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Book Review 

by Michael Bowen

The world distrusts America, and not just because of Iraq. Other countries' high school history books present varying perspectives, of course. But History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around the World Portray U.S. History demonstrates that other nations often look at different events altogether.

Nigerian textbooks enumerate the terrible costs of slavery at home (not in North America), while still noting that West Africans were enslaving one another long before the Portuguese showed up in the 1520s. Arabs aren't the only ones who resent "crusades": Mexican texts explicitly link America's "Manifest Destiny" to the crusades as well. Both Japanese and Italian history books charge Truman with dropping the bomb more to deter Russia than to defeat Japan. In North Korea, schoolkids have only the sole state-mandated textbook to go on when it comes to learning about how their "greatly adored leader" Kim Il-sung fought off the "American bastards" and "wolf-dogs" -- not exactly the Gen. MacArthur-dominated account of the Korean War that you get in U.S. history books. And don't get the Saudis started on American peacekeeping in the Middle East.

Almost comical are the number of nations that crave time in the world spotlight. Norwegian schoolteachers dwell on the 11th century a lot (one word: Vikings). Textbooks in Iran and North Korea exult in public relations victories over the United States (1979 hostage crisis, 1993 nuclear negotiations). France claims that the American Revolution was their idea.

With brief excerpts scattered among 50 chapters, this is a book to skip around in. The contrasts among U.S. and other perspectives are sometimes not as dramatic as Lindaman and Ward would like to think: Their brief introductions are often more argumentative than the contrasts among the quoted textbook passages.

Yet sometimes the excerpts themselves echo through the years. A Canadian chapter on the Vietnam War, for example, criticizes American involvement in now-familiar terms: "The war became the perfect symbol ... of everything that was wrong with mainstream American society. It was equally exportable as an emblem of American evil, representing everything that the rest of the world hated about the United States, including its arrogant assumption that it was always morally superior."

And that's one of our allies talking. Evidently the U.S. textbook selection process -- the least centralized in the world -- hasn't cornered the market on truth.

Publication date: 09/30/04

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