Thursday, May 17, 2007

Teach your children well

In the complicated struggle over history and memory in the wake of grave crimes, school textbooks are a contentious battlefield of late. This weekend's NY Times reported on Congressman Michael Honda's resolution that asks the Japanese government to unequivocally acknowledge and apologize for its history of wartime sex slavery (discussed on IntLawGrrls here, here, and here). Honda, a former schoolteacher, expressed concern about Japanese nationalist politicians' recent success in eliminating references to comfort women from government-approved textbooks. In Honda's words, "It’s insane not to teach your children the truth." A similar battle has been playing out in Cambodia for many years -- the history of the Khmer Rouge has not been taught in classrooms there since 1991. The Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been pushing since 1999 for schools to discuss the Khmer Rouge regime, recently published the first high school text of the era written by a Cambodian. (You can hear NPR's interview with the author here.) But a Cambodian government review panel refused to approve the book for use in the regular curriculum; one panel member stated that history "should be kept for at least 60 years before starting to discuss it." While this view may be extreme, the history project is a tricky one, given its potential to empower justice at the expense of peace, or to create peace while subverting justice. Moreover, we need not travel far to understand the power and danger of history as a political tool -- the Bush administration's use of the 9/11 tragedy to justify its human rights abuses provides a homegrown example. In the words of Martha Minow:
Rather than substituting one propaganda for another, education about genocide and mass violence should help young people think critically and independently, . . . "to know the past as fact and to confront its implications in ways that make us all seek to change the future for better. If there are no simple answers to the hatred and violence from the past or in the present, there are the countering forces of intellectual honesty, integrity, justice and empathy."

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