Rhetorical Moves and Devices In Writing: A University Essay
Focusing on Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong James W. Loewen

Rhetorical Moves and Devices In Writing: A University Essay
Focusing on
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong James W. Loewen

Loewen’s introduction serves as a general platform for justifying his writing of Lies My Teacher Told Me. Coupled with reoccurring and non-reoccurring use of rhetorical moves and bold devices, he establishes credibility, and adequately prepares the reader to approach each chapter with insight into his character, as well as the context that surrounds his writing. Additionally, he conveys how he feels about history, stating it’s “full of fantastic and important information” (Loewen 3), posing the question “What has gone wrong [with it]?” Backed with supported information in the introduction, he approaches the reader with citation and references establishing credibility in a timely manner, working towards the eventual reveal of controversies and “conflicts” in history. Loewen assigns responsibility for the missing information and misinformation surrounding what we think we know about history, unfolding literary moves that flow throughout the text, illustrating his points and validating the purpose of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

By making bold daring moves straight out of the gate with statements like “Something has gone very wrong” (Loewen 1), Loewen instills a bit of intrigue, setting the path to impart concern while hooking the reader. “What is this? What has gone wrong?!”, we are left asking. He then follows the posed issue with an explanation, supported with evidence conveying authority. Similarly, Loewen uses this literary approach with the phrase “Textbooks stifle meaning by suppressing causation” (7), explaining that by “[leaving] out what we need to know about the American past” (7) students do not grasp the synchronicity of cause and effect. Loewen repeats this move later with the “headline grabber” “The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist” (13). To many American readers the idea that somebody who has been, historically, held up with such esteem could be a radical socialist, is startling. By beginning the paragraph in such a bold “shocking” way, Loewen effectively grabs the attention of his primary audience as he pulls them in with supports to his claim. Again, in chapter three with “The true history of Thanksgiving reveals embarrassing fact” (Leowen 90) he captivates the reader. Using a word like “embarrassing” applied to a holiday that many North Americans hold in such regard, could seem, to some, shocking. In addition to being titillating, using these bold astute assertions convey authority. Rather than using phrases like “I think…” or “In my opinion…” which some readers may find diminishes authority in his tone, he puts power behind what he is trying to say. The key move behind these statements is to draw you in, to illicit an emotion, to capture your attention and to validate Loewen’s voice.

Loewen goes on to make an appeal that history is actually interesting and important, making a compelling case for his claim. Using words like “fantastic”, “important”, and phrases like “power to spellbind audiences” to describe it, Loewen passionately asserts that history is not “boring”, “predicable” or “melodramatic“ (Loewen 3, 5) as the textbooks may lead a student to believe. He moves to provide relevant examples to prove his point by mentioning the enduring popularity of History as a subject in media formats like public television, movies, other books about history, museums, etc. (4-5). In doing this, he illustrates that the public is actually interested in history; and not only is it interesting but you should be interested in it, not just because it is exciting, but because history is important. History is “directly relevant to our present society” (Loewen 3), he says “More than any other topic it is about us. Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we arrived at this point. Understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us. (Loewen 2)” Perhaps Loewen’s strategy of telling the reader that history is interesting and important, is to convince readers that his text can be set apart from those “others” - those textbooks full of dry material - because he understands this; he understands it and is preparing the reader for “his” “amazing stories” (8) about “us”. Using this approach, backed with reasoning, Loewen gets the reader to understand that history is important, interesting even; but it may not be your fault if you think otherwise.

Loewen shifts, first suggesting teachers and students are mutually responsibility in a perception of each other’s low interest in the history. Teachers respond to the low morale of students towards history by “going through the motions”, which makes history seem uninteresting to the student, thus propagating low morale in a vicious cycle (Loewen 2). However, Loewen then spends considerable time assigning layers of responsibility, making the claim that textbooks “alienate students” (6). Then taking aim at textbook authors, and publishers, he establishes blame for the crux of the problem, systematically deflecting it from students. It is the textbooks themselves, formidable in size and content, and physically unbearable to transport (Loewen 4); the textbook publishers are too unconcerned with outdated content to laboriously peruse the books to remove it, and they are “unaffected by recent research” (Loewen 7); and historian textbook authors receive no respect from their peers to be bothered to update them (Loewen 7). These are all very powerful declarations supporting the argument that it is not students’ fault that they may find history uninteresting and unimportant. By reducing primary audience blame, Loewen works to align them with “his side”.

Loewen implores the reader to consider the significance of asking questions about history. In using plural pronouns throughout the text, and continuing to pose queries into who “the we” are in these narratives of history textbooks to begin with (Loewen 64,37) he places us in the narrative. Loewen leaves us questioning who history is being written for; if “it is about us” (8), at the core of who we are, and “central to understanding ourselves” (2), do we not then have ownership in it, he implores; do we not have rights to more than basic facts and cloaked “evidence and reason”. By not having access to source material in textbooks, we are not encouraged to think critically about what we are reading. The “textbooks keep students in the dark about the nature of history by offering them “reasoned judgments” (Loewen 8), leaving out conflict and controversy so we have no chance to the scrutinize history, and therefore have no concrete way to determine who the “we” are or “understand the world around us” (Loewen 2). His message here, effectively communicated, is that we must be offered as much information as we can, so that we can think critically about it and who we are, and textbooks do not provide adequate resources for that. Therefore, if we do not ask questions about our history, and are offered only piecemeal information, we end up being whoever they say we are.

Moving towards punctuation, Loewen’s use of scare quotations throughout his entire text pointedly draws attention to words. It is why Loewen uses quotations to draw attention to the words that is important, such as in “Legacy books”(3), “new new”(3), “war on terrorism”(8), and then in the meat of the text with “ruling class”(28), “establishment”(29), “primitives” (49). Shedding light on these words and phrases that are weaved through the tapestry of history books, he encourages the reader to think about them. What images do these words conjure, how, when used do they effectively elicit a deeper meaning. For example, by using a term such as “primitive” in conjunction with the native tribes of early America the reader is left with nothing but very crude ideas of the (lack of) culture and “savagery” that may have existed. Likewise, the term “savage”, when applied to historical texts brings to mind animal-like primitive people, perhaps even “godless”. His intention in using these quotations become clear, that some words written in history textbooks can frame your way of thinking about the people of history, and it is just another way we are cheated from the whole story.

Loewen continues to use quotations in his introduction to reveal his character and personality. Listing book titles that include inflated words like “Great”, “Triumph”, “Promise” and “Pageant” in their titles and juxtaposing the titles against those of more modest subjects, such as Principles of Chemistry, Loewen wittily pokes fun at how the publishers try to profess the books grand completeness (6), cleverly revealing the sense of ego and clear nationalistic slant many textbooks take. Additionally, Loewen effectively makes use of quotations as a literary device in the introduction in several different ways, in some cases establishing a relationship with the reader, and in others demonstrating his character. For example implying students may say “nothing good will come of this” (Loewen 4), he communicates that he understands, establishing relationship with the reader. By suggesting that textbooks hype themselves with underlying messages such as “You have a proud heritage. Be all that you can be” (Loewen 6), the reader can reason that part of Loewen’s character does not include overly patriotic or nationalistic tones. These specific moves work well illustrating dialogue, and may subtly align the reader with Loewen if they understand he is being both funny, and understanding of the “history textbook plight of the students”.

Finally, Loewen discusses his professional credentials, the hours of work he put into writing the text, revealing his (negative) experience of having been part of a textbook creation, and disclosing how his view through a sociologist eyes may be applied to his view, further legitimize the work at hand (8-9). By waiting until the end of the introduction to “introduce himself”, he keeps it fresh in your mind that he is indeed qualified to make the claims, to pull the punches as you delve into the chapters. This move poised at the end has the effect of ushering the reader into the first chapter of the book with confidence in Loewen’s credibility and ability to inform you what has been missing from your history.

Loewen’s overall tone in the introduction can be interpreted as effective in preparing the reader for the potential bold devices in his book, as well as the parts of his personality that might show through. Establishing basic professional credibility and connectedness through key moves, we can understand his motivation to reveal to us the interesting and important information history has in store for us.