50 Facts You Learned in School That Are Actually Lies
Mark Twain famously said, "Don't let school interfere with your education." Although the famed author who quit school at age 12 had more meanings in mind than calling out specific educational untruths, it turns out plenty of the "facts" learned in school are actually myths, propaganda, misinformation, or downright lies.
When he gave his first inaugural address in 1789, George Washington had just one remaining natural tooth. It is a fact he wore a series of dentures, some made from ivory, gold, and even lead. The common schoolhouse myth that the first president wore wooden teeth, however, is exactly that -- a myth.
For generations, teachers have been telling students that George Washington was so virtuous that he couldn't tell a lie. The author of Washington's best-selling original biography was not bound by such moral hangups, and took significant artistic license with the facts. The cherry tree story is among the biggest whoppers.
Chameleons have the remarkable ability to change color, but it's not to blend in with surroundings while hiding from predators. Some chameleons change with the temperature or amount of stress they're experiencing. Others change colors to warn other lizards of danger. And of course, some males brighten things up to attract female chameleons.
The question "Where are you at?" would make any English teacher cringe -- and for good reason. It's grammatically incorrect to end sentences with prepositions when the sentence would have the same meaning without it. But otherwise, it's perfectly fine. Not only is there no rule anywhere that says you can't, but sometimes not ending sentences with prepositions makes writing clumsy and unnatural ("On what did you step?" vs. "What did you step on?").
Kids learn in school that scientific pioneer Isaac Newton had his eureka moment about gravity when an apple fell on his head. It never happened. Newton did observe apples falling in his family's orchard, but there's no evidence one bonked him on the head and turned on a lightbulb.
Any kid who turned in a paper that contained a sentence starting with "and," "but," "yet," "or," "nor" or any other coordinating conjunction likely got the assignment back with a whole bunch of red ink. But style guides disagree that it's a grammatical sin. You can do it. And you can do it any time you want.
Diamonds are formed when coal is under intense pressure for incredibly long periods? In reality, that's nearly geologically impossible. In fact, coal forms virtually no diamonds; they are created in a variety of ways and places, including in the Earth's mantle and at asteroid impact zones.
Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He never even set foot on North American soil or made it past the Caribbean, whose inhabitants he terrorized, brutalized, and enslaved. Not only was Columbus not aware that he had "discovered" a new continent, but many historians believe Norse explorer Leif Erikson landed in Canada 500 years earlier.
Neither Christopher Columbus or any of his colleagues believed the Earth was flat or that they would fall off the end of the world if they sailed too far. Virtually every educated person in the West, secular and religious, knew the world was round by the third century BC.
Every school kid learns that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and the ships he used. But the names we know are nicknames. The Nina was probably really called the Santa Clara; the Santa Maria was at the time called La Gallega, or The Galician.
A persistent myth presumes that 90 percent of the brain lies dormant in humans, waiting for evolution to catch up, and leaves kids imagining what kind of telepathic super beings they could be if only they could harness the rest. In reality, humans use all of their brains, there is no scientific evidence to suggest otherwise, and the 10 percent myth probably comes from an misquote attributed to Albert Einstein.
In most cases, getting caught with a calculator during a math test before the mobile era was the same as cheating. The logic? You have to know this stuff. After all, you're not just going to walk around with a calculator when you're grown. But the Pew Research Center says a full 95 percent of Americans now own phones that should contain at least a basic calculator.
Virtually everything learned in school about Thanksgiving is a lie, including the central story of the feast celebrating a partnership between Native Americans and early European settlers. The Pilgrims were fanatical and violent religious zealots who considered indigenous Americans savages, and the Indians naturally resented their presence. The modern, feel-good story is propaganda that's only 120 years old, but there was a celebratory feast in Massachusetts in 1637 -- proclaimed by Gov. John Winthrop for the return of Puritan gunmen from hunting and murdering hundreds of Pequot Indians.
Children learn early on that Thomas Edison's incandescent lightbulb is one of the most important inventions in U.S. history. That's half true -- a brilliant marketer, Edison successfully sold himself as the lone genius inventor, but the lightbulb actually came from a group effort by scientists who were sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing to bring light to the world.
The rise of America undoubtedly shattered the era of kings and queens ruling over monarchies, which had existed in Europe for centuries. But the common schoolhouse lesson that America invented democracy would be news to the Greeks, who introduced "demokratia," or direct rule by the people, which included three branches of government, in 507 B.C.
Anyone educated in America knows the 13 stripes on the American flag represent the 13 original colonies. But there were only 12 at the start of the revolution, as Delaware was part of Pennsylvania until June 15, 1776, when the Assemblies of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania declared themselves free of both Great Britain and Pennsylvania. Also, Britain had two loyalist Florida colonies that didn't take part in the revolution.
One of history's most brilliant and prolific inventors, Ben Franklin is arguably most famous for flying a kite fixed with a metal key during a thunderstorm to harness electricity. That almost certainly didn't happen. The popular legend probably comes from a hypothetical key-on-kite-in-thunderstorm scenario Franklin wrote for a popular publication.
It's common knowledge that astronauts float because there is no gravity in space. Actually, there is gravity everywhere, including space, including the kind that keeps the moon in orbit around Earth. People and objects appear to float while in orbit because they are in a state of freefall.
The standard for healthy eating taught to children for decades, the classic food pyramid, has contributed to epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets nutritional guidelines for schools and the military, but also represents the agriculture industry -- and has a vested interest in promoting diets based on things such as corn and meat, which have proven unhealthy in large quantities.
Milk is absolutely necessary for a strong, healthy body -- if you're a growing cow. A series of studies have found no evidence that cow's milk improves bone health, but have shown dairy has a negative effect on overall health, including on bones. The milk myth has been pushed by the dairy industry, which lobbies the USDA (whose previous chief recently took a cushy, high-paying job as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council).
The bravery displayed by Allied troops on D-Day is undeniable, as is the historic impact of the battle. But up to 80 percent of German troops were killed by Russian soldiers in the East, and most historians consider the epic battles of Stalingrad and Leningrad as the death blows to Hitler's Germany. Contributing at least 26 million corpses to the calamitous death toll of World War II, it is certainly the Russians who paid much of the tab to defeat fascism.
Year after year, legions of kids -- many of whom aren't mathematically inclined -- are forced to suffer through the chores of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry with the presumption multiplying numbers against letters in parentheses is necessary to hack it in the adult world. In reality, fewer than one in four Americans regularly performs anything above basic math at work.
History teachers are quick to remind students that Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator." In reality, however, Lincoln's views evolved over time and he came to anti-slavery movement late in the game. He said publicly and repeatedly that he would tolerate slavery to preserve the Union. His anti-slavery sentiments, at least early on, seemed more pragmatic than moral, as revealed in his famous "house divided" speech.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was limited in effect -- first limited to slaves in rebel states, and then not universally known. The holiday of Juneteenth, celebrates the moment June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to tell America's last remaining slaves they were free. This was news to the slaves, who had never heard of the proclamation, signed two and a half years earlier.
The 13th Amendment supposedly ending slavery still allowed forced labor as punishment for a crime. Convict leasing existed in every Southern state for decades after the Civil War. Tens of thousands of Black Americans who committed no real crime were kidnapped off the streets by corrupt local sheriffs, convicted in informal local courts for vague "crimes" such as vagrancy, issued fines they couldn't pay, and sold to businesses to work in mines, timber yards, farms and railroads in conditions often worse than slavery.
One of the most common and easy-to-remember rhyming spelling lessons is "I before 'e' except after 'c' or when sounding like 'a' as in 'neighbor' or 'weigh.'" The rule is wrong at least 25 percent of the time. Need some proof? Science. Forfeit. Weird. Glacier. Albeit. Fancier.
Anyone who went to school during the just-say-no era of the drug war knows that while marijuana itself isn't so bad, experimenting with it leads to addiction, incarceration, and death from street drugs. For years, educators accepted the "gateway" theory, a 1950s scare tactic that has since been widely debunked and acknowledged as myth in 2016 by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Social ailments such as poverty, bad home environment, and early exposure are better indicators of future addiction.
"It's a free country" is a mantra most kids probably hear before they even get to school. The reality, however, is that 22 countries are freer than the United States. The Human Freedom Index ranks America No. 23 on its global list, based on government size, religion, labor, trade, rule of law, and basic freedoms such as movement and association.
Science classes said our solar system has nine planets, but in 2006, tiny, distant, and icy Pluto was reclassified and lost its planetary status. It is now classified as a dwarf planet -- just the biggest object in a huge belt of rocks circling the farthest fringes of the solar system. Don't get too used to the classification, though. Some astronomers want to reclassify Pluto again, back to full "planet" status.
Many subpar math students have been consoled by encouraging teachers who remind them that even Einstein -- history's most famous mathematical genius -- flunked math class. He did not. He mastered differential and integral calculus by 15, and taught himself algebra and geometry with books his parents bought him before he was 12 so he could master the fields on his own over summer vacation.
If you learned to type in the era of typewriters, or even word processors and early computers, chances are good you were conditioned to click the spacebar twice after every period to make things easy for the reader. That once was true. It is no more. The AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual all recommend just one space.
Generations of teachers and principals kept students in line with the most ridiculous threat in the history of U.S. education: The next behavioral infraction will go on your permanent record. There is no permanent record. Some districts do keep files on students that contain personal information and attendance records, but even in those cases, anyone who isn't the student or the student's parent -- including college admissions officers -- can't access the record without a written release.
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