Professional Learning

Foreign Textbooks Teach a Lesson in American History

A book that surveys schoolbooks published in other countries sheds a light on how people around the world see historical events.

November 10, 2004
Credit: The New Press

This article accompanies the feature "A Textbook Example of What's Wrong with Education."

Who could have guessed that a book about textbooks would turn out to be a page turner? And yet that's exactly what authors Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward have produced with History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History.

Lindaman, a Harvard University graduate student, and Ward, an assistant professor at Indiana's Vincennes University, take many of the major historical events that occupy center stage in standard U.S. history textbooks and show how texts from other countries involved recount the same episodes.

One nation's glorious war for independence may be a pesky and pernicious insurrection to another people. A national leader may be oppressive or divinely guided, depending on one's perspective (or on whose Gore was axed). And though it's often said that history is written by the winners, losers and bit players write history, too.

In the introduction, the authors state the problem they seek to address: "Certain societies that could have more easily ignored the United States fifty years ago find themselves today dealing with U.S. corporations, fashion, food, entertainment, and U.S. foreign policy on a daily basis. And this is hardly a one-way street.

However, there is one distinct advantage that these other countries have over the United States in this relationship: They are constantly exposed to the U.S., receiving a daily dose of information on the U.S. and Americans, studying English at school, and in some cases continuing their studies in this country. Americans, in sharp contrast, seem to know relatively little about other countries and cultures. This isolationist tendency is nowhere more apparent than within our own educational system."

Few are more aware of this isolationism than secondary school teachers, particularly those who teach history using standard texts that -- not surprisingly -- view the signal events of American history with a kind of national solipsism. Students in the States can therefore be forgiven if they think the entire world views these events in the same way.

To correct this tunnel vision (or, sometimes, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel vision), Lindaman and Ward present a kind of Rashomon world, offering hundreds of accounts from foreign history textbooks. For example, the authors look at the Spanish-American War through the schoolbooks of Spain, Cuba, and the Philippines. A reader at least vaguely familiar with the U.S. high school textbook version -- the conflict sparked by the sinking of the American battleship Maine, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, imperial Spain defeated, the oppressed Cubans and Filipinos liberated and grateful -- will be surprised to see how each country regards the war a century later.

The Spanish textbook quoted, which might be expected to see Spain as an aggrieved party, in fact mostly dwells on the internal dissension and clumsy colonial governance that led to the war and defeat even though the United States "hardly had a professional army." Significantly, the explosion that sank the Maine and precipitated America's declaration of war is handled with equanimity: "In February of 1898 the North American cruiser Maine, anchored in the harbor of Havana, exploded. The cause of the explosion was never clearly explained and the North American authorities attributed it to Spanish sabotage."

Perhaps the most surprising version of the Spanish-American War appears in textbooks from the Philippines, generally thought of in this country as a U.S. ally. The island nation's standard history textbook presents a dark picture of American motives: "The Filipinos, who expected the Americans to champion their freedom, instead were betrayed and reluctantly fell into the hands of American imperialists." On the sinking of the Maine, the book is angrily adamant: "Although the Maine had been blown up by American spies in order to provoke the war, the public was not informed of the truth."

To better understand the world, we owe it to ourselves, and our students, to know that these varied national "truths" are out there. Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward have compiled the textbook equivalent of the Gnostic Gospels, a book that every history teacher should be reading.

Owen Edwards is a contributing editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian magazines.

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