Textbooks As Manipulation (Part Two)

I am just going to jump right in to what I was talking about yesterday, so if you didn’t read Part One, go take a step back.

“Dude, you haven’t found America”. “¿Que?”

So what is this American exceptionalism you ask? Well the term itself is probably less than one hundred years old, but the concept is much older, like Alexis de Tocqueville old. The exceptionalism of America stems from its birth through revolution, its very egalitarian principles on liberty, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. The moniker does not strictly imply superiority, but in recent years this has latched itself on to the overall concept. Since the 1980s, the Neo-Conservative movement picked up the idea that America was an exceptional place in the world, a beacon of light, and the Greatest Democracy In The World™. American children are taught this view of history, and are lead to believe in the idea that America is destined to be top dog; the leaders of the free world. The notion that America is an exceptionally different country is a false standpoint, no matter what Niall Ferguson will tell you. In all of history America is not exceptional in what it does. It is simply the current hegemon of the modern era. Britain could be classified as an exceptional nation in history, what with its actual size relative to its former empire. There are other examples of states that have been exceptional in their time. Simply because we are living in this time, does not mean we are witnessing a nation that transcends historical certitudes. The Soviet Union was itself exceptional for its time. The end of the Cold War only gave rise to false dawns, not certainties.

Schools in America seem to be locked in a political battle of how to teach history to kids. The left wants the plight of Native Americans, slavery, and other nasty bits of history pointed out; the right champions the idea of schools being places to teach patriotism, because there is an insufficient amount of it everywhere else, obviously. The idea that there are different versions of history is a slippery slope. The age that students end up learning about the gory details of their nation’s past is roughly the age that they should be forming their own opinions on how to engage with society as a whole. There is only so much socialisation the school and the family can and should do. At some point a kid has to at least attempt to engage their brain in some form of independent thought. Different versions of history abound. The facts of history, much like the facts of today, are not disputable, and should be taught as such. Using history, or civic, or cultural lessons in a school to promote a version of history that makes one nation stand above the rest is wrong. Morally, socially, intrinsically wrong.

Textbooks have so much influence on how we see our own society, and so should be honest about the good and the bad. It is similar to teaching only one version of anything that can be disputed, or indeed teaching the idea that there are disputes, when indeed there are none.  Evolution is one of those things, so don’t go there. I remember two friends of mine from different Eastern European countries arguing about some guy that was in their combined histories. To one, this particular man was a butcher; to the other, a liberator. History is used as a means to create a form of citizenship that adheres to a certain criteria. Textbooks are the tools.

George Orwell said “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past”. Big Brother may not be watching, but today’s superstructures have taken note of his dystopian lessons. History is often disputed. It is important to ask why. History textbooks are a good way to see how a society views itself. If this is true, maybe we were wrong to make fun of George W. Bush when he said; “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”. Ok, well we can make fun of his grammar. But he had a point. What are children learning and why. Textbooks are tools for socialisation, creating and shaping minds to follow certain ideals. They are not neutral, and should not be seen as such.

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