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History textbook wars cross borders

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to prod textbook publishers to depict Japan’s involvement in World War II in a more nationalistic light is defended on the basis of the importance of imbuing students with patriotism.

So far at least, his efforts have not unleashed a backlash, probably because of China’s increasingly bellicose stance toward Japan.

But that should not detract attention from the need for a debate over two major events that are undeniable: the dispute over the death toll in the 1937 massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking, and the use of so-called comfort women from Korea to provide forced sex for soldiers.

Japan, however, is hardly alone in confronting shame about past events. Germany, the United States and China are undergoing similar debates, albeit over different events.

That’s because coverage of atrocities unavoidably raises profoundly divisive issues, particularly when textbooks are read by an impressionable audience of young people.

In Germany, the issue is the Holocaust. Textbooks there have never denied its existence, although they have differed in the number of people killed. Instead, the controversy is over the complicity of the general population in the victimization.

It’s here that textbook publishers have to walk a thin line because students in elementary and secondary schools lack the necessary background and maturity to identify advocacy in its various sophisticated forms.

The U.S. is different only in that decisions about textbook adoptions are made by states and local school districts instead of by the federal government. But it is not immune to criticism.

For example, it was only in the 1970s that textbooks finally began to directly address the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Even today, the Vietnam War that officially ended in 1973 is treated with kid gloves. This includes the infamous My Lai massacre of 1968 that made headlines around the world.

Textbooks in China omit mention of the Great Famine that killed up to 45 million under Mao Zedong. It remains a taboo, where it is referred to euphemistically, if at all, as the Three Years of Difficulties, even though it was a man-made disaster of epic proportions. That’s like calling the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City a collapse of two buildings.

The truth is that no country has entirely clean hands when it comes to the way its schools teach about horrific events from the past.

There is a constant tension between those who believe that textbooks exist to promote fervent patriotism and those who believe that they exist to promote dispassionate analysis.

But if the goal of education is to turn out graduates capable of critical thinking, censoring historical events or spinning them to advance a political agenda is counterproductive.

It may immediately appease pressure groups, but it does a distinct disservice to students in the long run.

That’s unfortunate because textbooks are supposed to provide students with basic information, rather than with whatever is trending.

Indoctrination into any point of view shortchanges students, which is why eternal vigilance is necessary.

Genuine patriotism involves taking into account the realities of the past and present and yet still loving one’s country. Instead, what is emerging is chauvinism.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

  • Roan Suda

    Learning history is different from acquiring, let us say, math skills. One does not simply learn “the facts,” e.g. how many Chinese civilians might have been killed by Japanese soldiers in Nanjing; one gives meaning to and draws conclusions from them. Good teachers convey the ambiguities and ironies of history, but the temptation is to propagandize, with pupils turned into either rah-rah patriots or naive pacifists…I wonder how many Western commentators have actually looked at Japanese textbooks or asked young people what they know or what they think. My students appear to be anything but nationalistic. For one thing, they’re too wrapped up in themselves.

  • kyushuphil

    Walt Gardner might do well to note Diane Ravitch’s “The Language Police.”

    In this book from 2003, Ravitch looked at textbooks as well as standardized testing across the U.S. She found — and documented — the huge degrees of censorship, all designed to neuter books and texts, lest anyone ever feel offended by anything. It’s political correctness gone amuck — and staying that way.

    Japan may have similar difficulty in acquainting students with less than comfortable human realities. This fear of anyone ever feeling personally challenged may be the engine behind the avoidance of essay writing in the schools, and the safer reliance on mechanical, impersonal teaching for all.

    Walt Gardner might call this neutered or impersonal pedagogy “dispassionate analysis,” as in pairing it as he does with one opposite it, “fervent patriotism.”. But aren’t both fantasylands insofar as both continue to let all avoid the personal and the human, just as Ravitch cites too much, too, in U.S. ed?