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Zhenia Plotnikova

School textbooks issue

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Hello to everyone! :)

I am an IB student and I am currently writing a work assessing objectivity, reliability and usefulness of school textbooks. The idea came after reading a Russian history textbook published in 1975, which had a very curios section entitled "Drastic changes in the international environment after the end of the Second World War". The style and the interpretations included there were very interesting to me.

So, my question is: do you think objectivity is at all attainable in school textbooks (in all states, whether democratic or totalitarian)? Whether yes or not, does it alter the value of school textbooks as historical sources for future generations? Do you think it is possible in general to write a historical account of an event without making judgements or having any interpretations?

I will appreciate any help and thanks to everyone in advance.

Zhenia

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Hello to everyone! :)

I am an IB student and I am currently writing a work assessing objectivity, reliability and usefulness of school textbooks. The idea came after reading a Russian history textbook published in 1975, which had a very curios section entitled "Drastic changes in the international environment after the end of the Second World War". The style and the interpretations included there were very interesting to me.

So, my question is: do you think objectivity is at all attainable in school textbooks (in all states, whether democratic or totalitarian)? Whether yes or not, does it alter the value of school textbooks as historical sources for future generations? Do you think it is possible in general to write a historical account of an event without making judgements or having any interpretations?

I will appreciate any help and thanks to everyone in advance.

Zhenia

Objectivity within the context of textbook provision is not really possible. Can the participants of Stalingrad or the Warsaw Rising agree a common history?

The dead tell few tales, historians and academics too many. School textbooks are brilliant material for researching the 'accepted' perspectives of the time.

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I am an IB student and I am currently writing a work assessing objectivity, reliability and usefulness of school textbooks. The idea came after reading a Russian history textbook published in 1975, which had a very curios section entitled "Drastic changes in the international environment after the end of the Second World War". The style and the interpretations included there were very interesting to me.

So, my question is: do you think objectivity is at all attainable in school textbooks (in all states, whether democratic or totalitarian)? Whether yes or not, does it alter the value of school textbooks as historical sources for future generations? Do you think it is possible in general to write a historical account of an event without making judgements or having any interpretations?

Most history textbook writers try very hard to give an objective account of the past. This differs from most people who write history books who accept the reality that all history writing is extremely subjective.

Like other textbook authors I try to be objective but I realise that you can never be completely successful in this task.

For example, in 1987 I published a book on the Vietnam War. The first half was a narrative account of the conflict. There are very many different interpretations of this event. I attempted to explain these interpretations objectively. However, I suspect that someone who did not share my view of the war might well claim that I had been unsuccessful in this task.

The opinions of the author influences what he or she includes in the book. For example, my book included a chapter called the “Devastation of Vietnam” that looked at the long-term impact of the use of chemical weapons. I suspect a support of the war would not have included a section on this.

The photographs you include also reveals the feelings of the author. For example, I illustrated this section with a photograph of Vietnamese children deformed as a result of their parents having Agent Orange sprayed on them during the war. That photograph reflects my own views on the use of chemical weapons. An author who agreed with the use of chemical weapons during warfare, would have chosen a very different photograph. Maybe, a photograph of a bombed village taken from a distance that did not include actual people in it.

The second-half of the book included a collection of sources including extracts from history books where the author saw the war differently to me. This was to help the students with the “historical interpretations” part of the course. Even in this section, the subjectivity of the author plays a role in this presentation of the past. Did I really select the best accounts that would have supported those who believed the United States was right to get involved in Vietnam?

This question is best illustrated by another example. I have also published books on “Hitler” and “Race Relations in the United States”. Both books dealt with the issue of racism. This created problems with illustrations. Both Nazi Germany and the Deep South of the United States had produced some powerful propaganda concerning racial groups that they wanted people to feel hostile towards. Should I use those illustrations in my books? I decided against doing so. Mainly because I felt they still had the power to encourage racism. However, in doing so, I was aware I was not providing a balanced view of the past. Nor was I helping students to realize why both societies produced so many people with racist views.

The first book I published was on the First World War. The book was reviewed in the TES. The first half of the review was very complimentary. Then the reviewer stated that she would not actually recommend that teachers used the book in the classroom. She argued that some of the accounts of trench warfare were too upsetting for children. That is of course the reason why I had used these accounts. I had seen students cry when I read these passages in the classroom. I knew that my book would upset people. However, in my view it is the duty of the teacher to let students know what war is really like. One of the reasons that so many young men joined the army in 1914 was because they had no idea of the reality of trench warfare. I thought it was important that young people question the romantic view of war often expressed by films and comic books. That is of course why I included the photograph of the deformed children in Vietnam.

The reason I chose to write about the First World War, Hitler, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, slavery, women’s suffrage, etc. is that I already held strong views on the subject. They were not commissioned books. They were written from the heart. As a result, as hard as I tried, they could never be objective. After all, I am a historian, not a mathematician.

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First of all, I think you are right to pose your question in philosophical terms rather than historical terms. There is already an important debate among academic historians about the nature of the subject itself. Whilst I would not perhaps go as far as hardline post modernists like Alun Munslow and Keith Jenkins in arguing that History is, in effect, literature I do think that most historians accept that most history reflects the cultural background of the author and the cultural environment in which he/she works.

This cultural environment might take different forms, ranging from the relatively free expression allowed in western democracies to the tighter control of, say, Communist China. More significant in many cases, however, is the personal position of the author, as John suggests, or even a complex combination of these factors. James Loewen's brilliant study of US textbooks (Lies My Teacher Told Me - http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/index.html) showed that the real purpose of US history textbooks was to consolidate a largely White Anglo Saxon Protestant conception of American citizenship, and that to a great extent the authors were not directly pressured into writing this way but they felt they ought to. This book is a must for your study, but the USA is far from unique in seeing history as a subject whose role is to mould good citizens first and develop historical skills second.

In the wider arena, it is often interesting to see reviews of history textbooks in newspapers. Books on relatively obscure subjects which the journalists know little about are often praised as fascinating or enlightening. Books which address an issue where the reviewer has some cultural stake (eg the Bombing of Dresden and whether or not this constituted a war crime) the books are often described as controversial or are even criticised.

Returning to the question of objectivity, some historians like Richard Evans argue that there are objective truths in history and that empirical method can determine 'what happened'. I find this a bit hard to accept because I feel 'what happened' can only be described with any degree of confidence if the terms of reference for what happened are defined and are usually narrow. We can probably determine 'what happened' in an event such as the General Strike of 1926 in Britain, but only by selecting one event from the millions of little dramas in the days which made up that event. Even then, our selections bring the objectivity of our account into question. More importantly, how do we objectively address the fact that there were different perceptions and interpretations of these events at the time and subsequently?

I found this issue most challenging in my book on Northern Ireland, where deeply entrenched views of past events collided every day on the streets. In that book, and in most of my other writing, I have tried to write narratives which explain that there were different perspectives on almost every issue at almost every time and that a school textbook cannot deal with them all. So, in my Modern World History, I tried to describe the origins of the Cold War as a two pronged story, attempting to show how the Soviets saw the West and the West saw the Soviets. Even here, I was imposing my own central idea that the Cold War was the result of the inability opf these two sides to appreciate the position of the other. Plenty of other historians would dispute that view.

I do think that history in UK schools is generally more like academic history than it is in many other countries, but that the picture is changing. The Council of Europe is running a long standing project on history textbooks in former Soviet countries as these states re-appraise their history. This might also be an interesting source of information.

Good luck!

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Hi,

I'd have to agree with a lot of what John S said. When you begin a process of editing, you inevitably include the things you think are important, and leave out others. The same is true when developing schemes of work in school.

I can't speak as an author of history textbooks, but can as a 'user'. All books provide a version of history. Even when (as John's books do) they put different versions, they are selecting (normally two) different versions from several. In this way they can never be objective in a strict sense of the word.

However, does this matter in textbooks? What is the aim of a textbook? I would suggest in most cases it is an introduction, either to history (in the case of UK up to age 16) or to a topic within history. In these cases provided that they are factually accurate (dates, places, people) the explanations they offer should be sufficient for the purposes of a school classroom. As a teacher, you don't necessarily have to agree with the explanation to use it as a textbook (if we did, I'd have had to resign long ago).

So I guess reliability is the key. Again in the school context the tests one might apply as a historian don't apply as strictly. More the question one might ask is 'is it reasonable?' At the higher age ranges in schools/colleges one might expect a student to use two or three textbooks minimum, and in this case careful selection of texts should enable overall a 'reliable' performance by the student.

As regards usefulness, I would argue that all are useful, however 'good', 'bad' etc. However, not all are useful in the way their author may have intended.

Hope this is helpful... I will try to come back to this topic in the near future...

Ed

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I am an IB student and I am currently writing a work assessing objectivity, reliability and usefulness of school textbooks. The idea came after reading a Russian history textbook published in 1975, which had a very curios section entitled "Drastic changes in the international environment after the end of the Second World War". The style and the interpretations included there were very interesting to me.

So, my question is: do you think objectivity is at all attainable in school textbooks (in all states, whether democratic or totalitarian)? Whether yes or not, does it alter the value of school textbooks as historical sources for future generations? Do you think it is possible in general to write a historical account of an event without making judgements or having any interpretations?

Sounds like a research thesis to me! :)

I would agree with Ed here that all books provide a version of history and therefore they cannot be counted as objective.

I use them selectively to put forward my own take on history - what the 'angle' of the lesson should be, what historical ideas and elements I am teaching and what feelings I'm trying to engage in the students. It sounds very political and it is, but it is also what makes History fun/interesting for my students. I might consciously leave out an aspect of the topic I'm teaching in order to create greater understanding with the limits I have (students, time, energy).

For example, in Wales you have to teach elements of Welsh history. However, many textbooks that tell us about life in Medieval times focus exclusively on life in England. In teaching the Norman invasion, I emphasise the resistance of the northern Welsh and the fact that the terrible weather we are famed for played a part in stopping the Normans on certain occasions. The students always laugh at this, and they remember it. This is not in the textbooks we have (even those reported to be for Welsh history). Does it make them worthless? No, I know their limits and adjust my use of them to fit my purposes rather than the other way round. Do I use them to show the bias of these writers in relation to Wales? Yes. The books are useful, but not in the way that was intended.

Agreeing with Ed again ;) , textbooks should only serve as a starter or a place to focus on for a key topic. Taking them as objective pieces of history would be very worrying.

Philosophically, I don't think you can get away from imposing a subjective structure when a textbook is produced. What particular point do you think has been missed and you want to emphasise in your book? What makes your book different to those already on the 'market'? What age group are you trying to reach? Etc.

Good luck!

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Philosophically, I don't think you can get away from imposing a subjective structure when a textbook is produced. What particular point do you think has been missed and you want to emphasise in your book? What makes your book different to those already on the 'market'? What age group are you trying to reach? !

I found this issue most challenging in my book on Northern Ireland, where deeply entrenched views of past events collided every day on the streets. In that book, and in most of my other writing, I have tried to write narratives which explain that there were different perspectives on almost every issue at almost every time and that a school textbook cannot deal with them all.

Before I make any comment here, can I just say that I use Ben's Ireland book and think it's an excellent work :)

In some ways knowing that there are two (or more) views makes writing a textbook much more difficult. In the UK (a term I use deliberately here) there is a dominant view (and I want to avoid hegemony here at least for the moment, but no doubt Nick D ( ;) ) will pick me up on this!) about the 'Irish Question'. To suggest there is another view, in itself challenges that dominant view. Therefore a textbook showing this alternative view lends itself to being described as 'subjective', or biased etc. So even when a textbook tries to be 'fair' or 'balanced' it can be seen to be unbalanced or ideological.

What I think this suggests is agreement with Nick D: objectivity is impossible (and this is something more usually accepted by the Left rather than the Right). To take this a little further, if objectivity is impossible and some form of subjectivity inevitable would textbooks be better if written by two people (or as many as it takes) who would articulate each side? (And who would then be a series editor!!?)

Ed

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Before I make any comment here, can I just say that I use Ben's Ireland book and think it's an excellent work  ;)

In some ways knowing that there are two (or more) views makes writing a textbook much more difficult. In the UK (a term I use deliberately here) there is a dominant view (and I want to avoid hegemony here at least for the moment, but no doubt Nick D ( B) ) will pick me up on this!) about the 'Irish Question'. To suggest there is another view, in itself challenges that dominant view. Therefore a textbook showing this alternative view lends itself to being described as 'subjective', or biased etc. So even when a textbook tries to be 'fair' or 'balanced' it can be seen to be unbalanced or ideological.

What I think this suggests is agreement with Nick D: objectivity is impossible (and this is something more usually accepted by the Left rather than the Right). To take this a little further, if objectivity is impossible and some form of subjectivity inevitable would textbooks be better if written by two people (or as many as it takes) who would articulate each side? (And who would then be a series editor!!?)

Ed

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" :)

One person may be more than enough!

Edited by Nick Dennis

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In some ways knowing that there are two (or more) views makes writing a textbook much more difficult. In the UK (a term I use deliberately here) there is a dominant view (and I want to avoid hegemony here at least for the moment, but no doubt Nick D ( :) ) will pick me up on this!) about the 'Irish Question'. To suggest there is another view, in itself challenges that dominant view. Therefore a textbook showing this alternative view lends itself to being described as 'subjective', or biased etc. So even when a textbook tries to be 'fair' or 'balanced' it can be seen to be unbalanced or ideological.

What I think this suggests is agreement with Nick D: objectivity is impossible (and this is something more usually accepted by the Left rather than the Right). To take this a little further, if objectivity is impossible and some form of subjectivity inevitable would textbooks be better if written by two people (or as many as it takes) who would articulate each side? (And who would then be a series editor!!?)

I once wrote a textbook on the American Revolution with a schoolteacher from Connecticut. Each chapter was divided into two sections. One written by me (a British perspective) and one by him.

The book sold badly in both countries. It deserved its lack of success. It was not very good. It was also a dishonest book. Our views on the subject were very similar. Instead, to show subjectivity at work, we took a position at either end of the scale.

I think there is a danger of this approach. It suggests that all past events has two interpretations. This is not much better than telling the students that there is only one interpretation. Could you imagine the danger of writing a book on Northern Ireland in the same way as the one we wrote on the American Revolution. It would be totally unacceptable as it would encourage the polarisation of views that caused the problem in the first place.

Many history teachers would argue that they take great care to use “objective” textbooks. They would probably go on to say that all the teaching materials they use, including those that they produce themselves, are objective. This is said with the knowledge that there is a fear that some teachers will somehow abuse their position to influence the political opinions of their students.

There are historical reasons for these fears. Teachers are aware of the role played by history teachers in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in developing the “official ideology”. In the 1950s (McCarthyism) teachers with left-wing views were sacked in the United States as the authorities feared they would teach against the “official ideology”.

Even in democratic countries there is a dominant ideology. As long as history teachers abide by this ideology they will not be seen as “propagandists”. For example, when we teach about Nazi Germany we have a view on how we want the students to interpret these events. We make no attempt at providing them with a balanced view of say, Nazi attitudes towards the Jews. We would indeed be horrified if as a result of our teaching students developed racist opinions.

Some historians would argue that Nazi Germany is a special case. However, I believe that with virtually every topic we teach, the dominant ideology is at work. Take the case of teaching about the Welfare State. Will many children end up at the end of the topic with a negative view of the NHS? I think this is unlikely. However, think about how American history teachers would teach this subject. For a start, they would describe as being an example of “socialized medicine”. The use of the word socialist would help to provide a negative image of the idea.

The Americans are right to call it “socialized medicine”. Aneurin Bevan made it very clear at the time that is what he was doing. He was not afraid of calling it socialist. That is why the Conservative Party was initially so hostile to the idea. However, they lost the argument. The NHS was very popular with the British people and could not be removed. The NHS was a socialist oasis in a capitalist world. It therefore became important to remove the image of it being a socialist measure. A non-political NHS became part of the official ideology. It therefore enables us to teach it in a very subjective way. However, no one will notice because it is part of the dominant ideology. It is only when the history teacher tries to teach against the dominant ideology that he/she will get into trouble.

You will find an excellent article by Bill McKibben on this subject in the thread of Christian Fundamentalism. It is one of the best articles I have read on the subject of ideology and education.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=4654

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Thanks a lot for all the replies! ;)

It is very useful to see teachers' and experts' perspectives on this issue...

I think I have got some follow up questions... :)

Many history teachers would argue that they take great care to use “objective” textbooks. They would probably go on to say that all the teaching materials they use, including those that they produce themselves, are objective. This is said with the knowledge that there is a fear that some teachers will somehow abuse their position to influence the political opinions of their students.

There are historical reasons for these fears. Teachers are aware of the role played by history teachers in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in developing the “official ideology”. In the 1950s (McCarthyism) teachers with left-wing views were sacked in the United States as the authorities feared they would teach against the “official ideology”.

What John said made me think about my recent essay on Stalinism and phenomenon of nostalgia in modern Russia. This phenomenon is something that is quite recent (as far as I noticed it myself, so it is arbitrary to say so), and little is thus mentioned in the textbooks. However, when trying to explain why some today are nostalgic about the Stalin's Russia I felt like sometimes I was defending a dictator in attempt to explain. An eerie feeling, I have to say :)

I guess if the part of the essay explaining coercion was deleted and the rest shown to very young students the effect could have been very undesirable!

So, do you think that 'subjectivity' can be protective? At least at earlier stages of education? Can it be desirable if it is to develop cultural awareness and national identity (say, by studying more local history?) Or this is indoctrination to be avoided?

Thank you again for the replies!

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So, do you think that 'subjectivity' can be protective? At least at earlier stages of education? Can it be desirable if it is to develop cultural awareness and national identity (say, by studying more local history?) Or this is indoctrination to be avoided?

Thank you again for the replies!

I think the point I'm trying to make here is that subjectivity is all around us. What is termed as objective is subjective and in that sense, it is protective, hence John's comments about what happens to people when they go against the orthodoxy.

A concrete example of subjectivity in action is teaching in Wales where we are tasked with developing cultural awareness and national identity. Should it be avoided? Like many things, it depends on how it is delivered...

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Sounds like a research thesis to me!  ;)

As the teacher who proposed and is supervising Zhenia's work, I'd very much like to thank everyone for their contributions to this thread so far.

I'd particularly like to thank John for starting this and Ben for (unprompted) mentioning Keith Jenkins and the post-modern critique! I sometimes get the impression from my students that they feel I've lost the plot entirely when I do my IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) sessions on Hayden White et al. :) Zhenia is one of a number of excellent students I have been trying to push in this direction over the years. She might take my suggestions more seriously now!

To Nick, I started teaching in Wales in 1993 when we were first introducing the concept of a different national curriculum to that across the border! It really was fascinating. If I remember Mr Spartacus provided us with the very first textbooks to try and teach this new subject. And let's not forget, it was a very new subject that had to be created out of next to nothing. A comprehensive school history of Wales had not previously existed.

At the time I was fortunate enough to be sharing a house with the late-great Rob Phillips, (then PGCSE history tutor at Swansea) someone who always had a lot to say about history teaching and nationhood. Rob was as Welsh as you like, but he had done all of his teaching in England. I remember the new series of government funded 'official' texts coming out for KS3 in Wales. There was one in particular, written for Y8 (I think) by Turvey(?) which made Rob's blood boil. I came home from work and he started shaking the book in my face, 'have you seen this, have you seen this!' he shouted, 'absolute bloody disgrace'; (which I should add was one of his favourite expressions). In fact he thought the book very good, but there was one sentence in it which he could not forgive. In the introductory narrative to one of the chapters it described the relations between England and Wales. If I remember (help me out here Nick if you can), the author described the Welsh as traditionally 'hating' the English. So annoyed was he, he even wrote an article for the Western Mail! Not even a curry and a pint in the Mumbles could calm him down that night.

To Zhenia, the research funded by the Council of Europe (mentioned by Ben) is the same document I gave you at the start of the holiday.

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  So, my question is: do you think objectivity is at all attainable in school textbooks (in all states, whether democratic or totalitarian)? Whether yes or not, does it alter the value of school textbooks as historical sources for future generations? Do you think it is possible in general to write a historical account of an event without making judgements or having any interpretations?

As a "teaser" I sometimes use both Swedish and Danish textbooks (several textbooks from each country) to explain the numerous conflicts which has existed between these countries from the 1200's up to modern times. It’s interesting to often see the differences in their approach to the origin as well as the outcome of some of these conflicts. You can clearly see a nationalistic undertone in the way of writing history. A few years ago a student of mine investigated Swedish history textbooks during the 1900’s. She saw a very interesting development of the way they described certain older events but the biggest differences were in the way they described “current events”. This is of course only natural since it takes a while until we have enough books written about the specific time period and event, but for me it was valuable to see the changes of the interpretation of older Swedish history. One example was the more "German friendly" approach before WWII which came to quite an abrupt end after the war... The relation to current events affected the interpretation of the past. I hope that you realize the problems of "objectivity"...

So my message is that it's not possible to write a historical account of an event without making judgements or having any interpretations but you can identify the general opinions about a certain event and give an account what most likely happened according to the interpretations of the historians available.

So, do you think that 'subjectivity' can be protective? At least at earlier stages of education? Can it be desirable if it is to develop cultural awareness and national identity (say, by studying more local history?) Or this is indoctrination to be avoided?

Indoctrination is not possible to avoid but you need to be able to identify what it is that you are exposed to. One of the greatest tasks for a history teacher is to make you aware of this and foster a critical mind that's able to see what is behind the written account. It is this political and historical awareness that's desirable. ;)

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What John said made me think about my recent essay on Stalinism and phenomenon of nostalgia in modern Russia. This phenomenon  is something that is quite recent (as far as I noticed it myself, so it is arbitrary to say so), and little  is thus mentioned in the textbooks. However, when trying to explain why some today are nostalgic about the Stalin's Russia I felt like sometimes I was defending a dictator in attempt to explain. An eerie feeling, I have to say  :blink:

I guess if the part of the essay explaining coercion was deleted and the rest shown to very young students the effect could have been very undesirable!

So, do you think that 'subjectivity' can be protective? At least at earlier stages of education? Can it be desirable if it is to develop cultural awareness and national identity (say, by studying more local history?) Or this is indoctrination to be avoided?

The point is that all history textbook authors are deeply influenced by their political ideology. As Ed Waller has pointed out, those on the left are more willing to accept this than those on the right. The reason for this is that people on the left have developed their views in spite of the dominant ideology. Therefore, they are much more aware of this ideology. Those on the right are products of the dominant ideology and therefore are less likely to be aware of it.

Most historians approach the writing of a textbook, worksheet, webpage, etc. with a political point of view. This does not mean that they intend to indoctrinate their students. In most cases, they will attempt to be fair to those who hold different political viewpoints. I believe the best protection students have against “brainwashing” is an awareness of the political ideology of the teacher/author. The real danger comes from those historians/teachers, who claim that they are objective historians. These are the ones who indoctrinate students, although they are not aware of it. In other words, they teach the “dominant ideology”.

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I think that this is an interesting and important area for school history. Just as part of a historical education in the 21st century should be that young people should be aware that the internet is not the ultimate repository of truth and wisdom, pupils should also be educated about the reliability of information from newpapers, films, television and textbooks.

A really good text for exploring this issue is Graham Lyons' book, 'The Russian version of the second world war: the history of the war as taught to Soviet schoolchildren' (1976, London, Leo Cooper). The back cover gives several reviews of the book which make an interesting point about 'interpretations':

'The book must stand as a condemnation of Soviet historians and their educational system' - Soldier Magazine

'It is to be hoped that Lyons' book will be widely used in schools and in undergraduat courses' Hugh Seton-Watson, THES.

' A shocking book, full of such jolts to Western readers as the assertion that the Allied forces advanced into Normandy after D-Day with "practically no opposition"'. Douglas Orgill, Daily Express.

'What is really frightening is that this version is being lapped up by youngsters of the nation with whom the western democracies are now engaged in trying to achieve detente' Stephen Roskill, Sunday Telegraph.

'The Soviet version is nearer to the truth than most versions current in the west' A.J. P. Taylor.

It is important that if we use such material, we stress that it is not just communist or fascist texts that are subject to distortion, and that we try and move pupils from thinking about 'bias' to 'position'. Ben's suggestion is a powerful example of US texts being subject to the same pressures.

Newspapers as well as text books can be powerful resources; see for instance

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,939608,00.html, 'Our last occupation' , for a reappraisal/different view of a) British policy in Iraq B) Winston Churchill as a 'Great Briton'.

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