Texas, Stalin, and History Textbooks

BBC News Magazine is running an opinion piece by David Cannadine on writing history “to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” It has some interesting comparisons between Stalin’s approach to history and the approach taken recently by the majority members of the Texas Board of Education.

Now before you jump down my throat, I want to be clear as to what I am saying here and what I am not saying here. I am not saying that the conservative members of the Texas Board of Education are Stalinists. But I am saying that both the Soviets and the Texas Board, though they differ ideologically, both seem to want to promote a kind of history in schools that celebrates heroes, downplays the negative, and exalts the nation.

Here is a taste:

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.

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.

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.

“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.

HT: AHA Today

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