ROAR: Scholars decide if "uniform history textbook" may fight misinterpretation

Historians and politicians have discussed proposals to replace plenty of history textbooks with a united book for all schools.

The State-Patriotic Club of the ruling United Party held a meeting on June 17, devoted to “a state history textbook.” While some historians support “a pluralistic approach” in writing textbooks, others highlight such problems as an excessive number of textbooks and contradicting accepted interpretations of historic events. The scholars and public figures have tried to assess if a united history textbook could solve these problems.

The topic became more acute as Russia was preparing to celebrate the 65th anniversary in WWII on May 9, and many stressed the need to oppose attempts to falsify history. “Manipulating facts of the Great Patriotic War and the Second World War is not only an infringement of our past, it is an infringement of our future,” believes Irina Yarovaya, the co-ordinator of the State-Patriotic Club and a State Duma deputy.

“A great number of textbooks have led to the situation where children get different ideas about historic events, which sometimes misrepresent reality.” As a result, it forms a distorted perception of the country’s history among pupils, she noted, adding that national identity of Russia should be preserved.

Another Duma deputy from United Russia Vladimir Medinsky thinks that school textbooks should contain “a unified interpretation of history.” He highlighted different commentaries in textbooks about the same historic events or different numbers of Russia’s losses in the Second World War.

This only confirms the need for two textbooks, one for compulsory education and another for schools specializing in humanities, Medinsky noted, speaking at a meeting of the State-Patriotic Club. It is impossible to track a set of textbooks, he said. “But we want to have one country, not a set of countries,” he was quoted by as saying.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made several comments recently about history textbooks. “The perception of the war is actually being formed by books when people start to read,” he told Izvestia daily on May 7.

“In this sense, the mission of a textbook, the mission of literature, on history is absolutely clear,” the president said. “A lot of works have been published about the Great Patriotic War… but I think that the quintessence of these kinds of works should be included in textbooks, taking into account inadmissibility of distorting evident facts,” he said.

If children absorb “false information, it is difficult for them to change their point of view later,” the president noted. “We all know how it was difficult for many our citizens when, after known events, they discovered very hard, dramatic pages of our history, connected with activities of some leaders of our state.”

In September 2009, Medvedev spoke against discussions becoming a part of the learning process. “I’m not against innovative or avant-garde perceptions of history,” he said. “But these research works in no way should be turned into textbooks. Time is needed to recognize unorthodox views of history.”

“There are things that should not be subjects of a public discussion,” the president added. Speaking about the events of the Second World War, he described as unacceptable discussions about “who started this war.”

According to a poll conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center VTsIOM, in autumn last year, 79 per cent of respondents believe that a uniform textbook is needed for all the schools to rule out confusion.

Some 15 per cent of those polled supported the existence of several history textbooks and the right of a teacher to choose one. Around 21 per cent of these respondent are young Russians aged 18-24.

The majority (84 per cent) of those speaking in favor of a single textbook are people who take an interest in the Russian history. Some 18 per cent of respondents supporting “pluralism” have never had a keen interest in the subject.

The State-Patriotic Club supports the creation of a united textbook, Yarovaya said. At the same time, she stressed that a lot of special manuals and literature are published, and people are able to get extra information or study different views of particular events.

Russia now really has many history textbooks, believes Vitaly Tretyakov, a political scientist and editor-in-chief of Political Class magazine. “They often express contradicting positions, at least they concern certain facts and certain periods of history,” he noted.

“For instance, some scholars assess the Soviet period of history in a positive way, others (more people) treat it negatively, and the third group consider this period as a movement sideways, to deadlock from the way the civilization has chosen,” the analyst said.

“I believe that history textbooks – that is, historical knowledge which is transferred to every next generation by a previous one – should not differ in absurd diversity of points of view and opinions,” Tretyakov was quoted by as saying.

There are two possible options, he believes. First is having a settled position towards the history of the country, which is confirmed by relevant facts and works. “And a canonical textbook should convey this settled point of view,” he said.

“The second option is, unfortunately, our option,” the analyst noted, referring to “the society that does not have a settled opinion of history as a whole or a particular period.”

While historians do not agree on views of a particular period, political institutions, and first of all, the president, should publicly and directly assess the period that provokes arguments, Tretyakov believes. “This opinion becomes canonical for some time,” he said.

“When a certain consensus is reached among professional historians about a particular period, these classical, canonical history textbooks will emerge themselves, and they will treat Russian history without any contradictions,” he said.

Some analysts doubt the country needs a uniform textbook. “Today, in the postmodern world, it is impossible to choose and establish one conception as a conception of the state,” said Leonid Polyakov of the Higher School of Economics.

“What is a universal history taught in schools, which helps bring up citizens of the country?” the analyst asked. “I think this question will remain open,” he noted. “The simplest way is to follow historic facts punctually,” he said, adding that “what happened is irreversible.”

Meanwhile, there are proposals to write a universal history textbook for schools of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The topic was discussed at the first congress of teachers and those working in the educational sphere of the CIS that took place in Astana, Kazakhstan, in April.

However, even Russia’s Deputy Education Minister Isaak Kalina assumed that the task was “unreal,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said. Maximum of what could be achieved is a united manual for teachers of the CIS countries, he noted. He might have recalled polemics around last history textbooks in Russia, the paper said.

The first manual for Russian and Ukrainian teachers may appear in October as part of the program of co-operation between the two countries in the sphere of education and science, the daily said. It will be prepared by historians of the Russian and Ukrainian academies of sciences, the paper added.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review, RT