Friday, September 01, 2006

"Where's Mao? Chinese Revise History Books"

When I was in high school I thought I was learning "history" - what really happened in the past. The topic was obvious, the questions and the answers were cut and dried. There were right answers that I had to learn to pass. Now I am finding out how much the topics, the questions and the"right answers" were constructions of "truth." The experts were trying to prepare me for the world I lived in -- that of course is what education should do. But determination of what "the world" was that I would be living in and what "really happened" in the past was a contested issue. People had to decide what was "true" and important enough to go in the textbooks. People had to decide what events in the past were worth putting in the textbooks, and what the view of those events would be. The "truth" that societies live by is always constructed - which means that it is also disputed and debated. Textbooks are a major site for debate over "truth" and "the past." And for states they are major vehicles for establishing a popular consensus on matters of state interest: who we are, where we came from, how we do things together, etc. As always, politics is the business of defining situations, and education is a critical area for how public situations are to be defined. This point is much easier to see in other societies than in our own.

So the Chinese attempts to reconstruct their past in their textbooks helps us think about the way "the past" is being constructed in our own social worlds. According to Joseph Kahn in today's New York Times, "socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once - in a chapter on etiquette." This new construction of China's past in high school textbooks has apparently been vetted by senior authorities as "part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today's economic and political goals." Here is another carefully calibrated attempt to define the public situation - the contemporary situation - through the education of youth about "their" past. The past is always with us and continues to inform how we understand events as they take place - but it is a constructed past. RLC

"Where's Mao? Chinese Revise History Books"
Published: September 1, 2006 (The New York Times)

BEIJING, Aug. 31 — When high school students in Shanghai crack their history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and Communist revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization.


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