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Japan, China and THAT textbook!


Patrick McMahon
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For some recent years now, controversy has erupted in China, after the Japanese Ministry of Education approved the use in schools of a History textbook that the Chinese claimed 'whitewashed Japan's attrocities' at Nanking (an 'incident' or a 'massacre') and during WW2. This is just one of eight 'approved' books and is used in less than 1% of Japan's schools. On the other hand, Chinese texts are most selective about not only events, but the interpretations of those events e.g.,the Korean war was launched by Americal imperilism. Indeed the whole furore may indicate worries about rights to oil & gas under the East China Sea or perhaps Japan's pending application to join the UN Security Council!!!

The question is: considering the breadth of knowledge to be squeezed into our KS3 schemes of work, are we the teachers, selecting topics which may indicate bias and do our KS3 texts show any signs of subtle selectivity? :

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For some recent years now, controversy has erupted in China, after the Japanese Ministry of Education approved the use in schools of a History textbook that the Chinese claimed 'whitewashed Japan's attrocities' at Nanking  (an 'incident' or a 'massacre') and during WW2. This is just one of eight 'approved' books and is used in less than 1% of Japan's schools. On the other hand, Chinese texts are most selective about not only events, but the interpretations of those events e.g.,the Korean war was launched by Americal imperilism. Indeed the whole furore may indicate worries about rights to oil & gas under the East China Sea or perhaps Japan's pending application to join the UN Security Council!!!

The question is: considering the breadth of knowledge to be squeezed into our KS3 schemes of work, are we the teachers, selecting topics which may indicate bias and do our KS3 texts show any signs of subtle selectivity? :

The UK is quite unique in that it encourages students to look critically at our past through things like “interpretations” and “source work”. Nor does the production of textbooks come under the control of the state. Therefore, some aspects of our dark past such as slavery and child labour, are looked at fairly objectively. However, these are crimes of the 19th century. I think we have been less good at looking at some of our dubious actions during the 20th century. This includes the unpleasant things we did to maintain the British Empire. For example, the way we dealt with the independence movement in Kenya. I also think we also need to look more critically at some aspects of the Second World War. Most of all I would like to see a study of how the mass media and the intelligence services have corrupted the democratic process during the 20th century.

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One thing I've noticed about what people in Britain seem to know about history is that they seem to be very focussed on the UK itself, without paying much attention to how British history has been affected by the history of other countries.

For example, I've just read a biography of Charles X of Sweden (famous here for the Treaty of Roskilde which wrested a lot of what is modern Sweden from the rule of the Danes). Now I didn't know that Oliver Cromwell sent a fleet to aid in the siege of Copenhagen by the Swedes, but which refused to take part on the grounds that Cromwell only wanted to fight Catholics, not fellow Protestants (like both of the belligerent parties).

Imagine how different the recent history of the UK would have been if Atlee and later Churchill had decided to support the development of what was to become the Common Market right from the start, instead of trying to create a spurious 'special relationship' with the Americans.

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The question is: considering the breadth of knowledge to be squeezed into our KS3 schemes of work, are we the teachers, selecting topics which may indicate bias and do our KS3 texts show any signs of subtle selectivity? :

Six years ago I left the UK and set up a new History department from scratch. I had limitless resources and no national curriculum or inspectors to tell me what to do. And still I ended up with something that looks fairly similar to the UK National Curriculum.

The most important reason for this, I think, is the deadweight of tradition rather than biases, recognized or subtle. I was produced in an educational climate which I (largely) unconsciously reproduce and which imposes significant structural limitations on my freedon to teach how and what I like.

Also the 'capital' of good history teaching is to be found in the teacher's experiences as a learner and most importantly in the material resources and ideas produced by generations of previous (and current) history teachers. I ended up with a similar curriculum because I borrowed from the best that I found available.

At one time in the UK (and in most parts of the world still today), the point of history in the curriculum was to inculcate a shared National consciousness that would help distinguish us from the other. It is interesting to identify those bits of the curriculum that are there because they have always been there. Those bits that were important in the past because they helped the process of inculcation. They are difficult to spot because there is always the pragmatic responses that 'students need to understand the physical environment in which they live' or 'it is useful to study the nature of a civil war so we might as well study the English Civil War as much as any other'.

In the UK we separated skills from content in history some time ago. Consequently, when I was in the UK I often got to the end of lesson and thought to myself 'what was the (historical content) point of that lesson?' I was regularly stuck for an answer.

As a politics and philosophy graduate, with a broad interest in the social sciences I have often wondered about the primacy of history on the curriculum. If we were all building a curriculum for scratch, how would we justify history's inclusion at the expense of the other disciplines, without resorting to importance of the historical content of what we teach? For example, what ultimately does the 12 year old student 'understand' about the English Civil War that is so important that they could not have been taught more effectively through another subject or indeed another discipline?

You'll be surprised to hear that I don't teach the English Civil War to my (largely) British international students in the south of France. But had I discovered or developed an exciting skills based activity based on it, I probably still would. Similarly, I introduced philosophy into the curriculum at KS3 but this year I won't get around to teaching it because the resources I have for teaching history (that I am aware of) make for much more interesting lessons. Deadweight of tradition and teaching 'capital' win again.

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Text books reflect the values of the society which produce them. Our department has pretty much brand-new text books which I often get fairly annoyed with for their slightly mocking stance regarding religion. They seem to say 'Well, religion was very important to people then' - implying that now, of course, we know better than that... :D

Regarding pro-British and anti-foreigner bias, well... I'm not too sure what to think! I would say that the average British person is fairly xenophobic and their offspring get most of their values from them. Therefore (in my experience) if you're doing something where both an English element and an international element were in the wrong, pupils will almost always excuse the actions of the English and castigate the foreigner. One has to work hard to try and even things out! :up

Consequently, and to answer the question, I don't think it's necessarily the text books which are biased. It may be the curriculum - we don't do nearly enough non-European history. Loads of pupils came in last week wanting to do something on Genghis Khan after watching that programme! B)

:D Doug

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Yes, my initial response is that you are quite correct in that teachers, within the cut and thrust of teaching alongside the ancillary demands of paperwork, targets and pastoral duties, do adopt a pragmatic approach; I do recall an experienced teacher suggesting that any teacher wishing to be 'on the ball' needed to adopt the practice of the fat magpie...grab any resource from wherever, whenever, however.,and be prepared to repeat the process annually!!

quote=Richard Jones-Nerzic,Apr 29 2005, 03:15 PM]

The question is: considering the breadth of knowledge to be squeezed into our KS3 schemes of work, are we the teachers, selecting topics which may indicate bias and do our KS3 texts show any signs of subtle selectivity? :

Six years ago I left the UK and set up a new History department from scratch. I had limitless resources and no national curriculum or inspectors to tell me what to do. And still I ended up with something that looks fairly similar to the UK National Curriculum.

The most important reason for this, I think, is the deadweight of tradition rather than biases, recognized or subtle. I was produced in an educational climate which I (largely) unconsciously reproduce and which imposes significant structural limitations on my freedon to teach how and what I like.

Also the 'capital' of good history teaching is to be found in the teacher's experiences as a learner and most importantly in the material resources and ideas produced by generations of previous (and current) history teachers. I ended up with a similar curriculum because I borrowed from the best that I found available.

At one time in the UK (and in most parts of the world still today), the point of history in the curriculum was to inculcate a shared National consciousness that would help distinguish us from the other. It is interesting to identify those bits of the curriculum that are there because they have always been there. Those bits that were important in the past because they helped the process of inculcation. They are difficult to spot because there is always the pragmatic responses that 'students need to understand the physical environment in which they live' or 'it is useful to study the nature of a civil war so we might as well study the English Civil War as much as any other'.

In the UK we separated skills from content in history some time ago. Consequently, when I was in the UK I often got to the end of lesson and thought to myself 'what was the (historical content) point of that lesson?' I was regularly stuck for an answer.

As a politics and philosophy graduate, with a broad interest in the social sciences I have often wondered about the primacy of history on the curriculum. If we were all building a curriculum for scratch, how would we justify history's inclusion at the expense of the other disciplines, without resorting to importance of the historical content of what we teach? For example, what ultimately does the 12 year old student 'understand' about the English Civil War that is so important that they could not have been taught more effectively through another subject or indeed another discipline?

You'll be surprised to hear that I don't teach the English Civil War to my (largely) British international students in the south of France. But had I discovered or developed an exciting skills based activity based on it, I probably still would. Similarly, I introduced philosophy into the curriculum at KS3 but this year I won't get around to teaching it because the resources I have for teaching history (that I am aware of) make for much more interesting lessons. Deadweight of tradition and teaching 'capital' win again.

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One thing I've noticed about what people in Britain seem to know about history is that they seem to be very focussed on the UK itself, without paying much attention to how British history has been affected by the history of other countries.

For example, I've just read a biography of Charles X of Sweden (famous here for the Treaty of Roskilde which wrested a lot of what is modern Sweden from the rule of the Danes). Now I didn't know that Oliver Cromwell sent a fleet to aid in the siege of Copenhagen by the Swedes, but which refused to take part on the grounds that Cromwell only wanted to fight Catholics, not fellow Protestants (like both of the belligerent parties).

Imagine how different the recent history of the UK would have been if Atlee and later Churchill had decided to support the development of what was to become the Common Market right from the start, instead of trying to create a spurious 'special relationship' with the Americans.

I'm always surprised how ofter Cromwell keeps popping up.,perhaps he's a good example of meteoric rise and unexpected demise! The problem is that some KS3 teachers drag out the Civil War; why? is there a subconscious need to define the Protestant-Catholic dimension,?

As you suggest. in the overall scheme of things, you are correct in your observation that British History, as taught, tends to be British with other dimensions skirting around the edges.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think it is interesting that although we probably don't feel that we 'censor' history textbooks as much as some other countries, it you look at what is in our textbooks, many of the 'skeletons' of British history don't appear. How many pupils learn about the Suez crisis, or the Amritsar massacre, colonial atrocities etc?Most national pasts have 'skeletons', and it is a sing of a robust, healthy democracy that these can be acknowledged and discussed. One of the things that school history can give to young people is an understanding that it's not about 'goodies and baddies' but about the nature of power and 'realpolitik'.

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One important starting point to maybe come to new and different textbooks and curricula for me ist the present and the question in how far our every day conceptions, our expectations and our lifestyle are influenced by history.

One example to illustrate what I mean is the different attitudes of European nations towards the welfare state and civil disobedience. Germany has a very long tradition and experience of the state taking care of you, catering for the basic needs of its people; it began with Frederick II of Prussai who was an absolute monarch but saw himself as the first servant of the state and saw himself like a strict father; despite the many wars he fought he was seen as a monarch who really did something to improve the life of his subjects; when Napoleon defeated Prussia high ranking officers and members of the civil service were the ones to reform an authoritarian state, what the French people had done during the revolution once again as done by the state (e.g. liberating the peasants); looking at the origins of our welfare state you once again see that the first laws (we are so proud) of were introduced by Bismarck. This has shaped our "national" character as most people still expect everything from the state and are willing to pay the price for this: obedience. Still today civil disobedience is not a high political value in Germany.

If I had to write a German history book I would try to make the students realize how they are still influenced by these historical developments; on the other hand I would like to analyse the alternatives which might have been chosen and I would like to focus on the people who represented the other Germany in the 18th, 19th and 20th century.

Germany textbooks try to encourage critical thinking but Frederick II is still called the Great and even though our curricula demand that Germany and her history are to be seen and analysed in a wider European context our textbooks still focus very much on classical German topics.

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