Born and raised in Decatur, Ill., Loewen attended Minnesota’s Carleton College, during which time he spent a semester in an exchange program at a college in Mississippi. There, he was struck by the difference in culture — and became suspicious about what he had learned in history classes. He went on to earn a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University, based on his research on Chinese Americans in Mississippi. After that he returned to Mississippi to teach at Tougaloo College, a historically black college, and then spent 20 years teaching at the University of Vermont. He also taught sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. as a visiting professor.
During this time Loewen wrote a history textbook. Mississippi: Conflict and Change won the 1975 Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Nonfiction — but the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board refused to approve its use in the state’s schools as it was “too controversial” — it told the truth about racism in the state. Loewen sued, and a federal judge in Mississippi ruled that the state must approve the book. The American Library Association considers the case historic for the First Amendment in that it established one of the foundations of “the right to read freely.” Perhaps that experience led to what happened next: he analyzed a dozen American history textbooks widely used in American schools, and the title of his resulting book from the experience reflects his findings: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which won the American Book Award. “Textbooks don’t have the authority that they claim,” he said in a 2013 interview. “Teachers should not grant them that authority. They need to teach the subject rather than to teach the textbook.” History textbooks are so bad that “teachers could get their students to write a better textbook.” The book was published in 1995, and expanded in 2007.
Loewen wrote Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History to help teachers who wanted to get it right — his criticisms were really more aimed at textbook publishers, not teachers. “Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present,” was his guiding principle, he said, and “Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.” He also wrote Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, pointing out misinformation on historical markers around the country. (He was working on the companion Surprises on the Landscape: Unexpected Places That Get History Right, but it’s so far unclear whether he finished the manuscript.) James “Jim” William Loewen retired to Washington D.C., and died at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 19, from bladder cancer. He was 79.