27 Apr 2010

The bias of history

He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future. George Orwell

Back in 1992 I made my first visit to Vietnam.

Me back in 1992 in part of the immense network of underground tunnels of Củ Chi - the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.

Signs of what we call The Vietnam War and they somewhat revealingly refer to as The American War were everywhere. People badly deformed by the dioxin-laden herbicide, Agent Orange, or the burns of napalm were embarrassingly visible in the streets. The ground remained scared with unexploded ordinance, and the towns revealed the horrific injuries left by the land mines, bombs, grenades and mortar shells that still littered their jungle homes. These were the days before Coca Cola and McDonalds. There was no American Embassy, and no American tourists.

In Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon - we visited The American War Crimes Museum containing, primarily, exhibits displaying atrocities committed by Allied forces in the name of war. On the wall in huge red letters was a sign that began something like this:

We, the Vietnamese people, accuse you, the American, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand people (and maybe others) of ...
I can't remember what this sign accused me of, but I do know that it struck me with the horrible realisation that maybe what we - Australia - had done might not have been completely honourable. I can still remember how horrified I felt as I walked around the displays. Face-to-face with the vestiges of a war that I had grown up through but really knew nothing about, I was speechless. The photographs were gut-wrenching. Even today I remember the photograph of American soldiers smiling as they hold up the severed heads of Vietnamese guerrilla fighters to the camera. Another one showed a helicopter full of people being pushed into the water of the Vietnam Sea to allow an incoming empty helicopter space to land.
  • 7,850,000 tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam (by comparison the U.S. dropped only 2,057,244 tons of bombs in Europe during World War II);
  • 75,000,000 liters of defoliants -- including dioxin -- were sprayed over croplands, farmlands, forests and villages;
  • nearly three million Vietnamese were killed; four million were injured; 500,000 infants were malformed;
  • over 58,000 Americans died in the war.
"Not for inciting hatred, but for learning lessons from history."

Harrell Fletcher, "The American War," May 5-June 10, 2006, at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street, New York

You can see many of the photos from this museum, now renamed the far more politically correct sounding War Remnants Museum online here, but I shall move on. The purpose of this post is not to debate whether we should have gone to fight in the Vietnam War. It does not question the bravery of those who did chose the answer that call either. I tell this story merely to recount to you the first instance in my relatively sheltered life that I realised that I might not have been given the whole story, that perhaps my version of history wasn't exactly right, and perhaps even that maybe - just maybe - we might have been wrong.

History can lie.

Mostly the history we know is the story of the victors. We have long had the European version of the conquest of Australia, but the Aboriginal version has only emerged in the past few decades.

The Allies were right; the Germans were wrong.
The ANZACS were right; the Turks were wrong.
The Americans were right; the Japanese were wrong.
The French proletariat were right; Louis XVI was wrong.
The Protestants were right; the Catholics were wrong.
We were right; they were wrong.

Except when we're not.

I have been confronted with this bias of history on a number of occasions recently as I teach Jemimah. Despite our obviously deliberate leanings toward the Protestant version of events leading up the the Reformation, we are currently reading about the imprisonment of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots at Sheffield Manor Lodge in the 1500s through the pages of Charlotte Yonge's Unknown to History ("I like Queen Mary, Mummy. I wish she were on our side."). At the same time we are learning of the English Civil War through the Royalist eyes of the Beverley children in Captain Frederick Marryat's The Children of the New Forest. ("I wish we were Catholic," sighed Jemimah during her narration yesterday.)

Which is where I get as confused as she is. Is a bias in the teaching of history wrong? Surely the teacher's value systems and his philosophy of life - his worldview - will ultimately colour the history he teaches. Personal beliefs bias content. And that to me is a good thing. I homeschool, in part, in order to influence my daughter's worldview. I select the content of her education, and it will be biased. I will teach her the Reformed view of Christianity. I will teach her the Protestant version of the Reformation. I will teach her that the universe was perfectly designed and created in six days by the hand of the Judeo-Christian God. The God of Genesis. I will teach her the historical truth of the Bible. I will teach her about a young earth.

I will also teach her that there are two sides to every argument, and two sides to most of history's events. I will remind her that often "History is written by the victors" as Sir Winston Churchill proposed, but that more often it is written by those in control. George Orwell got it right. Those who control the present control the past.

On April 30, 1975, People's Army of Vietnam forces marched into Saigon. A tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, the President, General Duong Vanh Minh surrendered and the remaining U.S. personnel were hastily evacuated from the roof of the U.S. embassy. The war was over.

Thirty five years later a fundamental question still remains unanswered: Who won the Vietnam War?

I think Jemimah will believe that Vietnam did. I think she'll believe that because she'll look at my pictures and listen to my stories. She will come to believe as I do. Maybe. At least she will know both sides of the argument. She will be armed with the information she needs to make an informed decision.

That's why yesterday we read about the Roundheads being the enemies, the baddies. Sometimes the Puritans were wrong. Sometimes they did terrible things to the Royalists in the name of God. It is good to read about these things, to talk them through. What is important for me, though, is that predominantly Jemimah be taught the version of events that her father and I believe to be true.

Which is where careful selection of schoolbooks comes to the fore. We are using Henrietta Marshall's Our Island Story for English history. It is an excellent book for the most part, written from a Protestant point of view. It is not, however written from a Reformed viewpoint but an Anglican one. Marshall's opinions on the events of the Reformation and mine diverge significantly on many points. It would not be good for me to use this book alone to teach the history of the Reformation. It is the same with science. I can teach much of scientific theory and practice using a secular science text. When it comes to creation, though, I'll need more.

So now I'm going back to where I began. History can lie. Books are written by people, and people are biased. Taking into account both sides of history - a 'post-revisionist' view of history - is more balanced, but it is not necessarily better. It just gives two points of view.

The key is to know what you are reading. Know the author's slant. Is his interpretation of the world the same as yours? Do you have the same world view? If not, can you use his book as part of a balanced approach, or should you look elsewhere?

In selecting an author's work you are perpetuating his view of history. You are making it a reality. Is this the Biblically oriented reality you want your children to know?

Is it the reality you want them to teach their children and their children's children?

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. Acts 17: 24-26


  1. Thought provoking to the extreme.

    As an American married to a Russian, history can be a fragile topic for us at times. We try to be thoughtful and not give in to emotion.

    We could spend hours talking about this.

  2. To be ignorant of history is to be unable to determine your own path. This was made very clear to me just before we pulled Liddy out of school. Her class was studying Rabbit Proof Fence. Not enough room to go into all the ways the movie got the facts wong pushing their own agenda but I hit the roof over the obvious bias. There are 2 sides to every question. I gave Liddy the other version; the one where the Aboriginals aren't hard done by but were absymally cruel to the half caste children who often had to be removed for their own safety. Abuse is abuse. Of a classroom of about 30 children Liddy was the only one to present an alternative viewpoint. [I actually insisted she present both views] & consequentially got a very high mark but I was apalled. Talk about brainwashing!!!

  3. The question that I'm pondering now is how many of my dear American friends I've offended.

    Hopefully most will see that this post isn't about them at all...we'll see.

  4. Well, just as a reassurance, you haven't offended me. As one who grew up in America I was taught that we did not win the Vietnam war, that it was a horrible and devastating to Vietnam as a country and American soldiers {Whether that is a generally widespread teaching I don't know, but perhaps I assumed so}. I think I've seen that photo you referred to and it is horrifying.

    There's always more than one side.

  5. Excellent thought provoking post Jeanne! I understand what you are saying, for I certainly hold opinions and views about world history, and as I am reading books to my children I to come up against different opinions. Does that mean I stop, no, sometimes I omit parts and add biblical view.

    I believe the Holy Spirit guides me as I choose books for my children and I trust that through every read He is guiding us and teaching us.

    The bible tells me that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth and that is my rock through schooling and what we read!

  6. No offense taken. We came up against this very topic (Vietnam) recently at the end of our US history stories, as I read to my children from a book that, thankfully, was fairly good at presenting both sides. It's hard. No matter which way you look at it, it's just not pretty.

    Like Richele said, history in our house also can be a difficult thing to discuss, but we have often been forced to acknowledge the biases on both sides. When the topic is one that isn't quite so sensitive, it is fun and eye opening to hear the version of history my Japanese husband has learned as opposed (which it is, surprisingly often) to my own.

    I loved hearing about Jemimah's reactions to your study of the Reformation. I had very similar, and unexpectedly passionate, responses from my daughter back when we studied the Native Americans. I was surprised and a bit taken aback by her passionate censure of Columbus, and the white European settlers, in spite of the fact that our reading material was a little more biased in the other direction. She had no problem in forming her own opinion!

    This is a wonderful post, Jeanne. I am sure to be pondering it for the rest of the day!

  7. Excellent post! Not offended in the slightest. We have many broken men walking around our country still wrestling with Vietnam. I'm more inclined to say no one won.

    I couldn't agree more on your points regarding history and its many sides.

  8. "I will also teach her that there are two sides to every argument, and two sides to most of history's events."
    Great thoughts, though some are hard ones to think about.
    Even teaching our children what we believe is scriptural, requires us to examine other views and help them to reach mature and biblical conclusions. Sometimes kids become adults in a christian family (especially homeschooled) and have no explaination for their belief and practices other than that is what they have been taught.
    Likewise with History, we want our children to be thoughtful, well balanced people. We do want them to reach our conclusions but the aim is to arm them with the skills and sense to look further into things.
    It's a challenge all right.

  9. Deeply moving post, Jeanne. I'm with Daisy in her inclination that no one "won." My uncle died a few years ago of cancer contracted from Agent Orange exposure in Vietman. It's hard for me not to see the entire thing as a debacle.

    I appreciated your comments about balance and striving to support your family's worldview in your choices of resources. I've yet to come across anything major that has given me pause in our history studies. But that's just around the corner, given where we are in our study of America. Manifest destiny? Hmm.

  10. Excellent post and very thought provoking though I have not had to deal with this yet with Rebekah!
    I'm sure it's just around the corner though, lol!
    She already questions me about what why we worship Jesus as the one true God as opposed to other "gods" so I know I'll have some difficult questions around the corner arising from our various books we read for school!

  11. Great post...yes, bias to history it's like a shadow to us, we can't get rid of it, we can loose sight of it, but, as you say, it's better to know where the sun shines and the shadow falls.
    And yes, though there is always two sides to everything, there is also moral absolutes and things that make some 'bad' or immoral (without simplifying). I loved reading the Book Thief for that matter, to see other Germany, but still there, there's the moral feeble and the righteous, and both are found in both sides, that's the key.

  12. I found this post very interesting Jeanne.

    I am sure your little girl is getting a very rich education from vault of your wisdom and experience. I believe she is very blessed actually.

    Blessings to you :)

  13. Thanks for sharing. I love reading the real books and getting the differing viewpoints of an event. I get really tired of the politically correct versions.
    Great Post!

  14. If there were no slant then the story would be pretty boring - just facts. We all present history with our own slant - even our individual histories! Teaching children to be aware of this and evaluate their readings teaches them to be individual, critical thinkers! In science for example, I dislike public school for only teaching evolution and Christian schools for only teaching creation. I want my kids to be passionate about creationism and knowledgable about evolution - able to express their opinions with the knowledge of where others are coming from! No offense taken from this American!

  15. This American friend is not in the least offended, Jeanne....and my father was an active soldier during the Vietnam war. I also have a dear homeschooling from that I knew in college who has adopted two children from Vietnam and has become very involved in learning its culture and history - both through her actual visits to that nation and her efforts to educate her girls in their heritage. This post is...just brilliant. In every way. I'm so glad that you linked to i, as it was written before I came to "AO" and following this blog. Thank you!!


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