School & District Management

Scholars Cite Lessons From Postwar Japan, Germany

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 16, 2003 2 min read
Iraq and the U.S.: The School Front

If the United States hopes to succeed in rebuilding the education system during an occupation of Iraq, it will need to cooperate closely with Iraqis themselves, historians familiar with other such reconstruction efforts said last week.

The best-known examples of the United States’ taking control of foreign countries and leading postwar revisions of education systems occurred in Japan and Germany after World War II. In both instances, Americans drew on prior democratic experience in those countries and deeply involved their citizens.

Iraq doesn’t have democratic traditions to build on, historians observe, but Americans could still use the lesson from history that revising curricula and textbooks requires cooperation with the people of the occupied country.

The United States occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. Its occupation of Germany lasted from 1945 to 1949.

In Japan, said John W. Dower, a professor of Japanese history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Americans helped do away with a school system that tracked students academically at a very early age, and separated women into a different educational group from that of men. The Americans also encouraged the writing of new textbooks and set themselves up to approve them.

Directives at the time called for educators to examine curricula, textbooks, and teaching manuals and rid them of militaristic or ultra-nationalistic ideology.

Mr. Dower said many Japanese were truly committed after the war to promoting critical thinking and skepticism toward the state, and threw themselves into rewriting curricula and textbooks to include democratic messages.

“Many Japanese teachers who had been very much engaged in socializing students for service to the state felt a lot of guilt at the end of the war,” he said. “They felt they had bought in to the ideology of the state, and [had] educated people to go off and die.”

German Experience

In the case of Germany, new textbooks were being written by German immigrants in the United States even before the end of the war, said Hermann Rupieper, a professor of contemporary history at Martin Luther University, in Halle- Wittenberg, Germany. The new textbooks—which were shipped to Germany after the war—omitted references to the Nazi ideology, National Socialism, that had been present in previous textbooks, he said.

Mr. Rupieper said the Americans recruited people from various fields to be educators who hadn’t been connected to the Nazi movement. The Americans promoted education exchanges between the United States and Germany.

Contrary to the Americans’ advice, Mr. Rupieper said, Germany refused to end its practice of selecting children for a highly academic track at the age of 10, which the Americans viewed as undemocratic. Germany still has that system.

Mr. Rupieper stressed the differences between Germany and Iraq.

He cautioned that cultural differences between Americans and Iraqis are much greater than they are for Americans and Germans.

In addition, Iraq hasn’t had the same kinds of democratic movements in its history that Germany did, although democracy had been squelched by the Nazis after they came to power in 1933.

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