9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”

The Heroes of Our Own Story: How Cultural Bias Enters into the Teaching of History

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.