History is known as the collective memory of the society on a particular event. Like any study of public action revolving around public discourse all of it will definitely be scrutinized. Although this job is typically left up to the lowly historian, sometimes the public likes to intervene. Specifically, it is the school districts, who just like with rulings on evolution versus creationism, believe they can make the judgments better than the experts. Unfortunately, this problem does not just plague the American continent with small town USA school boards. It also occurs internationally.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Iraqi government finds itself in a quagmire trying to decide how to teach specific elements of Iraqi history. There are a few changes that are a bit troubling. First, is that some would like to leave out the mention of Saddam Hussein and his Baath party, which committed atrocious crimes. Second, some would like to rewrite the story of American invasion in 2003 as an occupation rather than just a military operation, throwing it into the defacto category of colonialism. Finally, there is a controversy over how to teach the ancient history of Iraq. Should they go with a more religious route or the traditional route of just talking about bland Mesopotamia? Religion will probably prevail.
Now this is not a surprising, for years Saddam Hussein used history as an indoctrination method echoing the nightmare of Stalin’s reign. The problem now is that these changes can continue to spark controversy that can affect American relations and can cause sectarian civil strife in a country that is not that stable.
Sadly, this is a familiar story. The public understanding of history can sometimes cause a strain in diplomatic relations. A perfect example is with Turkey and Armenia. Turkey has refused for years to call the slaughter of millions of Armenians in 1913 genocide. The U.S. has decided to call it agenocide in a resolution passed in 2007 and again acknowledged it in 2010. This has put a tight constraint between the U.S. and Turkish relationship in a time when Turkey could be a great alley in the Middle East.
Japan and China have also seen a struggle on history. The first struggle occurred with the Yasukuni Shrine in which Japan commemorates about 2.5 million people who lost their lives during World War II. Several war criminals are acknowledged on the shrine. In addition, China was invaded by Japan during World War II, making the memorial very contentious.
A second incident occurred in March 2007 when the Japanese government ordered the deletion of passages saying that Japanese soldiers ordered a mass suicide during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. The Prime Minister of Japan at the time, Shinzo Abe, also denied that millions of Chinese women were not used as sex slaves by the Japanese soldiers during that same period.
Although historical controversy is something that should be experienced by all students, public censoring of textbooks is a very dangerous game. Every terrible event in history has victims, something that nobody should ever forget. National healing can only begin if people start to acknowledge their sins. In a way, history books are the largest confessionals.
Distorting history can also produce intellectual dishonesty and create a generation of ignorant fools. In May, Texas approved several changes to its textbooks which involve Thomas Jefferson being off the list of important historical figures, making Senator Joseph McCarthy a true American hero, and making students analyze speeches by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. One might also be surprised at how fast these standards spread to other textbooks.
“The books that are altered to fit the [new] standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they’ll end up in other classrooms,” said Fritz Fischer, chairman of the National Council on for History Education in comments made to the Washington Post.
While the Evangelical Right may have won this round, it does not mean that they have won the fight in history. My prediction is that in time this will become the Scopes Trial for the degradation of history. What I am trying to illustrate is the danger of changing history for the sake of pleasing political and religious constituencies. If we are going to remove every piece of history that could make a group feel insignificant than history textbooks would only be five pages long.
Imagine if a passage was taken out about the imprisonment of Galileo because a Catholic found it offensive or if the Civil Rights Act was taken out because it offended a KKK member. What if the American Revolution were not taught because it offended British school children or as a consolation said that King George III was a hero for fighting the Americans in order to make them feel better. All of this is nonsense that must be fought to the bitter end. Whether it is Iraq or Texas, I guess that the old scars of historical traumatic stress disorder just never heal.
Iraq history story from the NYT
About the Yasukuni Shrine
Other Japan WWII conroversies
Turkey and Armenia genocide controversy
Texas history textbook controversy