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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 13, 2005)

Worldwide Textbook Disparities: Main Causes and Solutions

Kae NOMURA (Waseda University, GLOCOM Platform)

Warning: The contents of this history textbook are neither wholly factual nor comprehensive. Many important people and events are downplayed or completely ignored. At present, a large portion of textbooks across the globe should have such a warning label printed in bold letters on their inside covers. It is usually (although not always) the case that textbooks do not blatantly tell lies or false accounts, but they do contain a biased, often prejudiced explanations of history. The degree of significance given to certain events greatly varies from country to country, which, as current tensions in the Asia Pacific indicate, can lead to conflicts. The fact of the matter is, history is much more than just an explanation of the past. Rather, it also involves subjective perceptions, is influenced by various pressures, and is largely political in nature.

There is no country in the world that can claim that World War II never took place, yet there is no universally agreed account of the war. What American students learn is slightly different in from what Japanese, French, Chinese, or Russian students learn. They may learn the same hard facts, but in what kind of light they are portrayed leads to different perceptions of the same event. For instance, the containment of Japanese-Americans in the US during WWII is typically included in US history texts, but it is not illustrated as a major event, whereas in Japanese history texts, its portrayal is given much more significance. Such disparities can be said of any other event in history and in any other country. Textbooks are, after all, written by human beings and even the most educated, well-versed scholars cannot give a historical account that will do justice to every culture of the world.

There is also a phenomenon commonly called "victim myth" that results in doctored perceptions. This theory, put forth by many historians, suggests that countries strongly portray themselves as victims and much less so as aggressors. Evidence of this can be seen in history texts across the globe: Japan's account of the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given more significance than its aggressive wartime past, China strongly portrays itself as a victim of the Japanese occupation while largely ignoring its own bloody Cultural Revolution, and US textbooks stress the good it has done in spreading democracy while covering to a much lesser extent the blood it has shed in doing so, to name just a few. This is very clearly akin to basic human tendencies of diminishing one's weaknesses and wrongs while promoting one's accomplishments and victories. It is much harder (and often not in the interest of nationalistic tendencies, as will be discussed later) to fill the pages of a history textbook with disgraceful actions of the nation's past.

In addition to various perceptions, pressure plays a large role in textbook disparities. Even in nations that pride themselves of freedom of speech and of the press, there are pressures imposed upon textbook publishers that influence the its content. The greatest of these is generally from the national government. In an effort to promote national pride and build a population that has faith in the country, the past is often portrayed in the least damaging way possible. In extreme cases, textbooks may be completely influenced by nationalism, only portraying the nation in the best, most positive way. The North Korean government, for instance, is highly successful at teaching only what they want, which is reputedly very one-sided and not at all comprehensive. Being such an isolated nation, the North Korean people can do little but to believe what they are taught. More often, however, there is a much less extreme bias that results from the government desire to create a generally positive picture of the nation. For instance, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States and the brains behind the League of Nations, was in fact a white supremacist who fought against racial equality in the League. Unsurprisingly, this is not taught in U.S. history books. If such facts were widely and openly taught in history classrooms, there is a real risk of declining national pride. What government, after all, wants to teach its future leaders about the corrupt aspects of its past "great" leaders? While it is unfair to say that history classes are propaganda mechanisms, one can reasonably say that governments have it in their interest to exaggerate the nation's accomplishments and downplay their mistakes.

Furthermore, pressures imposed by the government are also rooted in furthering foreign agenda. The portrayal of state enemies is generally one-sided, portraying them in a way that suits the nation's policies of them. The national government of any nation wants its people to feel confident of their actions. The US, for instance, does not paint a very likable image of Saddam Hussein. He is regarded as a major threat to Middle Eastern stability, as a killer of his own people, and as an unfair ruler. This kind of knowledge and perception of Hussein helped to justify the invasion of Iraq in the eyes of the US people. If Hussein had been given a friendlier, nicer image, it would have no doubt been harder to make him a public enemy. (Of course, Hussein's image is only a part of the justification of the Iraqi invasion.) History books, therefore, can serve as a mechanism by which the government can promote their political agendas.

In addition to the government, there are various interest groups that exert pressure on textbook publishers. Fortunately, many of them promote a more comprehensive account of history and urge publishers to convey a well-rounded account. In the United States, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is a very influential civil rights group and has succeeded in decreasing stereotypes and poor representation of African Americans. Derogatory words have been dropped, and the depiction of African American history is much more accurate than many years ago. In Japan, historian Saburo Ienaga filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education in 1965 when his history textbook was rejected for revealing too much about Japan's dark side of the war. Although the Ministry still holds the right to screen all textbooks, after Ienaga's lawsuits, textbooks were required to show an understanding in historical events involving other Asian nations.

Understanding some of the major causes of textbook disparities is a fundamental part of addressing the issue, but the paramount question is, what should be done to diminish this problem? Firstly, it must be recognized that this issue is in fact a problem. As the alleged whitewashing in a Japanese textbook has done, countries will feel cheated and victims will feel hurt if a true, comprehensive historical account is not given. The world today is highly interconnected; countries cannot ignore their neighboring countries or even those on the other side of the globe. In order to establish and preserve strong political and economical ties, a friendly relationship must be developed, and such a relationship will be weakened if their respectable textbooks unfairly portray the other in a negative way.

The most viable course of action to take is one that has already been put into effect and has proven successful. It is the most obvious and the most feasible: joint textbook commissions. Germany is perhaps the ideal model of such joint efforts. Despite the fact that it is said to have committed some of the worst acts during WWII, many professors say that their history textbooks are among the best. By inviting educators and scholars from various other countries, they are able to tell an unbiased account of history. One of their most notable joint efforts is the German-Polish Textbook Commission conducted by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research. ( Founded in 1972, German and Poland have worked together to "come to an agreement about mutual portrayals in history and geography textbooks." This is remarkable in that despite their difficult past, they have successfully been able to work together for the sake of promoting accuracy in history textbooks.

In Asia, Japan and Korea established a joint history research committee in 2001, and while it is still very young, they have made progress in learning about how their respective histories are represented. Furthermore, in April of 2005 a team of 11 Japanese and South Korean educators published a textbook on their shared history. This textbook is not a complete history (it spans from 1592 1597, during the Japanese occupation of South Korea), but it addresses the most sensitive and difficult issues. Still further, one of the most promising joint efforts, one that has the potential to ease the tensions that current exist between Japan and its two neighbors, China and South Korea, is the effort between China, Japan, and South Korea to jointly write a middle school history textbook. Initiated at an East Asia peace forum on history in 2002, the group is composed of 200 educators, scholars, and even civic group members.

Clearly, despite the still prevalent disparities that exist in history textbooks across the globe, a solution has been found and is being implemented. Joint writing efforts are certainly not an easy, but they have proven to show positive results. The next challenge, therefore, is to encourage more joint writing efforts to take place and gradually phase out unfair portrayals of shared histories all over the world.

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