How US history is taught around the world

How US history is taught around the world

The pervasiveness of American culture means that people around the world are constantly confronted with U.S. exports, whether through global corporations, entertainment, American cuisine or other aspects of everyday life.

But what do those in other countries know about America's history? Probably not as much as you'd think.

Professor Tim Roberts writes in the Journal of American History, "Like many college students around the world, students in Turkey are familiar with American popular culture ... but have little sense of American history, particularly history before the Cold War."

This lack of knowledge was echoed by British 17-year-old Sooanne Berger, who told the Washington Post, "We don't get taught anything about America."

And what students do know is often tied into the narrative of their own nations. 

Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward, authors of History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, wrote in the book's introduction that history textbooks around the world "are typically written by national authors with a national audience in mind, leading to a sort of insularity on any given historical topic."

Here are some of the ways that countries around the world teach key moments in U.S. history.

The American Revolution

While the Revolutionary War is one of the pillars of U.S. history, it's not particularly important around the world — not even to the British, who will likely learn more about the war seeing Hamilton on London's West End than from their secondary school.

In an interview with the Washington Post, former chairman of the British Association for American Studies, Simon Newman, estimated that the "increasingly irrelevant" war has been studied by less than a tenth of British secondary school graduates. 

Much of the reason for the war's exclusion, it seems, is due to Britain's far lengthier history, which includes a number of colonial revolts and wars that made more of a historical impact.

"Our history goes back to the time of the Romans, so quite frankly, the American Revolution doesn't figure very highly," Philip Davies, director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, told the Post.

In other countries around the world, the war is either not taught at all or is taught in connection with the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which is seen as being historically more important.

The Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898, when America declared war on Spain after the American battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain relinquished its control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, among other islands.

In their book History Lessons, Lindaman and Ward show how the different perspectives of the involved nations affect how it's now taught. Cuban textbooks, for instance, imply that the Maine's explosion wasn't an accident or a Spanish attack, as the U.S. alleges, but rather self-sabotage by the Americans in order to justify intervening in the ongoing Spanish-Cuban War.

Spanish textbooks took a more objective approach to the war, which they say they lost in spite of the fact the U.S. "hardly had a professional army."

About the Maine's explosion, the Spanish textbook authors, as quoted by Lindaman and Ward and printed in Edutopia, wrote, "In February of 1898 the North American cruiser Maine, anchored in the harbor of Havana, exploded. The cause of the explosion was never clearly explained and the North American authorities attributed it to Spanish sabotage."

A textbook from the Philippines, on the other hand, had a much more hostile view of America's involvement. "The Filipinos, who expected the Americans to champion their freedom, instead were betrayed and reluctantly fell into the hands of American imperialists," the textbook reads.

The Filipino textbook also shared Cuba's view of the Maine's explosion, noting, "Although the Maine had been blown up by American spies in order to provoke the war, the public was not informed of the truth."

Atomic bombing of Japan

The U.S. brought an end to World War II when we dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the bombs being dropped, the Washington Post surveyed those around the world about how they'd been taught about the United States' nuclear actions — revealing, as with the other historical events, how much these teachings can vary.

Though many were taught to see the bombs as a swift way to end the war, other countries' teachings took a more critical view. One Canadian noted that their teachers "tended to vilify the U.S. for Nagasaki," while nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein told the Post that Europeans "find it completely shocking that a majority of Americans still think Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified and morally correct."

An Italian textbook cited in History Lessons that was quoted in the Post saw the bomb as more of a way to ensure the America's postwar power, rather than as a military tactic. 

"What seems certain is that the show of force, made indiscriminately at the expense of unarmed people, increased the United States' weight in post-war tensions and decisions, especially concerning the Soviet Union," the textbook notes. "It is probably therefore that Truman's decision was inspired more by post-war prospects than by calculations on the most convenient method to put an end to the conflict with Japan."

In Japan itself, one user quoted in the Post explained students in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have specialized classes that focus solely on the bombs, including its mechanics, the decision-making process behind its deployment, the physical and psychological effects of those affected and the aftermath of the bomb. The classes, the article notes, are confined to the affected cities, and are not part of the broader Japanese curriculum.

Sept. 11, 2001

In an interview with Boston public radio station WBUR, Elizabeth Herman, a Fulbright scholar focusing on 9/11 teachings around the world, explained how 9/11 is taught around the world varies wildly from country to country.

For instance, Herman noted, while Western textbooks tend to focus on the attackers' Muslim identities, their religious affiliations and identities go largely unmentioned in majority-Muslim countries. Turkish textbooks specifically omit the attackers' Muslim identities, while a Pakistani textbook, as quoted by Herman, simply reads, "On September 11, 2001, American Trade Center and other strategic positions were attacked by unidentified terrorists." 

Countries that have a tenser relationship with the U.S. were also more likely to criticize America in their depiction of the events, including the aftermath of 9/11 and the illegality of the Iraq War. These countries include Brazil, India and China, whose textbook, Herman noted, describes 9/11 as "a sign of diminishing American hegemony."

A Saudi Arabian textbook quoted in History Lessons, the New York Times noted, took a similarly critical view of America's post-9/11 history, describing America's Middle East intervention as "part of a continuing war on Islam."

Herman also explained that even slight word changes — such as referring to 9/11 as an "incident" rather than an "attack" — can affect how these educational accounts of history are interpreted.

Ultimately, however, Herman believes that having so many diverse perspectives is beneficial to how we understand our history.

"If you hand a student 13 different ways of looking at 9/11 from 13 different countries and ask them, 'How is this different from how you've learned this in the past? And why do you think it's different?'," Herman explained, "I think that that's the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event."