Sunday, July 10, 2011
America's understanding of North Korean intentions would improve if we read that nation's history textbooks.
That's the opinion of Kyle Ward '98, a leading historiographer and author of a trio of books that analyze the history of American history.
North Korean history textbooks describe situation after situation in which the Hermit Kingdom has defeated the United States.
"In North Korea's history books, every time they escalate, America, in their opinion, backs down," said Ward, who is the University's director of social studies education. "They won the Korean War in their textbooks."
Small wonder, he argues, that North Korean leaders are confrontational and reluctant to make concessions.
"You learn more about a nation's modern politics by reading their history textbooks than anything else," he said.
At a March 31-April 2 history conference in Charleston, S.C., Ward witnessed historians arguing over the causes of the American Civil War.
"White southerners said slavery had nothing to do with it and the African Americans who were there said slavery influenced everything, it was that important," said Ward. "Listening to them debate, you heard more of a modern political debate going on, using historical facts and issues to get their points across."
Causes of the Civil War and other hotbutton issues have forced publishers to water-down our nation's stories, Ward said. Still, politically motivated distortions creep into textbooks. The "Our Virginia: Past and Present" textbook, currently in use, includes an assertion that thousands of African-Americans fought as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. This is an echo of the "happy slaves" thesis found in some textbooks well into the 1960s, according to Ward.
Mainstream historians reject the notion that slaves fought for the Confederacy. A leading rebel politician, Howell Cobb, articulated the chief objection: "If slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."
Historical myths and misconceptions are partly a product of the American educational system. A couple generations ago many citizens received their last dose of history in grades five and six. Even today, limited exposure to history education results in some civic illiteracy, Ward said.
"It's likely that 90 percent of the American population has finished formally studying history and civics when they're 18 years old," he said. "And, so, what they did or didn't get at that level really shapes their viewpoints."
The author of "History Lessons," (2006) "History in the Making" (2007) and "Not Written in Stone" (2010) tells his students they are the antidotes to bland and biased textbooks. The social studies teacher's job is to provide alternative viewpoints, supplementary texts and myth-busting facts, he said.
"Everybody just assumes history is written in stone, that the one story they've heard is the one and only perspective, the only interpretation. My students at both levels, high school and college, think the textbook is always right," said Ward. "The textbook isn't always right, because if you would have read the same story 100 years ago, the authors would have said something completely different."