Meta Textbooks?

Friday’s Washington Post said:

With two new manuals for high school history and social studies teachers, written in part by Kremlin political consultants, Russian authorities are attempting to imbue classroom debate with a nationalist outlook.

The history guide contains a laudatory review of President Vladimir Putin’s years in power. "We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin," declares its last chapter. The social studies guide is marked by intense hostility to the United States.

Few high school students should be surprised to learn that each nation’s high school history and social studies textbooks tend to present a favorable view of that nation.  But for a rational person, simply knowing about this bias should eliminate its average persuasive effect. 

Of course high school students may not be rational, but this textbook bias seems a great point to explore in discussions with them.  Perhaps after letting students compare their texts to translations of foreign texts, I would repeatedly ask them:  why do you believe local texts more that foreign texts?

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  • Of course, students shouldn’t trust any of these text books. You should put little trust in a history written by an entity about itself, since humans have a tendency to lie and selectively remember facts about themselves. Stalin’s autobiography would probably have had a relatively rosy picture compared to what historians have documented. In fact, I would venture a guess that the least biased history (aside from one written by a truly unbiased author) would be written by a person who feels opposed to the entity but not violent. It provides just the right blend of human emotions to cause clearer perception than other writers.

    On a side note about text book writing, a friend of mine writes social studies and history text books for elementary students at a certain publishing house. She once told me about how she wasn’t allowed to write things like “Plantation owners would torture and then hang rebellious slaves.” Instead she must write “Plantation owners would punish and kill rebellious slaves.” Roughly the same meaning, but it looses all its imagery. In such clean language, it’s easy to miss the severity of past actions (for further examples, consider school text book histories of battles).

  • anon

    Is it more useful to be aware of the biases of the person you’re dealing with or with your own biases? I’d say the latter. The opportunity costs of war on terror in addition to the unhindered rise of totalitarian rule in Russia are rising as diverisity of opinion get’s smothered:

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I believe there was a plan (whether it was a plan or a glimmer in a bureaucrat’s eye, I don’t know) to mandate that history in the E.U. countries could only be taught be someone who wasn’t a national of that country.

    A shame that was shelved. The equivalent for textbooks would probably be too sensitive, as well.

    I think that rational people will still succumb to the anchoring bias. They anchor on their own history-story. They know it’s false. But they don’t know how much to adjust, so they under adjust.

  • Carl Shulman

    “They anchor on their own history-story. They know it’s false. But they don’t know how much to adjust, so they under adjust.”
    For values that vary on known dimensions, the rational person could start by assuming the extreme opposite (everything here is extreme agitprop) of the local history and adjust from there. A more difficult part of the problem would be the cognitive costs of identifying all of the possible areas where she should employ such heuristics. I may assume that Big Brother is less noble than reported by the state, but it requires additional cognitive effort to come up with the idea that he might not exist at all.

  • Biomed Tim

    In my personal experience, this is none more apparent than in Japanese textbooks’ treatment of WWII. I’ve always had access to American books and Chinese books when I was growing up, and I remember making my Japanese teachers uncomfortable in junior high when I posed questions about the war.

  • josh

    I am in the process of getting my license to teach social studies in Virginia. I have found that there almost every highschool ss department has rules against using wikipedia as a source, but none has a problem using only one textbook.

  • Perhaps after letting students compare their texts to translations of foreign texts, I would repeatedly ask them: why do you believe local texts more that foreign texts?

    One semi-plausible response would be that locals are much more likely to understand the culture and history of the nation they grew up in than foreigners are. Therefore, any texts written by foreigners might be misinterpreting the situation.

    Of course, this only works for issues that are relatively little-known, and haven’t received much international attention.

  • Gil

    “Of course high students are not rational”…

    Well, maybe “high students are not rational”, but I think most high school students are.

  • Gil, thanks for mentioned the typo – fixed it.

    Kaj, any claims comparing nations, such as that one nation is especially generous, would require info from multiple nations.

    Josh, a sad observation.

    Stuart, a fascinating proposal.

  • It is not that high school students are irrational. They are rationally ignorant, or if you prefer, rationally boundedly rational. Is it rational for a horny high school student to waste time digging up translations of history textbooks written in other countries when they have not trouble spending time learning to regurgitate the stuff in their own textbook while still having time to go out and maximize their utility by trying to get laid? Please, let us keep things in perspective and remember what is really important to teenagers! The bottom line is that the textbooks work to achieve their desired goal a lot more than we wish they did. Their content does matter.

  • Barkley, the suggestion is not for students to do more library research, but rather to not believe what their texts suggests about the relative standing of nations.

  • TGGP

    Barkley, do you think it might be the case that high-schoolers don’t think much about the consequences of their actions or have biased beliefs about the consequences of their actions? I am reminded in particular of this post from Bryan Caplan.

  • Robin,

    I fully agree that students in all countries should take what they read in their high school history textbooks with some large grains of salt, with those grains being larger in some countries than in others. The problem is one of ignorance, not stupidity or irrationality. How do they come to realize this fact if all they hear or read is the standard propaganda?

    Of course, right now in the US we think that perhaps they are more likely to be skeptical of overly drawn and blatant chauvinism in textbooks. But this is because we are in one of those rare situations where the country has been involved in a major foreign policy endeavor that has turned very sour and become widely unpopular, with President Bush now reaching levels of disapproval just below those of Nixon prior to his resignation and Truman at his lowest point. So, we kind of expect that information that not all may be well is probably filtering down even to high school students who are more interested in the more immediate and pressing items in their utility functions. After all, some of them may even know or have heard of people who have died in Iraq.


    Well, we accuse adolescents of not taking longer perspectives, of “immaturity,” which amounts to the same thing and all that. However, more generally I do not think that they fail to think about consequences all that much less than other people. Some of it is a matter of experience. It is true, however, that peoples’ utility functions change over age, and we know that young males at least, are more obsessed with having sex (and generally getting less of it than the older, married males). Who is one to say that they are behaving “irrationally” when they are seekkng it? There are many adolescents who are thoughtless and do self-destructive things of many kinds, but many of them pursue such pleasures while being a bit more careful of the consequences.

  • Vladimir Nesov

    Since it’s widespread enough meme within Russia, single given source (or audience) is not attributive. Such things spread here easily because big enough portion of population somehow feels obliged to spread on anything they perceive as ‘official’ (some kind of Stockholm syndrome?).

  • Doug S.

    Well, one reason is that I think my institutions may be more honest than institutions in other countries; authoritarian governments are notorious for spreading blatant lies as fact for as long as they can get away with it.

  • In Canada, we celebrate 1867 as our birthday, but the textbooks leave the question of “why then?” strictly alone. The reason why Confederation happened just after the American Civil War is that Canada had strongly supported the slave states, such as by espionage and the Fenian raids into the U.S. – hoping to fragment its neighbor. It needed to present a united front to a neighbor with a very large, experienced army and a clear grudge.

    Canadian troops were also renowned for committing the most war crimes amongst the allies in WW I and II, but no textbook would ever dare raise this subject directly.

    The vast majority of Canadians would dispute both these previous paragraphs precisely because they feel sure their textbooks would have mentioned them… that is, reasoning from their ignorance to a firm conclusion. Just as if they were raised in, say, Russia.

    Similarly, how many American textbooks stress the necessity of revolution in 1776 to maintaining slavery in America (just as the British were closing it down) or the need to be free of British laws that gave most North American land to native peoples are protected them, much to the bitter resentment of the colonials? Or even bother to mention the immense, and essential financial contribution of France to that rebellion, bankrupting France and leading to a revolution there? Nope, them rustics did it themselves, for some abstract principle or other that the Patriot Act probably upholds, or some such nonsense.

    And the Americans won WW II all by themselves too, with the Russians as extras. Right. Think too of how many movies and recountings of the Battle of Midway you’ve seen. Did they tell you where Enterprise’s fighter planes were during the key battle, as the torpedo planes they were assigned to were all shot down, with one survivor? Did you even know there were American fighters there? These fighters circled far above the killing enjoying the view and then went home without bothering to engage the enemy – with the excuse that the torpedo planes hadn’t clearly enunciated the callword to summon them to dive down to help. (See the recently republished: The Big E: The Story of the USS Enterprise (Paperback)
    by Edward P. Stafford and Paul Stillwell)

    The Russian rewrites of history may be more crude and contemporary, but we are far from faultless ourselves.

  • Regarding the American Revolution, the Brits did not get serious about ending slavery until several decades after the Revolution, although during the Revolution they did offer to free slaves who fought for their side. But this was not much of a factor. The business about Indian-held land was a big factor, however, and one most Americans are not very aware of. The textbooks do generally talk about the French role, although just how significant it was tends not to be quite as fully reported as it was.

    The disjuncture in US awareness of the relative contributions of Americans to say, Soviets, in defeating the Axis powers is quite astounding.

  • TGGP

    Russell, I had never heard all that stuff about Canadian history before. Perhaps my Canadian math teacher (the best I’ve had, he was seriously enthusiastic for math 24/7) convinced the rest of the faculty to propagandize on his homeland’s behalf, but it is most likely the case that Americans don’t really care much about Canadian history. This would give an advantage to propagandists on behalf of nations like Canada relative to ones like Russia or Israel that are under much closer scrutiny.

  • Michael Handy

    Interestingly, recent Australian history classes have had in many cases an increasing bias towards serious criticism of our historical actions. Both my personal experience in the school system and media reports seem to confirm this. Most noted is our attitude towards our admittedly dismal treatment of aboriginal peoples, where the governments actions and and popular attitudes of the settlers are displayed in a(probably deservedly)very negative light, at least compared to what was taught 15 years ago. There has, of course, been a huge political scandal over this, with claims of a ‘black armband’ view of history from the current Government.

    Interestingly, our involvment in WW1 and the campaign against Turkey, which is considered an even more integral part of our history than the white colonisation (our ‘baptism in fire’), is still treated with much less criticism.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    this indirectly reveals a major problem with globalization and perhaps the internet. We are now a closed system with essentially zero communication barriers. I’m not sure if there’s a space for an Eastern Philosophy to develop independently of a Western philosophy, for a market capitalism to develop independently from a communism. I’m chatting with Russian and Japanese friends and colleagues every day on skype and email.

    It might be worth it to look at the value of creating various time capsuled communities, forbidden from communicating with the rest of us, to be time-released back into interaction with us at different targeted intervals, ranging from 50 years to 5,000 years. We might not have the technology to completely seal them off, but we can attempt to create rules of non-communication and non-interaction.

  • Doug S, so you are saying you believe local texts because local texts tell you that foreign texts tend to lie more?

  • Doug S.

    Well, when you put it that way, it sounds silly. I have read substantial criticism of US history books and know that they have problems. They do whitewash things, but they don’t seem to specifically state blatant falsehoods, unlike, say, the Iraqi Information Minister.