Thursday, May 08, 2008

Multicultural History

Every week I’m reminded of my love/hate relationship with the US History textbook used in my class. It blatantly panders to America’s public school teachers who favor politically-correct interpretations of history. That’s what I hate about it - and it’s also what I love about it. The book’s bias is easy for my students to recognize, and I can contrast it to my own conservative bias which I acknowledge very early in the school year. The book does not acknowledge its bias, purporting to be an objective account of events. It’s an easy foil.

I use the text mostly for students to read and answer discussion questions as homework, which we correct in class. In its coverage of the Vietnam War, one two-part question asks: “Why did civil war break out in [neighboring] Cambodia?” and “What were the results of the war?” As I walk around the room checking homework, a student volunteer acts as “assistant teacher” using the teachers’ edition to go over the questions and answers. He or she will read a question, listen to various answers from students, and then read the “correct” answer. As for what caused the Cambodian Civil War, the teachers’ edition gave the answer as: “US/South Vietnamese forces bombed and attacked Cambodia's bases; as Cambodians took sides, civil war erupted.” The clear implication is that America started it.

As for what the results of the war? The “correct” answer was: “Communist Khmer Rouge won; more than a million Cambodians died." They weren’t worked to death or murdered by the communists. They just “died.”

The first time I heard that I was appalled and I asked the student to repeat what the teachers’ edition said. President Nixon was no prize, but he didn’t start the Cambodian Civil War when he ordered US forces into North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sanctuaries there, and he didn’t cause the Khmer Rouge to murder millions of Cambodians either. Communists own that. It’s part of their dismal legacy around the world in the twentieth century, but the three historians who wrote my textbook seem deliberately blind about the evil effects of communism wherever it has been applied. They define it as: “an economic system is which all wealth and property is owned by the community as a whole.” Sounds fine when put in those terms, no?

Contrast the text’s definition with Random House’s (2006) definition: “a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party.” Based on about ninety years of applied communism around the world and tens of millions dead as a result, which definition is most accurate?

Communism’s first application was in Russia after Bolsheviks took control of the revolution and instituted the Soviet Union. The text’s harshest criticism of their depredations is a description of how Americans were shocked “when the Soviet government did away with private property and attacked religion.” Then it covers the first Ukrainian famine saying: “Despite disapproval of the Soviet government, Congress voted $20 million in aid when famine threatened Russia in 1921. American aid may have saved as many as 10 million Russians from starvation.”

The text doesn’t speculate about why the Soviet government would “disapprove” aid to its own starving people. Neither does it mention that Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin engineered a “famine” in Ukraine ten years later to purposefully starve 7 million Ukrainians when they resisted “community ownership” of their farmland.

What about the Soviet Union’s military repression of eastern Europe after World War II? When the text begins its coverage of the Cold War, students are asked: “Why did tensions develop among the Allied Powers?” The “correct” answer is: "The US and Britain distrusted the Soviet Union's communist government; the Soviets, also distrustful, feared invasion." There’s no moral superiority in America’s $12 billion rebuilding of western Europe under the Marshal Plan compared to the Soviet Union’s virtual enslavement of eastern Europe.

Like it or not, that’s the multicultural, morally equivalent theme permeating nearly every textbook used in America’s public schools. No culture may be depicted as superior to any other culture, even when it is.


Nathan Pitts said...

Hi Tom, I enjoy your writing in the Conway Daily Sun. I like this column especially. My dad was a Maine high school principal for nearly 30 yrs. He just passed away, at age 87, last April. He saw a lot in his time. He deplored the way history has been distorted in today's public school textbooks in order to reflect a more multi-cultural worldview. I am an avid historian and agree with my dad's sentiments: History is history, good, bad, ugly whatever and the only way to learn from it is to be honest about it. This was brought home to me this past winter. I have a son who is a freshman at Kennett High in N. Conway. In an argument and debate class he was told by his teacher that America started the Korean War. I gasped a little then got out my comprehensive history of that war and presented it to him to read. The first chapter states that: 85,000 men of the N Korean army accompanied by 150 Russian built T-34 tanks crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950 with the intention of driving the S korean army, its government and a few hundred american military advisors into the sea. Pretty clear to me. He took it to school and showed it to his teacher. She stated that she had never really said that. Wow! My son is lucky that he has his parents to counter this stuff. But what happens to America when those students who believe what they are taught grow up and achieve influence in society? I wonder if there will come a day when there is no one left with conservative views, willing to take an honest look at history? I am glad that I won't be around to see it.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Tom! And to think, I put over twenty years in the United States Navy defending the right of the writers of history to display their stupidity on their sleeves!

Harvey in North Baldwin

Garnet said...

National Geographic, May, 2008 p. 80 article “Gilded Age, Gilded Cage”

The article is about middle-class 15 year old ‘Bella’ Zhou, and this snippet is from the part that describes her educational experience in communist China:

“She hated Japan, as her textbooks had taught her to: The Japanese army had killed 300,000 Chinese in the 1937 Nanjing massacre. She hated America too, because it always meddled in the affairs of other countries.”

The Chinese obviously think their culture is superior. The Chinese think it’s ok to use textbooks to drive this point home to their children.

It appears that this tactic is apt to engender intolerance and hate toward ‘inferior‘ cultures.

I’m glad our textbooks lean in the other direction, toward tolerance and acceptance, because (if one subscribes to the need to brandish superiority) I think it could be said that these are the very qualities that make our culture superior to others.

Zach said...

I like it, it seams to outline communism fairly well. I hope to read something from you involving the
recent capture of al-Masri. Sorry I was not too sociable today just the usual teenager I suppose. I haven't forgotten your teachings however and I still read your blog from time to time. It really was nice to see you again.

SeanPatrick said...

Hey Tom,

Good column. I've noticed that, too, about history text books. Sometimes I think it would be better to use a text like Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." He is way radical, but he admits he is biased, he admits he is not neutral, unlike the textbooks which pretend to be neutral but dont realize that failing to condemn the commies is expressing an opinion.

Also, I am taking education classes to finish up certification to teach history, and all the classes say they support a constructivist approach to education. What does constructivism mean? I'm sure, as a teacher yourself, you hear this a lot.

Sean Pidgeon

Tom McLaughlin said...

We started the Korean War, huh? Somehow it doesn't surprise me that a teacher makes that claim. Most texts contain nearly as much about the Japanese internment camps as they do about Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.

All history textbooks have a point of view because they're all written by human beings. Today's have a multicultural, diversity-celebrating point of view, and they try too hard to be so open to non-European, non-western perspectives, that they unconsciously, and not so unconsciously, trash western civilization and go easy on every other non-western civilization. Such a perspective is very fashionable in academia. I find it repulsive.

The reports of Al Masri's capture were innaccurate. Several times he's been reported captured or killed, but later those reports were found to be inaccurate. See here:

Constructivism seems to be a new word for an old thing - that we draw meaning from what we learn based on how people around us present it and how we receive it. Well, duh. Tell us something we don't know.

The head of the graduate school of education where I got my masters said thirty-five years ago: "There's nothing new in education." That statement keeps coming back to me. There are only new words for what we've always done. Constructists say students should direct their own learning and we should facilitate. Was it Confucius who said, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears"? I think it was.