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Making History—the War over the Past

In 2015, South Korea faced widespread protests over a strange issue—school textbooks. The controversy concerned a state-issued history textbook which glorified a former president, Park Chung-hee. He was celebrated as the leader of the country’s industrialisation, however, his record of human rights abuse was glossed over.

It is at the school-age that opinions and views begin to form. History and social science, especially, have a substantial impact on one’s understanding of civil society. Perhaps that is why educational institutions are where the seeds of ideological control are first planted.

Examples from the past abound, where governments have distorted the history taught in schools to push their agendas. During the Nazi rule in Germany, the history curriculum was designed to glorify Germany’s past. It focused on German leaders who just happened to believe in the same things as the Nazis. In South Africa, when apartheid was at its peak, history textbooks gave information that supported white privilege and the pretence that black people and whites inhabited South Africa at the same time, thus justifying their claim to the land.

An anti-Nazi propaganda comic published in by the Chicago Daily News that mocks the education policies of Hitler.

Unfortunately, these are not obsolete practices. Prejudices and attempts to discount uncomfortable parts of the past continue to creep into history education. Students grow up with incomplete knowledge of their country’s past. This is dangerous because many issues that are faced today are rooted in the past. Without an unbiased understanding of how these issues came to be, we cannot hope to find solutions for them.

A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre indicates that only 8% of American high school seniors were able to identify slavery as the leading cause of the Civil War. This shocking statistic points to the deteriorating state of race relations in America today. Slavery was not just a small blip in their history—it was an institution that fueled the United States’ industrial revolution and made the country what it is today. However, according to the report, teachers and textbooks are both unequipped to explain to students this central component of America’s history. Thinly veiled white supremacy still manifests itself as an inflated sense of patriotism in states that used to be the Confederate stronghold during the Civil War. Unsurprisingly, in most countries now, the cost of an immoderate sense of patriotism is borne by students learning a biased account of the past.

The removal of this statue of Robert E. Lee sparked violent protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville. A woman, Heather Heyer was killed in the protests. The incident sparked debate in the United States about the removal of Confederate statues which are seen as a symbol of slavery.

Colonialism shaped a large part of the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries. For many countries in Africa and Asia, including India, it was a prolonged and taxing struggle to achieve freedom. These countries continue to suffer from some of the long-term damage inflicted by colonial rule. The history of these countries under the British Empire is inextricably linked to the ruling country’s own history.  It may not seem so, however, for a student in a British school.  The history of the British Empire is given little importance in the school curriculum. Britain as a whole, has no collective narrative of its Imperial past, unlike Germany.

A map of the British and French Empires in the 1920s.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It must be noted that Britain is not alone in glorifying its past. France, in the past, had passed a law which required history teachers to focus on the ‘positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa’. Portugal and Netherlands too, tend to paint only a rosy picture of their past, despite the growing reality of racism in the countries, which they refuse to acknowledge.

Waving the national flag to show pride in the country, is quite a familiar patriotic gesture across the world, but in Germany, it is still something that is seen as controversial. Germany has the burden of dealing with a tainted past in a way perhaps no other country does. Moreover, it leaves no stone unturned in educating its students about this past.  Following reunification, most of the high school history curriculum focused on the World War era, and the rise and rule of the Nazi party were given thorough treatment. What is interesting, is that they were not simply taught the chronology of events or told who was right and wrong. They were asked to analyse the roles of different players in the rise of the party. The words of a German history teacher emphasize the importance of understanding history—‘Every student in Germany must tackle this theme, no one can say they didn’t know.’

The Topography of Terror: An indoor and outdoor remembrance museum in Berlin, built at the location of the former Gestapo headquarters.

With the World War fading from living memory, recent reports suggest that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany, and coincidently, knowledge about the Holocaust is decreasing in students. The influx of immigrants and refugees causes the country to face new challenges relating to racism. Perhaps this is a time to reassess what lessons can be learned from the past and to formulate ways of teaching a new generation—far removed from the horrors of Nazi Germany—the impact of their country’s history.

India, on the other hand, faces a different problem in its teaching of history. Textbooks have become a battlefield for waging wars on ideology. In May 2018 itself, the opposition in Punjab consisting of the Shiromani Akali Dal and AAP claimed that chapters relating to Sikh and Punjabi history had been deleted from the new class XII history books. The BJP claimed that the Congress government was trying to appeal to its vote-bank by changing the content of textbooks in Karnataka before assembly elections. Last year the Maharashtra State Education Board removed all but a few traces of the Mughals and world history from class VII and IX history books. The BJP government has been accused of pushing the Hindutva agenda through educational institutes since coming to power in 2014. This process is not only seen in schools but also reaches into universities and educational boards.

#RemoveMughalsFromBooks was a trend that emerged on Twitter following Smriti Irani’s criticism of a 4th grade history book. While some ridiculed the idea, others strongly advocated the removal of Mughal history.

In many of the states where the BJP has come to power, there have been alleged attempts to bring focus to Hindu rulers and freedom fighters who have not been given importance, while at the same time labelling all Muslim rulers as invaders and barbarians. This practice of viewing the past through a sectarian lens is, in fact, a relic of the British rule. British historians were the ones who first categorised the history of the region that is now India into a ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu rule followed by the invasion of Muslim kings. Throughout history, there have been numerous instances of Hindus joining hands with Muslim rulers and vice versa. There have also been instances of rulers fighting against their co-religionist for the sole purpose of expanding their territories.

India, though, is also not immune to marginalising the history of certain sections of the country. It is criticised for having a Delhi-centric view of the past. Dynasties that used to be based in the capital, Delhi, seem to get more importance as compared to those based in other regions. North-east India, for one, is almost completely absent from the curriculum. This may be because it never entirely came under the mainland rule until after independence, and was ruled by many small kingdoms. Today, many youngsters from the North-Eastern states live and work in metropolitan cities, and face discrimination, and even violence, as evidenced by the death of Nido Taniam in 2014.  In such a situation, awareness about the regions’ culture and history may help in changing the prevalent image of the people from these states as outsiders.

The inherent difficulty in teaching history is that it is purely evidence-based. When new sources come to light the understanding of past events changes. There is rarely a clear distinction between what can be categorized as good and evil. That is why, history if taught well, can equip students with essential critical thinking skills. These skills are particularly useful in a world where public discourse is becoming increasingly polarised. Nuance and the ability to navigate complex issues is needed to contribute to civic discussions effectively.

An education system that only lists out facts, and does not foster the ability to question, leaves students susceptible to being brainwashed by those with an agenda. What is needed, is an education that provides students with the ability to think for themselves so that they can make informed decisions. Providing students with a complete and unbiased account of their country’s history is the first—and perhaps most important—step towards such an education.

Featured Image by Aditya Sriram

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