We all want to be the heroes of our own story.
And with this desire comes bias.
When entering a new culture, learning to read between the lines of what is taught about the culture’s history will help you better understand their cultural perspective.
You may still agree with and believe in the historical interpretation of your own culture, but getting to the roots of another culture means getting to know their view of themselves, which is never more apparent than in their teaching of history.
This knowledge will give you insight into the “why” of cultural norms, values, and traditions in your host country.
To gain this knowledge, learning what is taught is important; but, sometimes, learning what is expressly not taught is even more so.
Russia and North America
“Back in the USSR…”
While it’s obvious that Russian and Western cultures view things differently, what may not be so obvious is their extraordinarily different interpretations of history.
North Americans often view their liberal values of freedom and individualism with pride, and that is reflective in their teaching of history.
They view Marxist ideals and communist values as restrictive on individual liberties and enterprise.
Russian history, however, is taught from a Marxist viewpoint.
It teaches that the American working class – and overseas labor from American corporations – is exploitative.
Like Americans, their view of their own history is also one of pride.
They present their communist system as more egalitarian, distributing wealth more fairly amongst the working class.
While American historians present Russia as oppressive, so do Russian historians present America.
And from an outsider’s perspective, if you’re being honest with yourself and viewing these arguments and their history objectively, you can see truth in both…however, you’re probably more biased toward the history that aligns with your own values and norms.
Japan and China
Japan and China are two other examples of nationalist takes on history.
The Japanese take pride in their long and glorious empire. However, the tragic recent history of WWII and the events surrounding it is often deemphasized in classrooms.
Mariko Oi, a Japanese teacher who studied abroad in Australia, puts this into perspective:
“Japanese people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan…”
According to Oi, only 5 percent of her Japanese textbook (19 out of 357 pages) dealt with the recent history of WWII and the events that led up to it from 1931 to 1945.
A single line was dedicated to the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) which occurred during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 when Japan invaded China. That war too was given but a single page.
On the other side of the East China Sea, Chinese students are taught in detail about Japanese war crimes and about the Rape of Nanjing in particular.
And as for other WWII enemies, the subject receives different treatment in American textbooks versus Japanese textbooks.
The Manhattan Project is often heroically emphasized by American historians who detail the justifications for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Mariko Oi’s Japanese textbook again, a single sentence is dedicated to this event.
Cultural Bias in Ourselves
The point of all this is that a nation tends to have a specific view of itself.
And, in doing so, that nation will cast itself and its history in the best light while deemphasizing certain aspects that today bring shame.
Cultural bias is difficult to recognize within ourselves. We’d like to think we’re “above” it.
But in the end, we all want to be “right”; we want our values to be right, our norms to be right, and our version of history to be right.
We want to be the heroes of our own story.