors. Instead, we have tried to offer reasoned judgments on them- thus removing the controversy! Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them”(Loewen 5).

As a student enrolled in American schools, I agree with Loewen’s argument as I have found myself disinterested in history as a result of the alienating and factious ideas presented by textbook counterparts. While reading “Something Has Gone Very Wrong,” I found myself enveloped in Loewen’s captivating words. Reading Loewen’s opening remarks led to a paradigm shift in how I view American history. In retrospect of such ideas, I have come to believe that the primary purpose of learning American history is to put forth our present role as a society. It should display the context of our past and our interaction with the world around us. It shall intend to contribute to our moral understanding and our identity as a nation. Such pedagogy shall allow us to look at and understand our reflection. Most importantly, learning American history should exhibit our mistakes as a nation and convey the relationship between the past and present relative to our history. “Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we have arrived at this point. Understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us. We need to know our history, and according to C. Wright Mills, we know we do” (Loewen 2).

The ends of American history should make people critical of our nation. History is taught to challenge ideas of the past and, furthermore, grow as a nation. American history should in no way make an individual patriotic. American history should reflect the truth of our nation; the good and the bad. The Cold War should have the same emphasis as the Revolutionary War. In that sense, American history should not create patriots or be used as a diploma requirement. “Textbooks in American history stand in sharp contrast to other teaching materials. Why are history textbooks so bad? Nationalism is one of the culprits. Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and indoctrinate blind patriotism” (Loewen 3). Our history should make the inhabitants of the United States critical of our actions and opinions. We should use American history to create an idealistic country that has learned from its mistakes and does not repeat past crimes. To further illuminate the leading blindness of American History, Loewen introduces the process of heroification in Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making, which further blames textbooks for miseducation and alienation.

Whitewashing and Distortion

In the ensuing chapter, Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making, James Loewen critically examines heroification. Through the degenerative process, flesh-and-blood individuals are turned into exemplary heroes. When Loewen refers to certification as a “degenerative process,” he is referring to the continuous process by which the truth of American history is increasingly deteriorating in response to the process of hero-making. As a result, students rarely connect with their history textbooks. Loewen expresses concern not for those awarded hero status but rather for what happens to these individuals when they are introduced into classrooms. Through vivid portrayal, Loewen explores the heroification of both Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson. In both instances, the individuals are muted by history. Loewen defines certification as a crippling approach created by textbooks to paint ordinary people as faultless heroes. Loewen’s definition displays exactly the same sentiments of my thinking. In my previous studies of American history, I have noticed the excessive use of certification, especially when examining those in a position of power. As I explored the chapter, I was astonished. I realized that heroification created perfect historical figures who appeared to have no flaws or struggles. Textbooks glaze over any characteristics or events that would reflect negatively upon the United States. The process of certification creates a warped perspective, making it difficult for students like myself to create a connection between themselves and historical figures. “The Hall of Presidents at Disneyland similarly presents our leaders as heroic statesmen, not imperfect human beings.

Our children end up without realistic role models to inspire them” (Loewen 25). In my opinion, certification aims to present the idealistic patriots of our nation in a way that would honor and respect them. In one aspect, heroification aims to exemplify culture-serving distortion. The purpose of this type of certification is to propose individuals as ideal rather than real people and to inspire immature pupils to emulate them. In this respect, individuals become mythic figures with no context. Pupils become exhorted by their accomplishments yet have no idea of what they have been encouraged to do. Consistent with the American ideology of individualism, certification sanitizes a “hero” with the shortened version of their story, leaving only respected virtues. In another aspect, heroification aims to whitewash dubious leaders. The purpose of this type of certification is to share tones of respect, patriotism, adulatory, and excuse unsatisfactory aspects. Verification desires to shield children from harm and conflict. It omits troublesome facts to control children and avoid classroom disharmony. Verification coerces us to speak in respectful tones about the past. It creates uncomplicated icons and maintains attitudes of awe, reverence, and respect for “national heroes.”

Impact on Critical Thinking

In such a respect, comparing the life and accomplishments of Woodrow Wilson to Helen Keller is significant in understanding the certification process as to reference how details are left out and changed to create persons who are merely copies of one another, flawless heroes with inhuman perfection. Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, though very different, are both victims of heroification in American history. Like heroification, the social archetype ignores the negative aspects of an individual to create spurious and objectified role models. Social archetype refers to the typical example of heroes within our society. It is the pattern of which all American acclaimed heroes are copies. Most often, American history favors the faces of wealthy white men than that of hardworking individuals of color or women. From such, master narratives are created. Referring to the whitewashed derivative of the story, the white perspective is emphasized. Master narratives do not offer accounts of history from diverse perspectives and limit the truth. Master narratives colonize American history, creating the mainstream studied education. “Why don’t they let the public in on these matters? The certification itself supplies a first answer. Socialism is repugnant to most Americans. So are racism and colonialism. Michael Kammen suggests that authors selectively omit blemishes in order to make certain historical figures sympathetic to as many people as possible. The textbook critic Norma Gabler has testified that textbooks should ‘present our nation’s patriots in a way that would honor and respect them’; in her eyes, admitting Keller’s socialism and Wilson’s racism would hardly do that; in the early 1920s, the American Legion said that authors of textbooks ‘are at fault in placing before immature pupils the blunders, foibles, and frailties of prominent heroes and patriots of our Nation'(Loewen 23).

Thomas Edison, an American inventor, and businessman, is a proclaimed “hero” throughout American history. He patented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the world-acclaimed lightbulb. He also became one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork. But the process of heroification made the dishonest Edison into an impeccable hero. In school, students are taught that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, but as it turns out, Edison only purchased the rights to the idea. Unlike other inventors, Edison was rarely devoted to his work. He instead relied upon employees who kept their jobs by inventing for him. From his employees, he stole credit, copyrights, patents, profits, and intellectual property. Edison went on to develop highly dangerous systems of personal gain.


In one instance, an individual working under Edison had to have his arm amputated after he was constantly forced to test and improve upon Edison’s invention. Edison tried to destroy Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse when a bitter feud broke out between them over which electrical delivery system would supply power to the world. Having no qualms, Edison spread lies about alternating current and even electrocuted dogs and cats to prove that AC current was more dangerous than his own. Applying Loewen’s understanding of certification, Thomas Edison is an acclaimed “hero” because Edison was a wealthy non-immigrant white male, unlike those he stole patents from and attempted to destroy. Edison mimicked the typical all-American inventor and businessman. As a result of his status as a wealthy white man, he was favored over people of color and women. Textbooks created a master narrative that colonized American history and presented Thomas Edison in the mainstream of studied education. The process of certification, as presented by disreputable textbooks, has truly caused something to have gone wrong with the education of history within American schools.


  1. Loewen, James W. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press.
  2. Kammen, M. G. (2006). Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. Knopf.
  3. Gabler, N. (2007). The Myth Makers: The Invention of Norman Rockwell. In Myth Makers (pp. 163-182). Palgrave Macmillan.
  4. C. Wright Mills (n.d.). In BrainyQuote. Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/c_wright_mills_754800


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Heroification: The Impact on American History. (2023, Aug 19). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/heroification-the-impact-on-american-history/