“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” That is a famous quote from Anglo-Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher Edmund Burke in the 1700s. But what if you really don’t know which history facts are really factual? History has had a long history of being manipulated, making its teaching and learning both fascinating and tricky.
Karyna Korostelina, a professor at George Mason University near Washington, explores this in a new book, History Education in the Formation of Social Identity. She told VOA’s Jim Stevenson that history education actually looks forward, rather than to the past.
KOROSTELINA: History education not only creates knowledge about history, but creates our perception of who are our enemies, who are our friends, and why they “did it” to us [and] what we should do. So history education actually is more for future and current events than to look to the past.
STEVENSON: History education has been couched as the winners of the wars get to write the history of what happened.
KOROSTELINA: Yes. The ideals for our truths are not even truthful. The problem of history is rewritten every single time. But [it] is rewritten not only for winners or against losers, but it is also rewritten to create particular ideology. It is rewritten to support particular groups even within the nation because there are also majorities and minorities, always advantaged and disadvantaged groups.
STEVENSON: For a country like North Korea, the use of ideology and history is so important, at least internally. That in a way seems to have hampered efforts over more than 60 years to come to some sort of peace treaty after the Korea War.
KOROSTELINA: Oh yes, for North Korea history education is probably one of the most powerful tools. They actually use every single effort to show that North Korean identity is completely Korean, while South Korea is completely submitted to the West with its ethnic identity, and only North Korea still holds [a Korean identity]. Moreover, the idea of the leadership is so strongly incorporated into the very core of national identity in North Korea. For example, if you take a history book [there], it is not even history, it is about the life and activity of the leadership. The whole North Korean identity is organized around submission and paternalistic ideas about power.
STEVENSON: As education becomes more global and more students study abroad in different countries, how do they reconcile these different accounts of history?
KOROSTELINA: This is a real interesting question because there have been a lot of efforts around the globe where different countries came together to create common history. Even in Asia, there are several textbooks which were written by authors from China, Korea and Japan together. There are also a lot of efforts in Europe, a lot of common history projects there. Even in the Middle East, there was a private project of which probably several books presented narratives from both Jewish and Palestinian people. They really helped to understand the competitive perspective. But of course in many places where people come to a new country and see the history is completely different, they start to understand there is not only one narrative. It is very important. As soon as they start understanding that there are different interpretations of the same event, they really start thinking about why.