The Politics of Identity and How We Learn History

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about how Texas is changing the content of its American high school history textbooks. Instead of taking potshots at its clear abuses of history, however, the author locates it in a broader context of history curricula and identity politics over the past few decades. See Sam Tanehaus, “In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right.”

Kevin Levin of the blog Civil War Memory thinks that the focus on textbooks in this newest episode of America’s culture wars misses the point, however. He points out that much history teaching is no longer focused on textbooks. He has a point. Even those of us who still sometimes use textbooks and do not rely as heavily on the internet see history education in terms very different than those of the Texas Board. See “Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls” and “If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism . . .

Good Old Stalin

History can be used to justify all manner of circumstances in the present. Want to justify an authoritarian regime in Russia? Referring to Russia’s present conditions can help, but even more effective can be skillful tradition-building that shows Russia’s long line of great authoritarian rulers. And what better place to start than with history teachers in the schools?

The New York Times published a remarkable article yesterday about a new history guide for high school teachers in Russia. After a brief introduction, it offers verbatim excerpts on Stalin, who comes away smelling like roses, despite his massive purges.

Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. . . . The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline. . . .

Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness.

It is quite an intellectual feat to bring Stalin into line with both Peter the Great and Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, such relativism reveals something about the Kremlin’s self-image these days. It would be helpful to see the rest of the guide before drawing broader conclusions. Still, does not the following statement recall some of Putin’s own criticisms of democracy in the United States in recent years?

Political and historical studies show that when they come under similarly serious threats, even “soft” and “flexible” political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001.

Yes, history textbooks matter.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.