Rewriting History, One Textbook At A Time

November 20th, 2014

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell

There is an epidemic and it is sweeping across continents, again. I’m not speaking of an infectious disease that is rapidly spreading and infecting a large swath of the population. I am speaking of a different kind of an epidemic that has happened before and is happening again. It’s target: school textbooks.

Recently in Russia, a purge has started where hundreds of textbooks that for many years have been used by the schoolchildren and their teachers at the country’s 43,000 schools have been scrapped and deemed unsuitable. The reasons given have been a series of bureaucratic nitpicking mixed with accusations of unpatriotic content. Not only has this rash ban on textbooks by the Ministry of Education and Science upset curriculum and lesson plans, angered principals, teachers and parents, but is also threatening the livelihood of the small publishers for the textbook market. The purge, however, appears to have cleared the way for Enlightenment–a publishing house that used to be the sole provider of school textbooks during the Soviet era–whose CEO is a close friend of Mr. Putin, Russia’s President. To get an idea of how Enlightenment, ended up in such a cushy position, please read the article by Jo Becker and Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times. Now that the power of textbook publishing rests in the hands of a publisher with ties to the former Soviet era and the country’s current ruling powers, one is apt to expect that the content of history textbooks will soon be revised to meet the political views of those in charge today.

Next, we head over to China, where education officials are thinking of changing elementary and middle school textbooks to include more subjects on Chinese philosophy and literature in an effort to emphasize China’s cultural heritage. If the Ministry of Education approves these changes, they would go into effect next September in time for the new school year. What is unclear is if these changes are approved which components of the existing curricula will be dropped to make room for the new subjects? Are there any qualified teachers in China who are available to teach the traditional Chinese language and literature? The young teachers today were educated under the influence of Chinese Communism. Most of the experienced teachers with knowledge of these traditional subjects are long gone. How will these subjects be taught in today’s modern China?

Moving on to Japan and South Korea, we see their respective Prime Minister and President, each pushing to have high school history textbooks rewritten to reflect their political views. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has instructed the country’s Ministry of Education to revise the textbooks so that they are more patriotic and no longer include Japan’s atrocities during WWII. The South Korean, President, Ms. Park Geun-hye, wishes to downplay and do away with Korea’s history of collaboration with the Japanese colonial authorities and have the textbooks rewritten so that Koreans are seen as having been coerced into collaboration rather than having done so willingly. Much of this push has to do with the fact that a majority of South Korea’s professionals and elite members of the civil service come from families that did in fact collaborate with the Japanese colonizers.

And, right here in the USA, we recently heard news of students and teachers in Jefferson County, Colorado, protesting a controversial conservative plan to change the AP U.S. History curriculum to stress more positive elements and “promote patriotism and avoid encouragement of civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” The students, their parents and teachers opposing the proposed changes see them as censorship and an attempt by the conservative board to rewrite history in accordance to its own political views.

I’m sure by now you see the common thread amongst the sampling of countries mentioned in this blog. There’s no better way to sum this up but with this quote from “The Lost Sisterhood,” by the writer Anne Fortier: “He always says that those who control the present can rewrite the past.”


The Frustrated Evaluator

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Filed under Education, History, Politics

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