The US Educational System’s War on History

Although usually hidden from view, propaganda as an insidious feature of the US educational system occasionally shows its true face, as one examination reader discovered.
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© Matej Kastelic

In an article published by Al Jazeera, Donald Earl Collins, a history professor who has worked as a reader of students’ exam copies for the US College Board, describes one of the ways the US educational system transforms the teaching of history into a form of Eurocentric, neoliberal and implicitly white supremacist propaganda. The specific example he cites demonstrates a more general point he makes: “The problem with so much of the work of The College Board and the ETS [the dominant for-profit company that publishes tests and manages test results] is the politics of American education and the assumptions of Western progress embedded within.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Ideas believed to be true and worthy of repeating because shared by a particular culture and promoted by the culture’s authorities; ideas that the culture’s educational system never allows to be explored or examined for their truth value  

Contextual Note

Collins expresses his concern with the criteria authorities use to identify a “correct” or “incorrect” answer. The very idea that a history exam is looking for a type of answer that can be labeled correct or incorrect when considering abstract or general ideas should raise any historian’s suspicions. Even isolated facts may be subject to debate as to their meaning. But hypotheses about patterns in history are weak or strong, not true or false. What Collins describes highlights even deeper problems in both teaching and examining in the US. It concerns the borderline between history and propaganda.

The free-response question Collins focuses on and reacts to can be consulted in its entirety here. It concerns a quote that draws absolute conclusions about categories of government and their historical behavior. Collins summarizes the sense of the complete quote — from historian Rudolph Rummel — and reproduces the question students are invited to answer:

“‘At the extremes of power, totalitarian governments slaughter their people,’ while ‘many democracies can barely … execute even serial murderers.’ After this passage, there was a three-part short answer question. Part two of the question read: ‘Explain ONE historical example of a democratic state committing mass violence that would challenge Rummel’s argument regarding democracies and mass violence.’”

Before anything else, the choice of such a controversial and polemical writer as Rudolph Rummel reveals the ideological bias of the exam itself and the vision of history the teaching seeks to inculcate. Rummel’s theses and statistical methods have been critiqued and contested by many academics, which doesn’t mean his statements are wrong. It does mean that presenting his affirmations as authoritative historical truth on an exam reveals an ideological bias on the part of the exam’s publisher and the educational authorities that use it. They clearly want students to see the quote as an expression of truth.

Using statistical comparisons of numbers of people slaughtered by governments, in his writings Rummel promotes the belief that democracies are immune to genocide and extreme forms of violence. He uses his quantitative data to keep at bay qualitative analysis of phenomena, such as the effective genocide of Native Americans, the ravages of slavery or even the massive, indiscriminate slaughter perpetrated at the end of World War II by the US in Germany and Tokyo (firebombing) or the two atomic bombs dropped on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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The very structure of the exam question appears to validate Rummel’s contested thesis. It clearly intends to deflect criticism from nations that call themselves democracies by instilling the belief that, by virtue of being “democratic,” they only slaughter for good reason and in a minimalist fashion.

Nevertheless, Collins recognizes that the implicit invitation in the second part of the question to challenge Rummel’s thesis allows students to challenge orthodoxy, giving them the leeway to demonstrate — if they have the balls to do it — that their reading of history may deviate from the professional historian Rummel’s point of view. Appropriately, some of the brighter students, who understood that the question did indeed permit contradictory debate, cited the institution of slavery — an official feature of early US democracy, written into the Constitution — as an example that refutes Rummel’s thesis. Less appropriately, as Collins discovered, the examination authorities decided that the argument concerning slavery should be labeled very simply an incorrect answer. They did so on the specious grounds that the undeniably oppressive violence of slavery wasn’t initiated by the federal government, but was an initiative of particular states.

Collins demonstrates that this technical twisting of the definition of “democracy” — applying it uniquely to the nation’s central government and not its components — contains an ideological bias that not only perverts the meaning of history, but arbitrarily punishes students who dare to take on the implicit challenge of the question.

Historical Note

Collins offers this analysis of the bias attributable to both the publisher and the academy: “For the exam’s designers, the rise of democratically-led nation states in the West and the move towards a less-violent, globalised world was their trope for this question.” In other words they sought to impose a contestable historical thesis. Collins, furthermore, discerns “[t]he College Board’s trope of the West’s continual social and political progress.”

Other details of this examination question merit a similar kind of attention. The first part of the question, which Collins doesn’t attempt to analyze, asks students to “Identify ONE historical example of mass violence that was committed by a totalitarian state in the twentieth century that would support Rummel’s argument in the passage.”

This part of the question contains nothing controversial since between the Nazis, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, there are plenty of examples. The question of whether the existence any of those violent acts supports Rummel’s argument intended to disculpate democracies is left aside. His argument doesn’t just concern the crimes perpetrated by totalitarian governments. It compares such acts of general policy with internal judicial systems of democracies that usually (but not always) respect due process, even for serial murderers. He uses the comparison to imply that democracies are incapable of organizing campaigns of mass violence against entire populations.

The third part of the question reads: “Explain ONE development in the late twentieth century that likely shaped Rummel’s view of the relationship between democracy and mass violence.” This may be even more specious than the second part, which Collins deals with. It asks students to speculate about how Rummel’s mind may have worked, an impossible and useless task. It also implies that identifying that “ONE development” will justify Rummel’s thesis.

As Rummel’s theories are based on comparisons, here’s another comparison that reveals how close this examination question comes to pure propaganda. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a similar question created in the former Soviet Union and designed to test Russian history students on their compliance with official propaganda. Instead of citing Rummel, they would provide an equally loaded citation of Lenin or Trotsky. Students could then prove their capacity to reason in a compliant manner and express their empathy with the prevailing ideology.

Collins, who is a black American, has every reason to deplore in the university curriculum and its evaluation procedures not just the failure, but also the conscious refusal to recognize slavery as an extreme form of inhuman violence and its shameful role in the history of a democracy. The students he mentions, whose answers were considered incorrect, could equally have cited other forms of genocide that are still taking place, but now with more sophisticated methods, including drone warfare and, in the near future, artificial intelligence and robotics. And, more often than not, these softer or better disguised forms of genocide continue to be perpetrated on the basis of racial distinctions.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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