We have different history textbooks

I was sent to the National Taiwan University in the summer of 2012 as a visiting student for six weeks. I did some cool research on micro fluids in NTU, met some nice friends and had a good time. All in all, I love Taiwan and the time there.

One thing I had wanted to do and did do with my friends there was to go to a book store and check out the history textbooks — sounds crazy and dumb? No. For those who don’t know, here is the thing: there were two Parties in China during and shortly after the Second World War: the Communist Party and Kuomintang. They cooperated with each other during WW2 but started a civil war immediately after the WW2 victory. Then Kuomintang was defeated by the Communist Party and moved to Taiwan. “Legitimacy belongs to the victor”. So in the history textbook in mainland China, the Communist Party is the major force in the war of resistance against Japan. But, I had been hearing the rumor that the history textbook in Taiwan, of which the content is determined by Kuomintang, is different from ours, and said that Kuomintang is actually the leading power to defeat Japan (which, to be honest, I believe is the truth). So, we were curious and went to a bookstore to find out — and it is true! The description tongue and the “facts” written are very different from ours.

Just one simple example in my life of how curriculum is related to power. A more generalized and extreme example can be found in 1984, George O’well’s famous novel. And that’s ONE reason why we need critical pedagogy.

11 thoughts on “We have different history textbooks”

  1. Thanks for your post! This is a very interesting issue you bring up. The example you gave clearly demonstrates how “the truth,” or what is taught as the truth, depends on who is writing the text and the power dynamics. It reminds me of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (http://www.thegoyslife.com/Documents/Books/A%20People's%20History%20of%20the%20United%20States-%20Howard%20Zinn.pdf). Basically, Zinn recognizes that much of our history is from a white, male perspective and that there are many more viewpoints to consider. While I realize that this bias exists, I guess I also wonder about a solution to the problem. You mention that this is why we need critical pedagogy, but how does critical pedagogy fix this situation (asking out of curiosity, not trying to badger)? For a history textbook chapter about a certain event, should there be different sections dedicated to these contrasting perspectives (the Great Depression in the eyes of a woman, but also a Chinese immigrant, Irish-American factory worker, etc.)? Even then, how do we then decide that these narratives are the truth (would the interview with the Chinese immigrant be true for all Chinese immigrants during the Great Depression?)? Isn’t writing always an act of power, in that I am promoting my perspective, and what I believe to be the truth, over someone else’s? I definitely agree with you; I guess I just don’t quite know how to get closer to a solution..

    1. Hi Carrie, thanks for your reply and sharing your thoughts with me! I think one thing we need to keep in mind before trying to find a solution is (also acknowledged in the Kincheloe article if I’m not taking it wrong) that this relationship between power and the content of the standard curriculum is impossible to eliminate. And this is an important factor to consider and to let our students know when we learn and teach. It’s important to have one’s own point of view and even a firm attitude sometimes, but it’s also important to have an open mind for new/different perspectives: and that’s how knowledge is created and developed. Just some of my thoughts on your questions. 🙂

    2. I’ve thought about the issues you raise here quite a bit. I think the best we can do is to establish the facts, e.g. these events happened, but I don’t think there is a reliable way to recover the true (multi)causal structure that produced them in the form of a narrative. It’s even difficult to do this with current events. Power structures drive the narrative. Dissidents drive counter narratives. Personally, I’m agnostic about most narratives explaining historical or current events, or at least skeptical that they’re entirely true. On a light-hearted note, I recently encountered what was termed “the 6 degrees of Noam Chomsky thinking” in which you must in 6 causal steps or less link any world event back to the US military industrial complex.

  2. Thanks for the post and the issue you brought up. When it comes to history, there is a famous quote that says “History is written by the victors”. Many of the history stories we know, are incomplete. Certain incidents were omitted or flipped for the sake of the history writer’s. However, in the case you mentioned, it is very different. Two parties wrote two different tales of the same story. I want to let you know that this is exactly the case in many middle eastern countries till today.
    Back to the post, I had the same inquiry about how the post could relate to critical pedagogy. I like the answer you provided that it is the educational system which determines how students should think in problems from different views and to have their own view of the problem.

  3. This is a very interesting post and a great example of history being written by the victors. I agree that it relates to critical pedagogy. I think that with critical pedagogy, instead of just reading the textbook and believing what it says as “true,” students can read a textbook, think about who has written it, how it reflects societal biases, etc., and then also look at different textbooks to compare. A history class on WW2 may for instance have students read one textbook, but a class that is based on critical pedagogy may have students read many textbooks. I think that this type of education will better prepare students for life and improve society overall by encouraging people to challenge what they learn and believe. Maybe that will help us all get closer to what is actually (or closer to) the truth.

  4. History is just one of the aspects that are dictated by the winner and exactly why we need critical thinking. If we grow up believing what is written in history books, we will never live the truth. There is no universal truth, it is rather a complex puzzle that needs to be completed with pieces in more than one source.

  5. Did not expect this one to go down the path of understanding truth. If you all are interested in this sort of thing, read the philosophy of science a very short introduction by Okasha. This will introduce among many others Kant and his system of truth. A good example of history and different viewpoints is Newton and Goethe in regards to light, optics and color. Newton was scientific and Goethe was experiential. We really only study one in high school.

  6. Thank you for this post. It definitely brings up a fundamental problem in the traditional teaching system, as this will lead to an acceptance of one person’s (or group of people’s) viewpoint as fact. I also agree that a contemporary method of teaching is valuable in this case as it can use the knowledge originally taken as fact and build upon it. What I mean to say is that I feel strongly that a basic fundamental “fact database” is important in order for students to have basic knowledge on which to critically think and question. However, rather than just reading the textbook and saying this is how it happened, we can use make sure to point out the fact that this is just one possibility and one viewpoint of the events. We can then acknowledge other possibilities, seek out other resources, etc.

  7. It’s really cool that you can go and see the two histories and stories running in parallel now in real time. I like Carrie’s idea of telling multiple stories in parallel and letting people compare them for themselves.

    I think for things like history and current events, using primary sources is still helpful (of course not complete). This way you can kind of see people in history speaking for themselves the same way we want people in our classroom to speak for themselves. And we want to include multiple stories.

  8. When reading your post about history and the views expressed by others in this topic, I come to realize that even news reporting somewhat falls in the same category. It is difficult to find a reporter who is completely unbiased. The history we have been taught and reading, especially when it comes to wars are often one-sided and biased. Recently there was a huge social media uproar in my country that demanded a Kenyan lady Rosemary Odinga apologize for trying to re-write history in her favor. Rosemary when addressing the UN Youth Assembly claimed that Olduvai Gorge where the skull of the first human being was found is in Kenya. You can find the youtube clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-nKXyN3wOk. This place is in fact found in Tanzania. It appears that she was taught that way and so are many Kenyans made to believe that. And in fact, some believe even Mount Kilimanjaro is in Kenya. This is how people can try to make history work in their favor.

  9. This is fascinating! History is such an interesting field because we often forget how malleable it is. It brings up an interesting issue in terms of what should be included in history, since so much of it is subjective. How does someone write an objective history? Fascinating stuff!

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