I don't consider myself that well informed, knowledgeable about world events, or a historian. So it always comes as a surprise when I find people don't know things that I think of as common knowledge. It's especially surprising when it's people I know who care about issues, or who try to stay well informed.
The biggest hole in people's awareness is history. Even the aforementioned so-called informed people can be completely unaware of the circumstances that have led up to a current situation. It makes me wonder how they can understand the situation they see playing out on television enough to properly formulate a point of view if they don't know how the situation came into existence.
Questions that are never answered during the modern newscasts, like where did the Palestinian refugees first come from, is information that I would consider essential to understanding the roots of the conflict and how the situation came about in the first place. I'm only using that as an example because I was asked that very question the other night by a person who I've always considered well informed and who tries to be fair-minded when it comes to dealing with issues that are important.
She was quite incensed that she didn't have this knowledge and couldn't understand why this wasn't the kind of history taught in schools either when she was a child or now that her son is in high school. In Canada, what used to pass for world history was very Anglo-centric and dealt with world events as they pertained to British or Canadian participation. I can only assume the same is true for the United States, minus the British.
While it is understandable to want to teach students about the role their country has played in the world, and the history of the country they live in, why is there so very little in terms of a broader view of the world's history taught? It seems to me that now, more than ever, teaching students about the diverse nature of the world is vitally important. There are so many situations, like Israel/Palestine, that require more than the surface knowledge provided by the news to understand the full complexity of the issues facing the people involved.
In only one grade did I have anything approaching a world history overview, and that was strictly Western history, starting from the Greeks and Romans and working up to contemporary times form there. That type of broad survey course is not designed to give students any insight into events that have had an impact on current situations. Neither are they conducive to real learning as they attempt to cram massive amounts of information down your throat so you can regurgitate it on an exam paper or in an essay.
What needs to be done is to define our purpose when teaching history at the secondary school level. Is it merely a means of glorifying our own countries, or is it to show people the origins of today's events in as impartial a manner as possible?
The truth is that we soon may no longer have a choice in the matter. We will all have to change our approach to what we teach as history and its content. The countries that were formally colonies up until times in the 1960s have begun to settle down enough for their cultural pride to resurface. They are not going to be satisfied with textbooks that detail the history of occupation and describes them as the villainous natives while their colonial masters are depicted as brave, erstwhile defenders of honour, duty and the Queen.
One of the more obvious incidences of the archaic nature of the history still being taught is the manner in which the rebellion of 1857 in India is still referred to as the Indian Mutiny. This of course casts those attempting to throw off the mantle of the British East Indian Company as rulers and take back their country in a negative light.
Even though India is a now a sovereign nation and no one disputes its right to independence, those who fought for their country's independence in the early struggles are still considered criminals by history. It's to correct impressions like these that historians, archaeologists, and writers are working to amend what's recorded to more accurately reflect the circumstances.
On February 4th, 1944, in his column "As I Please", George Orwell wrote about the aftermath of World War Two and the Spanish Civil War of the decade before and talked about how difficult it would be for historians to ever find out the truth of what happened. It was here that his famous quote, "History is written by the winners," first appeared.
But the words in that article that in my mind are more important are these: "The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits atrocities but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future." People's opinions are going to be shaped by what they are told has happened in the past. It's not even needed to tell outright lies, only to change the perspective the story is told from and it makes it sound like the heroes were villains and vice versa.
This technique was used to great effect in the way history North America has depicted our early relationships with the First Nations. The times where native warriors have gotten the upper hand on either British, French, or American troops are referred to as massacres, but the times when troops wiped out villages of women and children are referred to as glorious victories.
These interpretations appeared in history books for ages colouring the opinions of many a generation of student. It has created historical justification for the manner in which Native Americans have been treated over the years. By calling chiefs who fought for their people's liberty renegades, when the very same actions performed by white men a hundred years ago against the British were considered heroic, the myth of the vicious savage was perpetuated.
Some of these myths have started to be dispelled and the untruths revealed. Almost everyone knows the truth of what happened at Wounded Knee now, but the damage is done and it can never be undone. That's the trouble with lies, they are almost impossible to refute once they have become ingrained for a few generations.
History is a complicated thing; we need it to understand the realities of so many of today's situations, but at the same time how can we trust what has been written down in so many textbooks and other forms of historical record keeping? For me a good rule of thumb has been any history that tends to glorify one side over another is suspect, unless substantial proof is provided.
Trying to find sources that recount the same period from more then one perspective has become easier these days as more countries are taking matters into their own hands and telling their own story. But even those can be problematic for the same reasons as the ones told by the other side. To be honest, most of my knowledge of history has come from either novels or books written by people who have no national bias towards the proceedings.
In order for us to better understand the times we live in, we need to know what led up to the current circumstances. The hard part is finding the right path that will lead us to the answers we seek without heavily flavouring the results. But it's well worth the effort if it results in a clearer and more accurate depiction of today's events.