Michael Levy: Stalin Good, Putin Better? Politics, Education, and Indoctrination

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Levy is the Executive Editor for Britannica’s Core editorial department. He received a bachelor’s degree (1991) in political science from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate (1996) in international relations and comparative politics from the University of Kentucky. ]

Two stories recently caught my eye, one in the Washington Post that discussed the publication of a new Russian teaching manual, written ”in-part by Kremlin political consultants,” that is very nationalist in outlook and a BBC report that a new Israeli textbook to be used in Israeli-Arab schools provides a more nuanced and balanced view of Israel’s creation in 1948, acknowledging that some Arabs consider it a “catastrophe” and that some Palestinians were expelled and lands confiscated following statehood. (These are but two examples of controversies that regularly arise over history textbooks; for example, Japanese textbooks and their portrayal of that country’s imperial history have always been a lightning rod throughout Asia.)

Some right-wing Israeli officials have roundly criticized the new textbook, suggesting that it would encourage Arab militants, and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismissed it as reflective of the “defeatism of the Israeli left.” The Russian manual, almost a press release for Vladimir Putin, describes many events, according to the article, as “American-inspired plots,” including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, while Stalin is described as “the most successful leader of the U.S.S.R.”

Of the two, it’s actually the Israeli textbook that shocks me rather than the Russian teaching manual.

Quick, what is the main purpose of primary education in state school systems throughout the world? If you said education, that’s charming and cute, but it’s also not really accurate. The primary purpose of educational systems throughout the world–from liberal democracies to authoritarian dictatorships–is to create good little citizens who are unflinching in their support of the state and its institutions.

The writing of history is, thus, of utmost political importance. Who writes history determines the values of children, and those children, once inculcated with the values of the political system, are then, the hope goes according to the elites who control the state apparatus, unlikely to challenge the legitimacy of the government. Obviously, history is replete with examples of revolutions that challenged the status quo, so political socialization through schools is not full proof, as there are external influences (religious institutions, parents, peers, etc.) that may have an effect on civil society. So, it’s not to say that a government will go unchallenged if it writes history in an entirely self-serving (biased) way, but it is to say that the writing of history can be a tool of indoctrination and brain-washing that can serve to protect the institutions of state.

I know that some Americans may point to the Russian example in amazement–and the Stalin reference is quite astonishing–and with an air of superiority, but when we look a bit at our own educational system, we can of course find examples where history has been whitewashed or where the curriculum ignores certain elements of America’s past. James W. Loewen discusses many of these issues in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. ...

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