Wilfred Reilly joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss his book Lies My Liberal Teacher Told Me: Debunking the False Narratives Defining America's School Curricula.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Wilfred Reilly. He’s an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, and his writing on history, race relations, criminal justice, and other matters has appeared in a number of publications, including City Journal. Among them, Quillette, National Review, Newsweek, and more beyond that as well. He’s the author of several books, including Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, and the book we’re going to be talking about today, his brand new one, Lies My Liberal Teacher Told Me: Debunking the False Narratives Defining America’s School Curricula. It was published just this month. So Wilfred, thank you very much for joining us on 10 Blocks.

Wilfred Reilly: Yeah. Well, thank you. Always a City Journal fan, occasional contributor, so glad to be on.

Brian Anderson: So, first, let’s start off, several decades ago, a pretty famous book at the time, called Lies My Teacher Told Me, presented a left-leaning narrative of American history. The author intended the book to counter what he perceived as a sanitized, mythologized history of America that was being taught in the schools, in his view. Now, your book, Lies My Liberal Teacher Told Me, addresses 10 scholastic falsehoods that the Left has been promoting, in your argument, so I guess my first question is, why did you write this book, and why did you write it at this moment in time?

Wilfred Reilly: Well, I mean, there’s some glib responses. I enjoy debating, to sell books, but I mean, in all reality, I wrote this book because I think it’s needed at a moment in time where the political and economic power dynamics in the country are really shifting, but a lot of people seem to be unaware of that, and I think I do happen, as a political scientist in my day job, to be aware of that. So, this book was written in response to not just Lies My Teacher Told Me, which is Loewen, if I have the pronunciation there correct, back in 1995, but in response to a whole suite of texts on really the other side of the fence. I mean, just a year or two ago, you had the 1619 Project book, which, if I recall correctly, was subtitled something like A Black History of the USA.

You had Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, going back to 1968, still in reprints. A native history of the USA and the lies they’re telling you. You had elderly Marxist Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, et cetera, and all of these books sort of have two themes. First of all, subtly or openly that Western culture is the worst culture in history. We held slaves. We conquered the great native nations. We were unfair to women. We dropped big bombs on our military opponents. The very, very strong implication, because you can only provide so much context in something like a high school senior year textbook, is that we were almost alone in doing this. I don’t recall the exact figure. It was around 40 percent. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but a very substantial percentage of both whites and blacks in the USA believe, at least among young people, that we were alone in having had slaves, that slavery refers to the West African slave trade conducted by whites in the Western world. The USA and, perhaps, Europe.

So, that’s point one, and point two is sort of that you’re kind of a wise and edgy rebel if you know this, you know the evils of the West. That’s what woke, or awake, really means if you think about it, right? So, textbooks will have little pop-up windows on the side of the page that say things like, “Your parents probably don’t know much about feminism,” or, “These ideas may make some people uncomfortable.” There’s a lot of talk about, quote/unquote, banned books. To me, there are two big problems with all of this.

First of all, and this is actually quite important, Western culture was not the worst culture historically, and it is insane to teach members of your society that their society is bad, that it’s worse than it was. In fact, Western culture using modern, in my opinion, excessively empathic morality as a benchmark was probably the best culture historically. All of the things that we view as atrocities today were just normal life for the majority of human history. Slavery existed for almost as long as war did. One of the first 20 written human words was “slave”. You can find the term in Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphic language. In English, the term comes from “slav”, the name of a white group in lower income Eastern Europe that was often enslaved.

If anything, westerners began and ended the emancipation movement to free the slaves globally, so I have a problem with the first idea of this, that the things that America did or the things that the Western world did were unique evils, but also, and I think this is in fact more interesting, there’s nothing rebellious about these ideas at all, so the people that are telling you that you’re being lied to by the Right somehow are in charge. Last I looked at the fields of sociology and political science and anthropology, they lean about 98 percent to the Left. Same for the mass media. I mean, we all know Pew in 2004, replicated, I believe, 2011, found that only 7 percent of national mass media journalists leaned to the Right. White House, a center left Democrat is president. Moderate feminism or democratic socialism. I’m from Chicago, I believe you guys are New Yorkers. These are utterly mainstream ideas you hear at every dinner party.

So, the sources for this book are in fact the biggest textbooks in the country. What I wanted to do is look at the things that are being said now, stop with sort of the endless Emmett Till revisionism, and actually check out whether claims today, ranging from, “Native Americans were peaceful,” to, “There are 72 genders,” stand up when they’re vetted for accuracy themselves. I mean, as you’ve probably guessed, from me promoting the book, and from sales for the book, and so on, there are quite a few problems with those.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. What, in your view, are the consequences of this entrenchment of a progressive worldview in so many of our leading cultural institutions? Why does this matter?

Wilfred Reilly: Well, I think there are a couple of things. First of all, I think it matters any time. This is just personal opinion entirely off the head, but I think it matters anytime that opinion in a major institution, a major decision-making institution or discursive institution is entirely one-sided, and we see this a lot in academia, a great deal in academia. Something I hear a lot when I express my ideas is, “Well, you seem like an obvious, intelligent guy. I mean, you’re a well-spoken, multiply published author in a suit, but why aren’t more people saying this? Why would I take you seriously?” I think one answer to that is just the attitudinal model. I mean, there’s a book by the political scientists Segal and Spaeth, which came out in 1992, which found that you can predict most of the behavior of a solo leader, they focus on Supreme Court Justices, by knowing a few things about them, like the political party they vote for. As I recall, sex and race had a very minor secondary impact, so on.

But you can pretty much look at Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and in a particular case, this doesn’t mean they’re dishonorable, it doesn’t mean they’re corrupt, but you can know which way they’re going to vote, and there tend to be paradigms of thought that align with the political beliefs, and even with things like stereotypical masculinity and femininity, with the things that describe a person, right? I mean, Scalia was one of the purer originalists or textualists ever on the court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a living constitution advocate, a moral reader. That’s true across all sorts of arenas. I mean, in the area of the analysis of racial gaps, there are three very serious paradigms. There’s what you could call Kendi evangelism, which is the idea expressed by Ibram Kendi, Richard Delgado, so on, that anytime you see disparities between a group of people, you’re seeing discrimination.

There’s hereditarianism. Arthur Jensen, probably Charles Murray, where people say, “Come on now. There’s probably some genetic element to this. Fifty percent of this is probably unchangeable and due to genes,” and then there’s what, for a long time, was the mainstream paradigm, which is where I fall, Thomas Sowell falls. John McWhorter, William Julius Wilson, probably, which is culturalism, which is that basic things like study time, training, the regional culture, where you live in the north or the south, determine how you’re going to perform in life, and largely predict the details of something like the black–white testing gap. We find that each of those correlates with political positioning, so in general, liberals and leftists tend to be racialists. They tend to be Kendi evangelists. In general, moderates, and people on the center-right, National Review types tend to be culturalists, and in general, conservatives tend to be hereditarians.

That doesn’t mean anything about racism. It’s just sort of, there’s a doom saying to hardcore conservatism. It’s the idea, “Well, we’re probably not going to be able to fix that. That’s life, isn’t it?” So, in a proper academy, I think you would ideally have a third racialist, a third culturalist, and a third hereditarian, and you’d have gladiator school style testing of each idea. You’d have the best racialist, best culturalist, study time is one I use, and best hereditarian proxies in every model when you’re looking at what makes people or what makes groups succeed, and to say the least, you don’t have that today. As I’ve mentioned, a field like sociology would lean about 98 percent to the left, so one problem with the concentration of radical ideas in academia, or with radical ideas in the media, is simply that many important questions don’t get tested, so many stupid things keep getting said over and over and over again. Ideas that are objectively very bad, like that we need to get to the root causes of poverty or racism before we can resolve criminality, remain popular for decades after being disproven.

One of the very few places you’ll still find a communist is in American academia or journalism. I mean, in the external world, we see things like the Bukele experiment in El Salvador, where we understand that, no, you can just do practical things like lock up criminals. That would, in fact, solve the entire problem. So, that’s issue one. I think issue two is that the people that are in charge in higher education and in secondary education are teaching other people, so when you have people that dislike the country passing on ideas about how bad the country is, those become what is called idea pathogens throughout society, and this is a serious issue. I mean, when you mentioned that perhaps 40 percent of people think that only the USA ever had slaves, I mean, there’s the obvious question of what does that instrumentally make them think of the USA?

What solutions, quote/unquote, does that make them desire for the country? Reparations, or racial separation, so on down the line, and we find this across the board. If you look at data concerning the latest, youngest cohort of Americans, they seem to be deeply pessimistic without much logical reason before you adjust for this stuff. For example, a very large percentage of them believe that capitalism is a worse system than socialism. A very large percentage of them believe that the USA is a bad country. This extends to our allies in kind of the Western block, so more than 25 percent of young Americans believe that Israel should not exist. The lands that are currently occupied by the Jewish people in the Middle East should essentially be divided up and given to, in essence, Hamas. So, the prevalence of the ideas that I’m talking about has real consequences.

Brian Anderson: I wonder why teachers have been so susceptible to this group think. Is it just a matter of, as you were beginning to suggest, teachers teaching their students their worldview, and so the system kind of perpetuates itself that way, or is there something about their general approach to the world that leads them to be susceptible to what you might call ideological capture?

Wilfred Reilly: I think that there’s a lot there. First of all, I do think that there is some self-selection. I mean, I’ve been told by a very large number, I mean more than 30, probably, of smart conservative students that they wouldn’t consider grad school, that they wouldn’t consider advanced academia, because, I mean, the terms used were jocular, but because it’s leftist as hell, because they’re crazy, so on down the line. I think most people understand that if you go on to get a PhD in something like American Studies or Sociology, there’re going to be certain expectations that you’re going to have to meet, and if you’re a young, white man, or for that matter, a young heterosexual black man, and we’re talking about guys from Kentucky, that’s probably going to be an intensively annoying process, so I think certainly if you’re talking about the university professoriate, there probably is a lot of selection there. I would imagine that’s the case.

I mean, so there’s selection at every level also. I mean, you also have to get hired, so I mean, there are a lot of smart, young guys that I follow online. I mean, like Zach Goldberg, who coined the term “Great Awokening.” Noah Carl, who I would imagine is a hereditarian when it comes to genetics. I’ve had a couple of debates with him online. Just five or six other people. Jeremy Carl, who used to work for the Trump Administration recently wrote a book about discrimination against white Americans. A number of them. Kenny Xu, who is an Asian American advocate. A couple of black guys in that space who are often Nigerian or Ghanaian. I mean, I think all of those guys either have or could easily complete a PhD, but then, I mean, you have to get retained by American academia. I mean, I would assume the majority of them are going to wind up working in the consulting space or working for think tanks, so there’s selection at several levels there.

I mean, that probably plays a big role. Also, I’m a political scientist rather than a psychologist, but I assume there probably would be an empathic . . . Teachers right now, don’t want to be sexist, but in the secondary level, about 80 percent female. There might well be a personality type that selects for education, even at the higher levels, but I don’t know that. I know that there is some political screening.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned Zach Goldberg. He is actually a fellow here at the Manhattan Institute. He did get his PhD, but he did not go into the academy. He’s joined the think tank space.

Wilfred Reilly: Not surprised by that at all.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. I wonder, if you’re talking to students, if you’re just trying to address the public, what are some of the sound sources that you would recommend for people wanting a kind of accurate account of American history? Do you just go back and read older books? How do you orient yourself this way in a world where you have the 1619 Project, a lot of progressive myth propagation?

Wilfred Reilly: Well, I mean, there are so many books out there that are not progressive myths. I think that one thing I would say, and I hate to say this, but would be almost avoid the work product of very mainstream, left-leaning academia. I mean, so looking at my shelf right now, I have dozens of the bestselling books and the best reviewed books that are coming out in history and political science, so I mean, I have Jeff Fynn-Paul’s Not Stolen, which is a discussion of the white native war that’s really not biased toward either side. I have David Bernstein’s Classified, which is about the sort of amusing way we came up with the racial categories we use in the USA, which, except for maybe black and maybe white, don’t make any sense at all. I mean, Asian Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian is one of them. I have The Scramble for Africa.

I was sent a copy of Steve Sailer’s Noticing. I have S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, which is about the Comanche. The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World. Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Bruce Gilley, In Defense of German Colonialism. That’s a bold project he’s taken on, I’m going to see if he wins that case. Mollie Hemingway’s Rigged. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy—don’t entirely agree with that one, but they make some points about foreign influence on the USA, Israel, Mexico, the Arab states. Coleman Hughes, The End of Race Politics.

What I would say about those authors is that almost all of them are either considered heterodox geniuses in academia. Left academia to write for outlier journals, or for magazines, or work for think tanks. I mean, if I were an intelligent layman, I would continue looking through the best of the presses, the Wall Street Journal, Times bestseller list for what looks interesting, but I would say that most of what’s going to strike you as interesting is no longer probably going to be what’s coming out of the mainstream university presses, which, right now, seem really focused on . . . sadomasochism among third world women seems to be a theme. I mean, so it’s kind of like what you’re seeing with movies, where there really is a bizarre woke obsession.

I mean, there was a long period of time where Oscar winning films, Braveheart and so on, Casablanca, were also movies that most people would’ve thought were good movies, that you would go see on a date. For the past 10 years or so, The Shape of Water and that kind of thing, that hasn’t really been true, to the point where it’s become a bit of a joke on the center and the right. You’re seeing that a lot with published material as well. Basically, look at what looks interesting, look at what’s coming out of the think tanks, look at what’s coming out of smaller colleges. Just be aware that if something looks like nonsense, it probably is. I don’t know if I can give more succinct advice than that.

Brian Anderson: Well, that’s useful advice, I think, Wilfred. Here’s a final philosophical question that relates to the themes of your book. I think we could say that the Left that you’re describing has emphasized kind of cultural guilt, and I wonder, are individuals ever really justified in feeling guilty about things that they’ve not personally been involved with or done?

Wilfred Reilly: No. I mean, so first of all, I mean, I sometimes joke that I myself am a mildly amoral businessman. I mean, I don’t view guilt after an apology, and after you try to make repairs once, is a very useful emotion to carry around throughout your life, but I mean to the extent that guilt has a function at all. Shame is the community pressuring you not to do something in future, guilt is you within yourself resolving to improve on past behavior. If your girlfriend thinks you’re cheating and slaps you, and you scream at her, and you have an ugly domestic argument, both of you will feel guilty about that. It’s unfortunate. That’s what guilt is. The idea of generational guilt based around the behavior of others doesn’t make any sense at all, and there are layers of reason why it doesn’t make sense.

One, you didn’t do the thing. I mean, that’s the most basic reason. The second gets into the whole point of Bernstein’s book though, Classified. The group that did the thing only includes you in the most vague theoretical sense. I mean, when you say that whites oppressed blacks or something like that. I mean, my best Caucasian friend is Bosnian, so I mean, they came to the United States as someone who was far poorer and more oppressed than the average black American. They were literally on the losing side in a genocidal war, fought well in their side’s army, and they have no connection to past conflict between black and white Yanks whatsoever, so I don’t see why there would ever be . . .

I guess the short answer, I’m rambling a bit here. No, it doesn’t make sense to feel guilty about things you haven’t done. If you directly benefited from something your group in the sense of a military unit did, you might make amends for them, but even then, you don’t have a moral responsibility yourself to feel bad, and if you didn’t personally benefit at all from something, i.e., a Bosnian living in the projects didn’t benefit at all from past white successes against blacks and ethnic competition, I don’t see why you’d feel much of anything at all.

Brian Anderson: Well, Wilfred, thank you very much for coming on 10 Blocks.

For listeners, please check out his piece for City Journal, which he’s written. We’ll link to that in his author page in the description. I really encourage folks to pick up this fascinating book, Lies My Liberal Teacher Told Me: Debunking the False Narratives Defining America’s School Curricula. It’s a fast-paced and informative read. It’s available through Amazon and other booksellers. You can find Wilfred on X @wil _da_beast630, and you can find City Journal on X @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI.

As always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Wilfred Reilly, great to have you on, and look forward to talking again soon.

Photo: Tetra Images / Tetra images via Getty Images

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