The Power in the Hand Holding the Pen
The study of history is vital to a student’s education. Fail to learn it, and you’re “condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana famously said. Neglect to study it, and you’re “a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree,” novelist Michael Crichton wrote. In his 1864 book La Cité Antique, French historian Fustel de Coulange powerfully summarized the value of the subject: “History studies not just facts and institutions, its real subject is the human spirit.”
Clearly, studying the past is an indispensable component of understanding the world.
But there is a big problem: When men write history, they get it wrong. The old saying states there are three sides to every story—his side, your side and what actually happened.
Yet, far more destructive than accidental misrepresentations are intentional distortions, omissions and revisions. The past is a foreign nation, and modern men redraw its borders to suit their interests. They dress its people in costumes their antecedents never wore, and cast them in light more—or less—radiant than any reality ever shed.
Why would anyone want to intentionally distort history?
Rule the Past, Control of Future
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell explained that the historian’s hand is imbued with great power: “[He] who controls the past controls the future: [he] who controls the present controls the past.”
This means authorities who oversee what people are taught about the past can manipulate that information, molding it in order to shape people’s view of their place in the contemporary world. They can approach the past with a purpose, arriving at a conclusion first and then working backward to find supporting evidence. They can prune quotes here, cherry-pick stats there, and transplant facts out of their native context into foreign, misleading soil. When they tire of manhandling reputable sources, they can enlist unscrupulous ones.
If authorities can use such tactics to shape the view of enough people in a certain group or nation, they may be able to influence the path that group takes into the future. Authorities wielding the pen can revise history to suit their agenda.
For some readers, such a claim may emanate with the sour scent of conspiracy, but historical revision is widely practiced. And for proof, we need only to look at the backbone of most any high school history course anywhere in the world: textbooks.
Here’s How It Went Down, Students
Reading high school level history textbooks is the best way to see how a given nation sees its past, or wishes to portray it. In their 2004 book History Lessons, Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward say that’s because history textbooks contain the “most widely read historical account in any country, and one encountered during the formative adolescent years.”
Textbook versions of history are far from objective, Lindaman and Ward say, because they “are typically written by national authors with a national audience in mind, leading to a sort of insularity on any given historical topic.”
Of course, the degree to which governments influence textbooks varies from country to country.
Some nations tightly control everything about their history textbooks from production through distribution. These include Nigeria, Cuba, North Korea and most Middle Eastern nations.
In other countries, such as Japan and Germany, textbooks are published by private companies, but the government—either at the federal or regional level—requires them to conform to certain standards.
The United States professes to be different. It claims to have a system for textbooks that is 1) totally market-driven and 2) completely decentralized.
While true that the U.S. Department of Education has no direct say in textbook production, it does push publishers to adopt “voluntary norms or standards.” And a look below the surface shows that, in many states, legislators wield significant control over history textbooks.
This is especially true of California, which the Los Angeles Times called “the nation’s capital of legislative interference with what should be the job of academics” (June 15, 2014). California textbooks, the Times said, are subject to “a long list of legislatively imposed rules for what our children should learn, whether the material is accurate or not.”
California is also important to the question of decentralization. The Golden State is home to more public school students than in any other, so its massive buying power prompts most textbook publishers to tailor their books specifically to its standards.
“[A]s a result,” said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute legal group, “many smaller states are pressured into approving California-focused instructional materials.” No matter where an American public high school student lives, the history textbooks he uses are likely written to please California’s politicians. (New York and Texas also have influential markets, but neither are as powerful as California’s.)
Despite U.S. claims to the contrary, its textbook market is quite centralized and heavily influenced by legislators.
It is clear that national authorities can and do control what students are taught. But how do they use this power?
South Korea: It’s Time to Love This Nation!
South Korea’s government announced on October 12 that all secondary schools in the nation are required to start using a state-issued history textbook.
Before this ruling, South Korean schools were free to use any of eight different history textbooks that were produced by eight different private publishing companies. But the government said these books were too left-leaning, too “politically correct” and not laudatory enough of South Korea, its history and its allies.
So, by government decree, those eight books are now history. And all South Korean students—from the mountains of Seoul to the beaches of Busan—will be taught a government-mandated version of history from a book with an Orwellian title: The Correct Textbook of History.
The ruling has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from opposition parties, students and academics. “Such a textbook will allow the government to interfere with the interpretation and teaching of history. … This infringes on the independence and political neutrality of education guaranteed by the Constitution,” a group of student protesters told the Korea Times.
The conservative government of South Korean President Park Geun-hye sees the rising tide of nationalism and militarism happening in Asia. And it seems to be taking measures to ensure that South Koreans will be more patriotic and more nationalistic. It wants students to be proud of their country and ready to fight for it if they are called upon to do so.
Japan: Atrocities? What Atrocities?
The situation in Japan is more extreme. In the lead up to and during World War ii, Japan committed some heinous crimes against humanity. But you would not know that by reading modern Japan’s history textbooks.
Up until the late 1990s, the most widely used Japanese textbooks acknowledged Japanese soldiers’ use of the euphemistically termed “comfort women,” anti-Japan movements in Korea, forced suicides in Okinawa, Japan’s medical experiments on prisoners of war, and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, during which Chinese history says Japanese invaders butchered up to 300,000 Chinese civilians.
But in 2001 and again in 2006, Japan’s Ministry of Education signed off on a book written by nationalists that glossed over many of these atrocities. It calls the Nanjing Massacre an “incident” in which “many” Chinese died. When referring to Japan’s military occupation of Asian nations, the word invasion is replaced by “advancement.” And it makes no mention of “comfort women”—the hundreds of thousands of sex slaves Japanese soldiers took from Korea and elsewhere. Actually, out of eight textbooks approved for the 13-to-15 age bracket, only one mentions comfort women.
The book is designed to reinforce the narrative that Japan was liberating Asian states from Western threats.
Japanese journalist Mariko Oi says she only learned of her country’s wartime history by studying abroad: “I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan and went to school in Australia,” she wrote in the bbc News Magazine (March 13, 2013). Oi’s high school history textbook was 357 pages, but she says only one of them discussed “events leading up to the Sino-Japanese war in 1937—including one line, in a footnote, about the massacre that took place when Japanese forces invaded Nanjing—the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing.”
Oi interviewed 20-year-old Japanese university student Nami Yoshida and her older sister Mai, and found that neither had ever learned about comfort women. “I’ve heard of the Nanjing massacre but I don’t know what it’s about,” both said. “At school, we learn more about what happened a long time ago, like the samurai era,” Nami explained.
The Yoshida’s experience is representative of many Japanese university students. (A recent poll cited in a thesis titled “Japanese History the Japanese Don’t Know” said 26 percent of Japanese students don’t even know that Japan once annexed Korea.)
Because of the nation’s lopsided approach to teaching about World War ii, many among Japan’s younger generations seem to view the war as they would a destructive natural disaster, like a tsunami. Its causes were abstract and irrelevant. It was unmistakably terrible, but a tragedy for which no one is really to blame.
For many Japanese policymakers, Japanese history is still not patriotic enough.
In the December 2012 election, the Liberal Democratic Party called current textbooks “ideologically prejudiced expressions based on self-torturing views of history” and pledged to restore “patriotic” values in them.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long said that further changes in education are required to restore a strong sense of self in Japan. Last January, his administration successfully changed screening guidelines for textbooks to give them a more patriotic tone.
Abe has also set up a panel working to abolish Japan’s “neighboring-country clause”—an ordinance instructing textbook authors to factor in the sentiments of neighbors in what they write.
Similar textbook revisionist movements are gaining momentum in China and Taiwan. They all seem to feed off of each other. And all run the risk of inflaming sentiments of nationalism among schoolchildren.
Students raised on a diet of guilt about their nation’s past do not make successful soldiers. But Asia’s hawkish leaders are winning the textbook wars and manipulating the past to boost levels of nationalism in an entire generation of students. If the hawks keep winning, the whole continent may be primed for war.
Opposite Case: U.S.A.
As explained above, American authorities also manipulate the history students learn. But the manipulation is for a totally different purpose than in the previous examples.
“Over the last 20 to 30 years, [American] textbook publishers have become averse to bold historical narratives for fear of being labeled as … too conservative, too patriotic, or too sexist and rendering themselves unattractive to buyers on the textbook market,” Lindaman and Ward observe.
The California factor explains this in part because policymakers in that state are generally in the liberal camp, which is averse to patriotism of any kind. Among many such authorities, the prevailing view is that America has been an imperialist bully on the international stage, and it has done great destruction most anywhere it has been.
Authorities of such a mind-set want young Americans to learn to despise the country’s past, so they rewrite history in a way that emphasizes America’s error and omits or obscures its accomplishments and benevolence.
Those who are influencing how U.S. students learn history seem to actively seek out any controversial actions the country took. The resulting textbooks could just as well be called The Terrible Things America Has Done, or maybe The U.S.A.’s History According to Pastor Jeremiah Wright.
It is important for Americans to study the darker chapters from our past. How else could we learn from our numerous mistakes? But shouldn’t students learn the good with the bad? Authorities should strive to teach the past objectively, rather than giving disproportionate weight to anything that can be made to support the narrative that America has been a global force of evil.
American history is manipulated in a way that injects students with a degree of guilt, self-loathing and cynicism.
Back in 1956, word-renowned educator Herbert W. Armstrong could already see that Americans were starting to be conditioned to loathe their nation. “We are … fighting … an entirely new kind of warfare. It’s a kind of warfare we don’t understand or know how to cope with. It uses every diabolical means to weaken us from within, sapping our strength, perverting our morals, sabotaging our educational system, wrecking our social structure, destroying our spiritual and religious life, weakening our industrial and economic power, demoralizing our armed forces …” (emphasis added).
Sixty years on, it is easy to see that America’s educational system has been compromised. And it has succeeded in turning many Americans against their country.
We should be wary of a world that widely practices historical revisionism. The trend will have global ramifications.
Perverting history hides its precious and vital truth. It breeds ignorance. Historical ignorance prevents the world from learning from past mistakes, which dooms us, as Santayana said, to repeat them. In the opposite direction, heaping undo scorn on a mostly positive history hamstrings nations like the U.S. from being able to repeat past successes. America’s self-loathing will further the erosion of global stability that the U.S. long authored.
While students in South Korea, Japan and other nations grow more nationalistic toward their countries, American students become more resentful toward theirs. These converging trends—the resurgence of historically aggressive powers and the deterioration of America’s pride—will soon lead to a time of trouble darker than any the world has ever endured. But the Bible says this darkness will break to the brightest dawn in all of history: the return of Jesus Christ to usher in an age of truth and peace!
To start building a foundation of historical understanding that will allow you to avoid being deceived by national agendas and biases, carefully read Mr. Armstrong’s book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. We will send you a copy at no charge to you.