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Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Friday, 25 June 2010 15:57 UK

History, with rose-tinted hindsight

Billboard which reworked WWII slogan "For Motherland! With Stalin"
St Petersburg billboard with reworked slogan "For Motherland! Without Stalin"


Why rewrite history books - to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative for the good of the nation, asks David Cannadine in his Point of View column.

According to a newspaper report last week, the Russian authorities have recently gathered together a group of academics to draw up a school textbook that would present an approved version of the complex and controversial events that make up Russian history.

Woman in rose-tinted glasses
Taking a rosy view of the past

The aim is to play down the deplorable excesses of the Communist regime: the show trials, the purges, the gulags, the abuses of human rights and the denial of individual freedom.

Instead, the intention is to stress the positive contribution and the heroic achievements of the Russian people in defeating Hitler, and to build a new national identity on the basis of this selective and sanitised national narrative.

As one official explained, "we understand that school is a unique social institution that forms all citizens"; which means it is essential they should be taught history, especially the right kind of history. "We need a united society," the apparatchik goes on, and to achieve that end, "we need a united textbook".

This isn't the first time such an enterprise has been undertaken in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution. Indeed, an earlier leader who had exactly the same idea is one of the people who must be causing this recent gathering of academics the greatest difficulties.

For in 1934, it was Stalin himself who convened an earlier meeting of historians to discuss the very same issue, namely the teaching of history in Russian schools. He disapproved of the conventional class-based accounts then available, which were strongly influenced by Marxist doctrines, and which traced the development of Russia from feudalism to capitalism and beyond.

Crane removes Stalin statue overnight in Gori, his hometown
Not even Stalin's hometown wanted to be associated with him anymore...

"These textbooks," Stalin thundered, "aren't good for anything. It's all epochs and no facts, no events, no people, no concrete information."

History, he concluded somewhat enigmatically, "must be history" - by which, in this case, he meant a cavalcade of national heroes, whose doings might appeal more broadly to the Russian people than the arid abstractions of class analysis and social structure.

As such, Stalin's earlier enterprise in national history writing sounds rather similar to what's happening now. Yet in any country which aspires to a measure of academic freedom, and it is to be hoped that such is the case in Russia today, it's very difficult to produce an agreed account of the national past.

Texas tried too

Even if it's confined to the 20th Century, there's an enormous amount to disagree on in recent Russian history. This is partly because there's a great deal of it that isn't fully known, since much documentary material hasn't survived, or isn't publicly available, when it has.

Dismantled Stalin statue
... his statue was removed overnight and dismantled

And it's partly because there is genuine scope for legitimate controversy about such major questions as: why did the Bolshevik Revolution happen in 1917, was Lenin's regime bound to lead to the excessive horrors of Stalinism, and why did Communism fall and the Soviet Union come apart? Substantial scholarly industries have long been addressing these questions and debating these issues, and there seems no reason to think that agreement on any of them is getting any closer.

Such disputes about what constitutes the national past, and about what should be taught as the national past, are not confined to former Communist countries, and nor are they unique to professional historians.

Earlier this year, a huge row took place on the Texas Board of Education, which is responsible for designing the history curriculum taught in its state schools.

David Cannadine
A Point of View, with David Cannadine, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 BST and repeated Sundays, 0850 BST
Or listen to it on the iPlayer later

Those activist members of a conservative inclination wanted a radical re-writing of the history syllabus, which would stress that the founding fathers of the United States, and the authors of its constitution, intended America to be a Christian nation, rather than one upholding the principle of the separation of church and state.

They were also determined that greater attention should be given to Ronald Reagan, as the architect of national revival and the victor of the Cold War, and to such key conservative organizations as the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.

And they wanted to change the history textbooks as well as the history syllabus, by urging that the Texas curriculum be adopted in other states, and by applying direct pressure on major publishing companies to rewrite their national narratives accordingly.

20/20 vision

As these examples of Russia and Texas suggest, such history wars are as much political as they are academic, and getting involved in them is not for the squeamish, as a glance at the recent correspondence columns of some of our newspapers will serve to show.

Man looks at big gun at National Rifle Association meeting
The Texas Board of Education wanted greater attention given to Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association

Soon after taking office, the new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, expressed an interest in reforming the teaching of history in our schools, and he has certainly not lacked for advice as to what he should - or shouldn't - do.

As is often the case, there seem to be two irreconcilable views: those who want the history syllabus to stress national endeavour and achievement, and those who want it to recognise the failings and blemishes which invariably besmirch any country's historical record.

In this particular case, the correspondence soon degenerated into a far from edifying disagreement as to whether the British Empire had been a "good thing" or a "bad thing" - viewpoints which, in their irreconcilable simplicities, might have come straight out of 1066 and All That.

There's no doubt that proponents of both of these interpretations of our national past can find ample historical evidence to support the very different arguments they are making. But it's more important - and it's much more difficult - to try to strike some sort of balance between them than it is to adopt either of these deeply entrenched adversarial positions.

Hong Kong skyline
Once upon a time, children, this was a British colony

One historian from an earlier time who knew this very well was George Macaulay Trevelyan. Towards the end of his life, he gave his considered verdict, and it was revealingly - and rightly - even-handed. Having lived through the devastation and the destruction of two world wars, he reluctantly agreed with Edward Gibbon that much of history was indeed a "register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind". But he also insisted that history was, in addition, "the register of the splendour of man, and of his occasional good fortune, of which our island has had more than its share".

If the teaching of history in our schools is to be reformed again, then both of these perspectives need to be very firmly - and simultaneously - borne in mind.

But if he is serious about this matter, there are many other issues which Mr Gove will need to consider. Who, for example, should decide what history is taught in schools: should it be the government, or academic experts, or examination boards, or the schools themselves, or even the parents?

What is the balance that should be struck between teaching the history of England, of Britain, of the British Empire, of Europe, of the United States, of China or of the world as a whole? Is the teaching of history about chronology and narrative, or about analysis and structure, or about information and detail, or about imagination and empathy, or about a combination of some or all of these things?

Should it be concerned with extended periods of time, to give a sense of the length of the past, or with shorter periods which can be studied in greater depth? For how many hours a week should history be taught in schools, and to what age should it be made compulsory?

Pupils sit exams
Who should decide what gets taught?

Since I've spent the whole of my life as a professional historian, I'm naturally much concerned about these very important questions. But there is also a more specific interest I ought to declare: for the last 18 months, I've been leading a project, based at the Institute of Historical Research, which is looking into the history of the teaching of history in schools in England since it first became a serious activity early in the 20th Century.

And one of our most important discoveries so far has been the extent to which similar questions have been asked across the decades and generations, and often in complete ignorance of how they've been answered before. At the very least, any discussion of the teaching of history in our schools should be informed by an historical perspective.

We plan to publish some preliminary findings early in the autumn, and our full report by the middle of next year. Meanwhile, I shall be following Mr Gove's discussions and deliberations with the greatest of attention: and I very much hope that he may be no less interested in ours.

A selection of your comments appears below.

As an Irishman living in the UK I have often marvelled at how selective most English people's recollection of their own history is. A lot of people were keen to tell me my own history from their point but few people wanted to hear my view of how their troops acted in Northern Ireland. I don't think this is a uniquely English thing though. I think it is just people. England is a fantastic country with wonderful people. We do need a balanced view of our history but most people don't want to believe that their country did anything wrong, it doesn't make them feel comfortable. I have put it to some fellow Celts that if the Irish had been an economic superpower in the 18th and 19th centuries like England we would have been stuffing it up the English as they did to us. Not surprisingly they didn't want to hear this. People, eh?
Liam McCann, Bristol

History is an essential part of our children's education, to achieve a number of objectives; To provide a grounding to understand our current culture, which is influenced by all that has gone before. To provide insight as to why as a nation we are who we are which is a mixture of all the cultures that have had Britain as part of their empire and lived here or been subject to the British Empire. To teach as to look to the lessons of the past before we commit the crimes of the present day and future, as little in life is totally new. As such any curriculum should I believe look at Social History, cause and effect and highlight the mistakes made through ignorance and the achievements made through education and endeavour. This hopefully will help to foster, understanding tolerance and an industrious youthful mind, rather than a passive and intolerant one, which is what we all need to help pay our pensions and settle the national debt.
Stephen Dale, Shrewsbury / Shropshire

It's shocking to think of anyone reducing history in schools to a bunch of pretty stories. History must be even-handed - to encourage empathy, to make sure horrors and heroics alike are never forgotten. To draw a line in the sand to the world we live in now. How can anyone hope that children will grow up with a drive or the necessary understanding to improve the world from a bunch of airbrushed caricatures of the past? "Those who fail to remember history are condemned to repeat it."
Claire Russell, Glasgow, Scotland

The problem with history is that it has been hijacked by politics. Made worse by the movie industry. The easiest subject that history is is being turned into intellectual chess with every side wanting to be the saint. The truth has never been sweet, unfortunately this is what history is all about. Unless everyone is willing to learn from the past, a lot will never be known especially where politics is involved; this applies to all, soviet and non soviet.
Christopher, London

If you want to see the rewriting of history just watch the French. It appears there were no battles during the Hundred Years War. Could it be they didn't win any? Joan d'Arc was a hero and drove the English out. No mention of the French selling her to the English and she was tried by the Catholic church who found her guilty of heresy and burned her at the stake. Such gratitude. How long was it before the French accepted there were two World Wars. Even in 1990 they were teaching the Great War. No mention of the second one till much later.
John, France

Apart from all the questions being raised about what, when, and how history should be taught, and how such text books ought to be written, might there also be a look at who writes them? In particular, history is often represented very differently if written by a woman or a man. And not to put too fine a point on it, but most of the world's past history has been recorded by men. Through their particular lens of the world, as men, and their standing in it. Hence, very often they have viewed women in history, and the subsequent notation thereof, through that lens, which, to say the very least is not balanced. And all too often has been prejudicial towards women and their contribution, hence a colouring of that particular event. A solution might be to have an equal number of male to female historians contributing and collaborating on future history books. Just a thought...
Lavinia Schlebusch, Johannesburg, South Africa

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