In this post, I argue that current discourses around history education alienate students who don’t belong to the mainstream historical tradition of Europe.
Edited March 16, 2014
As a student, I was never fully aware of why I was learning what I was learning. Of course, boundless educational theories exist today around teaching and learning, from building student awareness around how they learn through meta-cognition to tapping into students’ multiple intelligences to theories around zones of proximal development. But the fundamental question why are we learning/teaching what we are learning/teaching is one that I find we don’t ask ourselves as students or teachers. Often, what we don’t realize is that the process of education is embedded in a discourse of power. With that power comes the ability to raise certain topics/subjects to significance while relegating others to non-importance. As a Third Culture kid, Hybrid individual, first generation Canadian, perhaps even as the subaltern, the stories that we learnt, the histories that we were taught, came from a particular intellectual and historical landscape. We would learn about the Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Medieval period in Europe, the Dark Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, the World Wars and where fitting, a little about the contemporary history of other countries. At the time, learning about these topics was quite interesting. Who isn’t interested in learning about the Ancient Egyptian gods and the story of Osiris and Isis or Zeus and the River Styx? But looking back on this period of my education, I wondered where was “my” history in all this?
Curriculums are created because they provide a roadmap for educators on the course and trajectory of their subject area. In this way, curriculum serves the dual purpose of providing both direction and accountability within the classroom. These curriculums are devised centrally as a way to address communal needs, whether at a local, national, or international level. For example, in Canada, the provinces have regional control over their school curriculums making each province unique in its approach to education. In the UK, national policies set educational standards and regulations around compulsory subjects and provide examination and testing at a national level, assessing all British youth on the same criteria. International curriculums also exist, perhaps best exemplified with the International Baccalaureate (IB), a competitive program that has grown in its presence in schools around the world. Ultimately, curriculum is designed by individuals who are often removed from the actual process of teaching, created for the explicit purpose of controlling discourse, history, and memory.
One may think that I am speaking in terms of abstractions and hyperbole but this isn’t the case. In fact, examples of government control over curriculum abound in the contemporary context. Most telling is the curriculum revision process taking place in South East Asia. With the desire to create a common curriculum across the region based on the increasing level of interaction between members, ASEAN countries have had to contend with the perils that come with redrafting curriculum and doing so in a way that is representative of the history of many nations. 1
It is impossible to divorce discussions of power from conversations regarding institutions. From justice to government, health care to education, power is at the heart of any institutional mandate. Specifically when it comes to education, the power to control what is taught in classrooms should be interrogated by students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders. The ability to dictate what we deem to be of educational value is a vital tool used by governments in reifying a specific historical position. A prime contemporary example of this power run amok is Japan, a country marred in controversy around its history curriculum.
Without getting into specificities (which are available online), Japan, through its school curriculum, “whitewashed” its role in several international confrontations and presented a sanitized version of its imperial history. This curriculum was denounced by many other countries in the region who took issue with the “creative” way in which Japan described its role in WWII. 2
In 2000, Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a group of conservative scholars, published the New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho, 新しい歴史教科書), which was intended to promote a revised view of Japan. The textbook downplays or whitewashes the nature of Japan’s military aggression in the First Sino-Japanese War, in Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and in World War II. The textbook was approved by the Ministry of Education in 2001, and caused a huge controversy in Japan, China and Korea. A large number of Japanese historians and educators protested against the content of New History Textbook and its treatment of Japanese wartime activities. China Radio International reported that the PRC government and people were “strongly indignant about and dissatisfied with the new Japanese history textbook for the year 2002 compiled by right-wing Japanese scholars”.
The idea of memory is an interesting one. Memory in this case is that which we find has value in our lives and that which we wish to pass on and share with others. In Canada, the memory that we provide students is mostly that of Europe’s past. This is quite interesting. Canada has been independent from Europe effectively since ratifying the British North America Act in 1867. But a long memory of Canada’s European origins continued to permeate Canadian consciousness for a century after the Constitution Act, 1867. It was because of our kindred past to England that Canada sent troops to fight in both World Wars. However, the Canada of today is much changed. While the Canada of the past was made up of individuals of European decent, today’s Canada is comprised of peoples from around the globe. It is often said that Canada is a diverse country but the extent of that diversity is often lost on most. Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolitan city, will have a population where one out of every two individuals will be members of the visible minority population within the next 3 years.
For me this raises some fundamental questions. Specifically, I’m curious as to why the history of these individuals is not part of a collectively shared memory. Coming back to myself, while I always found learning about European history interesting, there was something intrinsically foreign about the process of learning about this past that had very little to do with my own history (I also didn’t really know what “my” history truly was). Learning about the advancements of the Romans and the burgeoning of Enlightenment thinking was great, but this education excluded the histories of a great many other empires and civilizations. We constantly learn about Europe yet for some reason, the history of neighboring Arabia is completely removed form our curriculums as if the Arab world and Europe existed on two completely separate planets when in fact these two civilizations were in constant contact since the 7th C. We learn about Pythagoras, Galileo, Newton and many other great European thinkers but we never learn about Ibn Haytam, Ibn Rushd or Ibn Sina. Likewise, we learn about European history but we omit the history of Asia and the advances in agriculture, governance, and art that emerged from the Orient. We don’t teach our students the history of our numeral system and it’s roots in present day India. We don’t teach our youth the origins of Algebra in Arabia. We don’t teach our students about the paradigm shifting introduction of paper to Europe from China or the advances in medicine, astronomy, and education from Bagdad and Cairo. Very few students know the Muslim history of Spain or Italy and fewer know about the influence of Arabic in the English language.
Curriculum, Power and Memory
Our classroom demographics are changing. Our students are coming from diverse backgrounds. They are uniquely Canadian in a way that we could not have imagined a few decades ago. Yet their education is not consistent with bringing about a sense of pride in their own native cultural memory. We completely remove from their process of learning a personal attachment to history. With force, we institutionalize what constitutes appropriate history. In this process, what we assert is that while one history is of great significance, any other history is inconsequential by its very omission from our curriculums. More significantly, we are saying that this history is not worthy of being part of our épopée. 3 This is a treacherous path because it leaves those who come from outside this historical culture with very little self-awareness and the continued belief that they don’t have a unique history of their own to contribute to communal memory.
I was fortunate that growing up I attended classes where the history of the Muslim world (leaving aside theology) was a big part of my religious upbringing. It was important for us to learn about this history because it was uniquely our own, valid in its own right even if missing from mainstream curriculums. What we must decide is the direction in which we want our curriculums to orient themselves: towards the past with a continued hankering for a European centralizing source of historical legitimacy or towards the future, with a history that is responsive to the changes in demographics, representative of modern Canadians and their roots?
1. Textbook approach to Asia’s disputes
2.What Japanese history lessons leave out
From the Canadian national anthem where épopée can be translated as saga or epic
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix !
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.