But What about All the Dead Bodies?…

Forget about evolution and creationism for a minute. We see more evidence today that the first shot in many educational culture wars takes place not in science, but in history.

When it comes to schooling and culture wars, we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about creationism and science. It makes sense. In that case, we see a stark and shocking disconnect between contending visions of proper knowledge for children.

But some of the most virulent culture-war battles happen over historical issues. Conservative Christians in the United States often embrace an historical narrative that is at odds with mainstream academic interpretations. Counter-historians like David Barton sell just as many books as do counter-scientists like Ken Ham. And the difference between mainstream academic history and dissenting Christian histories can be just as stark as the differences between the modern evolutionary synthesis and young-earth creationism.

In the United States, one of the most stubborn conservative dissenting histories has been that of neo-Confederatism. As David Blight demonstrated in his terrific book Race & Reunion, conservative history activists in the US South scored major successes in limiting public-school histories to those that flattered the losing side in the Civil War.

In nations around the world, culture-war conflicts often show up as debates over the nature of real history. In Japan, for example, the horrific crimes of the Japanese army in World War II are repeatedly minimized or even ignored in mainstream textbooks. In my own ancestral homeland of Estonia, a long Russian occupation has generated a kind of historic cognitive dualism. Most Estonians of a certain age know the pro-Russian history they got in their Soviet-era schoolbooks, but they don’t believe it. In contrast, Estonians tend to believe a folk history of heroic Estonian resistance, even though they don’t know much about it.[1]

In the pages of the New York Times this morning, we see another example of this kind of battle for history. In pro-Russian breakaway regions of Ukraine, new educational directives insist that the Soviet famine of the 1930s was not a Stalinist genocide, but rather a morally neutral tragedy that befell the entire Soviet Union.

Controlling the past to control the future...

Controlling the past to control the future…

According to mainstream historians, including especially Robert Conquest in English, the Ukrainian famine was anything but morally neutral. Instead, the famine—a tragedy that killed millions of people—was the precise goal of Stalinist policy. In order to bring restive provinces in line, Stalin intended for the region to suffer.

According to the NYT, the new “Fatherland History” hopes to emphasize the region’s long ties with Russia. It plans to minimize Ukrainian nationalist ideas. Igor V. Kostenok, the new minister of education in charge of the new historical guidelines, described the goal as the creation of “a culture, a culture for the Slavic world, for the Russian world.”

Will it work? Not likely. As is the case in every aspect of our educational culture wars, dissenting ideas have a way of surviving and even thriving in spite of official condemnation.

[1] See James V. Wertsch, “Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge about History?” in Stearns, Seixas, and Wineburg eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (NYU Press, 2000), pp. 38-50.

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