Friday, September 29, 2006

To omit or to include

A couple years ago, saying a history textbook should foster "a sense of pride in one's history and one's country," President Putin got interested in the textbooks being read by Russia's young students. Some had been discovered to include passages suggesting he was an emerging dictator; others seemed too heavy on all that gulag stuff and too light on the achievements of the Soviet past.

"Textbooks should provide historical facts, and they must cultivate a sense of pride among youth in their history and country,"
he said.

But opponents of the President, as well as the American press, were quick to remind the President of the dangers of such "censorship."

The Post began one article: "Rewriting history was an important part of the Bolshevik project to remake the world. Throughout the decades of Communist rule, the U.S.S.R. was a country with an unpredictable past: Russia's -- and in fact the world's -- history was continuously being reshaped by Communist ideologue."

The newest textbooks in Russia reduce the emphasis on Stalin's crimes and portray Putin in laudatory terms; Japan has recently performed a similar make-over on the history it teaches its young. Now, putting aside the obvious and uncontestable (no textbook could land in American public schools if Washington considered it "partisan," the way we neuter the truth in this country) let's move on to this, evidence of how a similar story is viewed in another light when it's set in America.

Earlier this year, there was little national press attention when California State Senator Sheila Kuhn authored a bill requiring California textbooks to "accurately portray in an age-appropriate manner the cultural, racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity of our society."

As noted in this Alternet report, when the state senate approved the bill 22-15 on May 11, "LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-, and transgender) activists celebrated because, in academia, what California does matters. Along with also-populous Florida and Texas, it's an "adoption state," which means that books selected by California's school boards are fast-tracked to being adopted nationwide. Kuehl was optimistic, telling ABC News that she envisioned future textbooks describing James Baldwin not merely as "an African American writer" but as "an African American gay writer." (Baldwin himself preferred being called simply "an American writer" to "a black writer.")"

Gov. Schwarzenneger vetoed the Kuehl bill when it reached his desk earlier this month.

"It comes down to the same old skirmish," the Alternet report states. "Should individuals get column inches because of what they did -- or because of who they are in terms of involuntary identity-definers such as gender and class? Who goes in? Who stays out? Says who? Not everyone can fit. The books are already overstuffed: Houghton Mifflin's 747-page A More Perfect Union, a typical middle-school social studies volume, weighs four pounds."

The article is too lengthy to continue to paste and cut here, but it's worth reading on for its passages on the encroachment of religion into American school systems, both Islamic "history" and Christian fundamentalist "creationism."

The problem I see with the Kuehl legislation is perhaps an overly academic one: the word "homosexual" has only existed since 1869, and most scholars support some version of Foucault's claim that there was no such thing as "homosexuality" before the term's invention. So to celebrate gay history, we'll have to out history: "Paul Revere -- gay man? Riding alone in the night? You decide, children. Why's he not home in bed with Mrs. Revere?"

Or: "Could we see something gay in the future president's chopping down the cherry tree? What's really at stake here? Remember the power of the sign and the signifier. A cherry tree, children. He's taken an axe to it, one of your Founding Fathers -- or Framers of the Constitution, I should say."

Inclusion isn't a new concern. Since 1976, California has asked that certain groups be portrayed in a postive, upbeat, inspirational manner, and American textbook publishers, operating in the system of supply and demand, have done what they can to please the market.

Again, from Alternet:

"In one of this country's most popular history textbooks, World Cultures: A Global Mosaic, Michelangelo ranks among the nine figures profiled as history's top "Builders and Shapers." The other eight? Zapotec Mexican president Benito Juárez; Canadian feminist Emily Murphy; 10th-century Baghdadi doctor Muhammad al-Razi; Filipino president Emilio Aguinaldo; Zulu king Shaka; 16th-century Mughal King Akbar the Great; 20th-century Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov; and 15th-century King Sejong, "Father of the Korean Alphabet." Not to totally dismiss discerning the difference between smallpox and measles, as al-Razi allegedly did, or winning women the right to sit on Canada's senate -- but we're talking the history of the whole world here."

Look forward, my Soviet people. What do you see?