History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History by Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward23 September 2007
More of what I tend to call ‘metahistory’, in this book review.
History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History by Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward
The history you learn in school is the history that tends to stick with you when you’re older. For most citizens of a country, the history taught by teachers and textbooks is all the history they will ever really study and all the history they will remember in the future — the foundation for a sense of national identity based on a common past. So naturally, governments tend to take a great interest in the history that ends up in schools. Some countries have national review boards that vet history textbooks for use in schools, or publish a specific list of approved books that must be used by teachers. Other countries simply cut out the middlemen and write the history textbooks themselves. So understandably, there are times when the teaching of history is an extremely touchy subject. It’s the basis of the ongoing Japanese history textbook controversy, and the concern that’s been aired in books such as James Lowen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me. The history that most Americans would consider purely ‘American History’ did not happen in a vacuum…so how do other countries view events that end up being taught in American classrooms?
In History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, the editors have examined a slew of history textbooks from different countries and pulled passages that show different perspectives on historical events frequently found in American history books. In what context do British (and Canadian) textbooks place the American Revolution? Do children in other countries learn anything about the American Civil War? What is included or carefully omitted in different accounts of incidents surrounding the Boxer Rebellion or the beginning of World War I? And what passes for history in countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea, where the government control over textbook publication is stricter than most anywhere else in the world? All of these historical events and many more are spread out across the pages of History Lessons, with multiple perspectives (where available) for each historical event or time period.
Comparative history fascinates me on so many levels, so I picked up this book expecting both entertainment and enlightenment — and that’s essentially what History Lessons provided. Nothing exactly earth-shattering, but certainly nothing boring or unworthy of note. (It would take too much room to post large chunks of the quotations that interested me most, but if anyone reading this is interested in specific events then I’m more than willing to do a little transcribing in comments.) Looking at how different countries write their history is an intriguing sliver of insight into someone else’s way of thinking. Something that might warrant an entire chapter in one history book gets only part of a paragraph in another book. It definitely prompted me to think back on the history I learned in school, and how I felt when I first learned that the things my teachers said were only a tiny (and blurry) part of a far greater picture. But even so, there were some passages that made me rather thankful that I didn’t grow up learning a history that had a very specific government agenda — History Lessons includes some extremely disturbing passages from actual North Korean junior and senior high school textbooks. (When the history textbooks actually use ‘bastards’ as the term most often employed when speaking of Americans and other enemies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…well, that takes revisionist history to an entirely new level.)
History Lessons doesn’t preach, really. It certainly doesn’t claim that all American history texts should be consigned to the shredder, or that other countries have a ‘better’ perspective on history that’s more worthy of study. But I would really like to see this book assigned to upper-level students in the United States, those taking high school or even introductory college level history classes. It’s a book I’d assign, if I ever taught a survey US history course. Even a handful of different perspectives can be worth any number of classroom hours slogging through names and dates and vocabulary lists. What’s the point of learning history if you don’t learn that your view of history is not necessarily the ‘right’ one?