Countries Torn Over Baring Warts in History Texts

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 09, 2004 7 min read

The breakup of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago ushered in a new generation of history textbooks for Russian schoolchildren that for the first time outlined in raw detail the brutality of Joseph Stalin’s reign.

But now, as the country continues to struggle with a depressed social and economic structure, some officials are calling for a glossier presentation of Russian history, one that would imbue national pride and positive feelings about its previous status as a superpower.

“Russian historians and history teachers—as a microcosm of Russian civil society—face increasing pressure by the Russian state to construct narratives of the Stalin period that are fundamentally positive,” Thomas Dean Sherlock, a political scientist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, writes in a study of Russian textbooks. “This pressure undermines the relatively free space for inquiry that existed in the first decade of the Russian republic.”

Russia is not alone in its struggle to come to terms with its past while trying to inculcate love of country. Nations around the globe, particularly those with fresh memories of civil or regional conflicts or recent political strife, have debated how to teach their history. India, Japan, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, as well as Germany, Italy, and Northern Ireland, have all recently deliberated over how to account for their past, warts and all, in school textbooks. The United States, too, has had its share of such debates.

“In many of these countries, you find nationalistic people lining up against those with a strong moral imperative to teach children to bring more questioning to their study of history,” said Lili Cole, a senior program officer for the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, a New York City-based organization that works to promote world peace. Ms. Cole directs the council’s study of history textbooks and the role the school curriculum plays in reconciling a nation’s difficult past.

“Certainly, whitewashing the past completely, when you have a group that suffered greatly,” she said, “is not a recipe for reconciliation.”

A number of Russian texts published since 1992 have done little to whitewash the past. In fact, Mr. Sherlock said in an interview, many textbooks now give Russia’s high school students a heavy dose of information about the repressive nature of the Soviet Union. But with the national morale dwindling amid ongoing economic troubles, Russians increasingly embrace a more nostalgic view of the past—when employment was guaranteed and most people could live above a minimal economic level.

‘A Socializing Function’

“Russia’s increasingly conservative political elites, but also many Russian liberals, believe that you need to instill pride of history; otherwise, young people will emigrate or simply be too disillusioned to help modernize Russia,” said Mr. Sherlock, who has also studied textbooks in India and Pakistan for the Carnegie project. “More and more people in Russia are moving toward seeing history as a socializing function, and for instilling patriotic fervor.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for history textbooks that present a more positive view of what many still see as the glory days of the Soviet Union. And the Ministry of Education has added Soviet-era authors—and their pro-Communist works—to required reading lists for students.

But scholars and reform-minded citizens say that students need to learn of Russia’s unsavory narrative as well, including the brutal treatment of Russians and ethnic minorities under Stalin—Balts, Ukrainians, and Chechens, among them—which led to millions of deaths.

Such harsh details have vexed Japan as well. Education officials there came under attack several years ago when they planned to adopt middle school history textbooks that ignored many of the nation’s atrocities during World War II.

The books, for example, omit information about Japanese soldiers’ violence against Korean and Chinese women during the war. The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform produced one of the textbooks in question because of the “self-deprecating” tone of the current history texts, according to a statement from the organization. After Japanese officials approved the texts in 2001, government officials in South Korea and China sent angry letters, saying the move was a threat to diplomatic measures. Most schools in the island nation said they would not use the texts. The controversy flared anew last year when the Tokyo school board approved one of the texts for use in some of the city’s schools.

Drafting appropriate history textbooks, however, is far more complicated than simply incorporating the good, the bad, and the ugly from a nation’s past. That lesson has been hard-learned in the United States as well, where special-interest groups often battle to get their particular views of history, and their heroes, included in the curriculum.

Throughout the world, the teaching of history is a critical means for telling a nation’s story to the youngest of citizens.

But particularly in nations with deep divisions between groups, teaching of the past can help reconcile those conflicts or further divide citizens, according to Falk Pingel, the deputy director of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, in Braunschweig, Germany. The center advises officials and publishers in several countries—including Bosnia, Germany, and Israel—on ways to resolve divergent views of history in order to assist reconciliation between rival groups.

“When the conflict is over, we work more on a scientific level to find common interpretations of history, or at least one that isn’t offensive to either party,” Mr. Pingel said. “There are perpetrators and victims throughout history … and sometimes it’s almost impossible to find a harmonized interpretation of the history.” The goal, he added, is to make students aware that there is more than one version of events.

But in some countries, officials are more interested in pushing their own accounts, experts say.

Powerful Tools

In India, for example, the Hindu-nationalist government in power from 1998 to 2004 revised the country’s curriculum to promote a Hindu-centered history that presents the country’s majority as the only pure Indians. The move outraged those who favored the secular view portrayed in earlier texts. The new books also ignored critical events in the country’s history, such as the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi by a Hindu extremist, and presented others in misleading or inaccurate ways, according to a report by a committee of historians convened by the new “secularist” government.

“There is also no discussion of the ways in which Mahatma Gandhi functioned as a mass leader, and the high regard in which he was held by millions of Indians,” says the report to India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training. Amid official calls for a “detoxification” of the curriculum earlier this year, the older texts were reissued until revised and updated books reflecting a secular view of history can be published.

Zimbabwe took a similar path. After adopting a more conciliatory history curriculum that recognized the contributions and struggles of various groups, the country retooled the message several years ago to reflect more positively on the ruling party of President Robert G. Mugabe, considered by many to be a corrupt dictator.

History textbooks are seen as powerful tools for socializing citizens and shaping perceptions “not only of what is a just and proper form of organized society and government—whether the [respective government is] democratic or authoritarian,” Mr. Sherlock said, “but also in purveying images of the external world, whether it is threatening or accommodating.”

But as a critical resource for instruction worldwide—whether they are a required or voluntary tool for instruction—textbooks are often torn between roles: providing the official or commonly held history, while also encouraging students to study various interpretations of events. Often, those purposes are at odds with each other, Mr. Sherlock said.

“If you ask people in Russia to prioritize the most important functions of history texts at the elementary and secondary school levels, perhaps a number will say that number one is to instill patriotic values, and that number two is to instill some sense of critical thinking,” Mr. Sherlock said. “But some people logically view these two functions as competing in nature. ... It is often very difficult to instill patriotic values if you ask the student to take a critical view of the past.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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