Today is Aidan’s final day of sophomore year.
In just a few short hours, he will finish his last exam and begin celebrating the long-awaited arrival of summer vacation with his friends.
After a day off, he will return to school on Friday to receive his grades.
In order to do that, though, he needs to have returned all of his textbooks.
In addition to straining students’ backs and providing income for chiropractors, history textbooks convey semi-official versions of a nation’s past.
Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward have studied how nations across the globe convey the history of this country. History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around The World Portray U.S. History, an entertaining, accessible and informative book, is what the historians produced.
Much thanks to friend, master teacher, and reader Craig Segal for this book.
The authors begin their introduction with the assertion that we live in a time of extraordinary possibilities of communication that allow us to learn about people and cultures we could have easily ignored half a century ago. At the same time, these nations are also learning about us through our language, our movies, our television shows, our music and our technology.
“It is here, on this two-way street, that our project has taken place,” the authors write.
They explain their choice of history textbooks as follows:
“History textbooks are an especially useful resource, because they typically represent the most widely read historical account in any county, and one encountered during the formative years … In nearly all countries the government takes some role in setting the standards for an acceptable cultural, political and social history … Because history textbooks contain national narratives written by national authors for a national audience, they model the national identity in a very profound and unique way.”
The identities, of course, differ widely depending on the country, their history, their relationship with the United States, and the event covered.
History Lessons is comprised of a series of excerpts of varying lengths that move chronologically from Norwegian and Canadian accounts of Viking Exploration through the ensuing centuries and into a final selection from a French textbook about a new world order and the United States’ place in it.
Lindaman and Hall draw heavily, but not exclusively on British, Caribbean, and Canadian textbooks. Works from countries like the Philippines, North Korea, Russia, Italy and Nigeria make the occasional appearance as well. Each excerpt has a brief note from the authors identifying the highlights of what follows.
The results are fascinating.
While some of the material in History Lessons is predictable-an excerpt from Saudi Arabia about the Middle East has negative things to say about America’s influence in the region, while North Korean textbooks portray that country’s nuclear program in favorable terms, to give just two examples-a lot of it is not.
Who knew, for example, about the “crucial role” Canada played during the U.S. effort to develop nuclear weapons during World War II? A selection from a Canadian textbook shines light on this (to me) unknown chapter of nuclear history.
Nuggets like these abound in History Lessons.
Lindaman and Hall also show effectively that seminal events in U.S. history, like the American revolution, are seen as far less critical by other countries like Great Britain.
Of course, what is not included in a history book can be equally as important as what does make it into the text.
Japan’s euphemistic language to describe its brutal treatment of many Korean people during World War II is a notable example of this type of omission, or, more precisely, incomplete exploration. In a similar vein, the French accounts of World War II are light on looking into the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis-the author say it took decades to even be acknowledged-and heavy on descriptions of resistance.
The omissions can be on the American side, too.
Lindaman and Hall provide a number of events like the Boxer Rebellion or the Pueblo Incident that receive very little attention in U.S. history textbooks, but far more in the nations involved like China and North Korea.
History Lessons can drag at points, and at times the excerpts are so brief that their basis for inclusion is not entirely clear. On the whole, though, the book is helpful not only for history teachers looking to give their students an understanding of different perspectives, but for people eager to learn more about the roots of some of the misunderstandings that muddy our global relations today.