History lessons anywhere else

I’ve just finished NYT reporter David E. Sanger‘s book Confront and Conceal and was interested by his mention of how differently students in different places learn the story of international relations. Everyone, whether we majored in it in college or abandoned it in grade school, is influenced by the specific strand of history we were taught. It just comes out enmeshed and entangled in other parts of our lives, even if rarely given the credit for such influence.

At the end of his book, Sanger explains that the U.S.’ main obstacle in its Chinese relations is something it can hardly control: internal debate among Chinese powerholders themselves about whether the U.S. is more a business rival or more sovereignty-violating enemy. Unfortunately for the U.S., Sanger notes, the second option is the more familiar story. The century starting around 1850 “is a period of history that most American students are never taught about; in contrast, every Chinese student can recite the litany of outside powers’ offenses to national pride” (391). In other words, China’s been on the defense for 150+ years about other countries stepping all over it, Chinese students are well aware, and I am one of those American students less aware. Conveniently, however, I read that passage while studying with a Chinese friend who had attended grade school in Guangzhou in southern China. The least I could do was read her that sentence and ask, “Did that sound about right?”

“Yeah,” she said, “that was the sad part in history class. Our teacher started it by saying, ‘Okay, now we get to the depressing history.'”

And that’s how effortlessly entire swathes of history can be assumed and framed in one way or another. It’s like how my middle school texts in California portrayed the Southern states in the American Civil War as unruly belligerents, when I don’t think that’s how they’re presented in schools in Alabama. It’s like how some in Texas in 2010 were arguing that the revisions to social studies textbooks there marginalized and made invisible the LGBT community.

More recently in my mind has been the newly opened exhibition in China praising the Korean man Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated a Japanese statesman in 1909. As reported by The Wall Street Journal today: “To South Koreans, Mr. Ahn is a national hero; Japan calls him a terrorist. He has become a symbol of enduring enmity between the Asian neighbors.” For background, Japan once occupied China and South Korea, among others in the region. As for Northeast Asian tensions now, the New York Times explained it succinctly last month:

In the escalating feud between China and Japan, the Chinese leadership is running an anti-Japanese public relations campaign at home and abroad that amplifies its case against Japan, once its colonizer… and now a lesser economic power anxious about China’s increasingly muscular maritime claims.

The WSJ also speculates how the exhibition could be a “an opportunistic move to stick it to Japan and win favor with South Korea,” which polls say is working… And/or “weaken the U.S. alliance structure in Asia” that Sanger describes somewhat like a crowd of America-friendly neighbors that makes China feel left out in the cold sometimes, resentfully.

Asia’s not alone. Countries in Europe are preparing a four-year commemoration of World War I, which most accounts track back at least in part to the June 28, 1914, assassination of Austro-Hungarian Franz Ferdinand. (Will I be docked points for using Wikipedia as a sign of generally accepted knowledge?) But according to another WSJ article printed in today’s Europe paper, that too is a point of contention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where “some in the country – now divided among Serbs, Croats and Muslims – see the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, as an idealist or even a hero, while others see him as a terrorist.” Sound familiar or what? I don’t know if the authors of this article and the authors of the China exhibition article were sitting in nearby cubicles, but this parallel coverage is a fine reminder of how starkly histories diverge, and how closely they can clash.

Historical accounts don’t drive all political affairs, but they pave the road smooth or rocky. China, Japan and South Korea all seem fully cognizant of this, using historical narratives like armor for internal audiences and ammunition against the adversary. It’s easy for those not directly emotionally involved to underestimate the political impact of these narrative-based disputes, or disregard it all as PR nonsense, but that’s partly because it can’t be quantified in digestible stats – the fashionable logic of today. It might also be because many of us are first introduced to History as some static thing in the past rather than a constant controversy manipulating our future. Of course, that’s yet another case of unfortunate framing.

P.S. I was finishing up Sanger’s Confront and Conceal in a fantastic cafe called Timberyard by Seven Dials here in London. I highly recommend. Their breads and pastries are mouthwatering, the place is spacious, and you’re welcome to stay for hours!

**UPDATE: 09/01/14**
This Op-Ed in The New York Times discusses the relationship between history and politics here at home, stateside. The College Board apparently released a new teachig framework, effective this fall, for AP U.S. History classes (ah, high school throwback!) that the Republican National Committee disapproves of and which someone in National Review equated to a leftist “hijack.” Meanwhile, the Op-Ed’s author argues that the change acknowledges America’s less glorious past, along with the more positive ones, and could help encourage students how to think critically about given historical narratives. Again, the politics shines through: history lessons are a battleground for perceptions. In this situation, I agree with the author. I can’t condone blind acceptance of knowledge, I don’t know when that has ever been okay, and this is why we read Orwell’s 1984 in high school.

Another reader of that article commented: “To foreigners, it seems like Americans were brainwashed in history class.” I have discussed this observation with numerous friends, too, especially at grad school across the pond, where I was further reminded of my ignorance about hyper-critical views of some American policies. It’s a reminder to continue appealing to my non-American community for a more well-rounded understanding of my country’s state of affairs. Often, mass, reigning ideologies can only be seen from the outside. No wonder it’s easy to attack other countries’ textbook-driven propaganda without considering we might be doing it here, too.

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