Commentary | Education

Lessons—Politics and Curriculum: How History Is Taught

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Politics and curriculum: How history is taught

By  Richard Rothstein

In 1954, my eighth-grade history teacher in Queens said we could not use the term “Civil War” but must adopt a textbook phrase, “War Between the States.”

Her instruction was not really about history, but about the controversies of her own day. By saying that the war a century earlier had mostly concerned states’ rights, teachers and textbooks minimized the role of slavery and dampened support for a nascent civil rights struggle.

Today’s texts again call it the Civil War.

I was reminded of this by recent Asian protests over how schools in Japan teach about World War II. Koreans, for instance, have denounced a new Japanese text that says Japanese troops “advanced on,” rather than “invaded,” the Asian mainland. The book also ignores the “comfort women,” Koreans used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers.

This, too, is not only about history. It reflects debates about Japan’s current policy toward Asia.

The interplay of politics and curriculum is the subject of “Censoring History” (M. E. Sharpe, 2000), edited by Laura Hein and Mark Selden. The book recalls a slogan from Orwell’s “1984”: “Who controls the past controls the future.” That is true not only of totalitarians; every nation tries to shape the future when it teaches history.

In Germany, war crimes in World War II are acknowledged more forthrightly than in Japan, partly because German policy now favors European unity. Remorse for aggression and genocide was needed to win the confidence of former victims.

But German texts give little attention to how the country’s big businesses participated in forced labor and extermination policies. Many of those companies are still important, and so it is not surprising that the curriculum papers over their wartime roles. In contrast, corporate collaboration with the Nazis was emphasized in East German texts before reunification.

Curriculum controversies have also flared elsewhere. A decade ago, when a Mideast peace seemed more feasible, Israeli texts described the many Palestinians who were forced from their homes in the 1948 war. Now that peace prospects have receded, books focus on the Palestinians, also numerous, who left voluntarily.

Asia provides several examples of the interplay.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, officers of the American occupation force and Japanese democratic leaders blamed the schools there, saying they had inculcated blind obedience. Early postwar texts encouraged the questioning of authority in general and the emperor in particular — even 19th-century peasant rebellions got attention — and did not mince words about Japanese aggression.

But when the cold war took hold, occupation leaders wanted Japan to remilitarize against the Soviet Union. Criticism of wartime policy was muted as textbooks aimed to stir patriotism.

The pendulum swung back in the 1970’s. Books again mentioned World War II atrocities, like Japan’s massacre of civilians in the Chinese city of Nanjing. This textbook shift occurred at a time when Japan wanted other Asians to feel less threatened by Japanese economic leadership.

The protests this year about Japanese aggression and use of comfort women in World War II stem from a new text by Nobukatsu Fujioka. Mr. Fujioka, leader of a conservative group, was angered by what he deemed slights to Japanese honor — for example, the United States’ blocking Japan from leading a bailout of East Asian nations in the 1997 currency crisis. He aimed to write a text that instilled national pride.

In South Korea today, students learn that World War II began in 1895, when Japan invaded their country. Leaders hoping to discourage future Japanese influence want to portray the war as a reflection of continuing Japanese imperialism.

But Korean texts gloss over collaboration by the nation’s elite with Japanese colonial authorities in the first half of the 20th century. Telling that story could tarnish some leaders’ present legitimacy. For similar reasons, historians in France also argue about what children should learn of their country’s collaboration with the Nazis.

American texts once described slaves as content with their lot, and slave masters as benevolent. Books today describe both the inhumanity of American slavery and the genocide practiced against Indians.

But many textbooks still tiptoe around causes and conduct of the Vietnam War, to avoid stirring up political divisions dating from that era. For example, many historians say President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the war for fear of domestic political accusations that he had lost a nation to communism, not only for national security reasons. Most texts don’t discuss that.

Arguments about textbooks only partly concern what is true. From the many facts to teach, we often select those that support adult goals. Because a democracy must argue about goals, we also argue about how to teach history. The fights will not end, and should not.

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