LOS ANGELES – In a misguided attempt to promote patriotism, textbooks in Japan and the United States either ignore or sanitize the true story of how additional land became part of their respective nations. If the purpose of teaching history is to create critical thinking, this policy is counterproductive.
That’s why it’s encouraging to learn that new government guidelines in Japan will require high-school textbooks for fiscal 2017 to devote 60 percent more space to descriptions about disputed territories. That would include, for example, Takeshima, claimed by Japan but controlled by South Korea, which also lays claim to it, and four Russian-held islands off the coast of Hokkaido, referred to collectively as the Northern Territories.
Until the education ministry revised its curricular manual in January 2014 to teach about territorial disputes, students were largely ignorant about the history involving this issue. How could they not be when textbooks failed to honestly address acquisitions? After all, students believe that what appears in textbooks is the absolute and entire truth, since a revision by private-sector publishers takes place every four years.
But they are not alone. Textbooks in the U.S. have long been guilty of omitting how the land of Native Americans was seized by the federal government. Students were led to believe that vast territories of land were essentially wide open, with the few people already there aiding the Pilgrims with a feast that is now celebrated as Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t until the movie “Dances With Wolves” was released in 1990 that young people finally began seriously questioning what they had been taught in school. The popular film described how the Sioux were slowly driven off their land and finally resettled on a government reservation. Previous movies about the plight of Native Americans never fully resonated, which largely accounts for the film earning $184 million in the U.S. and $424 million worldwide.
The 50 largest Native American reservations are home to the majority of a once proud people who suffer from a chronically high rate of alcoholism and drug abuse. Relocation resulted in the death of millions and the seizure of millions of hectares of their land to serve the interests of advancing settlers.
It’s little wonder that when high school students in Japan and the U.S. reach college and learn the facts about the past they feel cheated. Inculcating patriotism is an important goal, but when it distorts the truth it becomes little more than a form of propaganda. Invariably, students then become cynical at a time when their participation in the democratic process is vital.
Perhaps the phrase that was uttered in 1816 by Stephen Decatur, a U.S. Navy hero, as a dinner toast best summarizes the issue. “Our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”
No country is without its faults. Acknowledging them is the first step toward creating patriotism — which is based on an understanding of history —rather than nationalism, which is blind to history.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. He taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. Follow him on Twitter at @waltxyz.