Thursday, August 12, 2004

Past Imperfect

Frances Fitzgerald, in last weekend's "Washington Post," writes a review of "History Lessons," a new book subtitled "How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History," by Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward

FitzGerald is suited to the job; she's probably best known for "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam," but she also wrote "America Revised," a look at 20th century U.S. history books, which I've used in my research.

Lindaman and Ward compiled excerpts, mostly pertaining to the United States, from history textbooks in other nations -- From Canada and France to Zimbabwe and North Korea. Not surprisingly, they sometimes do better than U.S. history books

"U.S. texts describe the French and Indian War as a purely American conflict, but British and French texts show the war to be a mere incident in the ongoing struggle between the two European empires. Too, the thoughtful and nationally self-critical Nigerian account of the Atlantic slave trade paints American slavery against a much larger canvas."

But not always.

"[M]uch in this collection would startle not only American high school students but many of their teachers as well. In addition, while this is not its purpose, the book, taken as a whole, explains rather better than the punditry mills why many countries, particularly those once known as 'the Allies,' take such a dim view of the United States. "

FitzGerald explains:

"Most [textbooks] reflect public attitudes; all help to create those attitudes because they are the most widely read histories in each country, and because kids read them during the formative adolescent years. What students remember from their reading is not, of course, so clear. ... Still the texts have an authority that books by individual historians lack, for, even in the best school systems, teachers, in their desperate attempt to drum in a few names and dates, rarely question their points of view, and students hazily come to regard what they read as the truth."

She lists some of the examples from the book; a few are predictable, but others seem to portray an America almost unrecognizable to a native who has studied its history (me). I have a translated U.S. history text from the old Soviet Union, circa 1969, that my friends and I used to look over for laughs. But some of what's being taught around the world today, it seems, is hardly an improvement. And the nearest neighbor can be the worst offender.

"In few countries are the texts so consistently critical of the United States as they are in Canada, but in a couple of cases the rhetoric is alarming. For national security purposes, we should have read Saudi textbooks years ago, for even while Saudi diplomats were cooing to American officials, Saudi students were reading rants about 'Crusader' and 'Neo-imperialist' attacks on Islam.