How Nations Around the World Teach Their Most Difficult History

tags: education, history

President Suharto took the reins of power in 1965, buoyed by popular support, and from then on, the country became stable and prosperous. That’s the story junior high students in Jakarta learn, anyway. “They never talk about the massacre, the mass killing, the aftereffects of the transfer of power,” says Andi Achdian, a historian and university instructor. 

In July, Achdian met with teachers from around Indonesia to discuss how the nation’s standardized curriculum could give a three-dimensional view of Suharto, who stepped down only in 1998 after more than three decades of brutal dictatorship. But the truth about a foundational figure can be hard to learn — and to learn about — even though the archipelago of 250 million is now democratic. Tatang Suratno, a professor at the Indonesia University of Education, says the limited school instruction matches wider government aims: peace and unity throughout the sprawling nation, and resistance to Islamic radicalization. In that context, it’s best to avoid “such killing situations and such kind of darkness.” The Indonesian Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment. 

Indonesia is far from alone. Every nation has its skeletons, including, of course, the United States, where debates over representing slavery and Christopher Columbus are perennial. (Just last year, the College Board revised its AP U.S. History curriculum after conservatives blasted it as “anti-American.”) Herewith, some flash points in history books around the world.

Algeria: In the north African nation, “it’s almost taboo” to speak about the Black Decade, says Dr. Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Those over the age of 35, their parents and their grandparents remember all too well the instability and bloodshed from 1991-2002, thanks to a deadly cycle of extremism. “But today, my young cousins, 22 years old, have no idea about the Black Decade,” she explains, noting how the history is not written into books. The story that’s told: “We fought terrorism and that is it, full stop,” she adds. But there’s no history being taught about the structural or social causes that led to the radicalization of thousands of Algerians. “We don’t talk about that.” ...

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