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History Textbooks: "Theirs" and "Ours"

History Textbooks: "Theirs" and "Ours"

Was it the "Philippine-American War" or the "War of Philippine Independence?" Was Emilio Aguinaldo a "rebel leader" or the "President" who led the Filipinos in the war against the United States?

For the past 12 years, I have tried to help my 11th-grade students view U.S. history critically from multiple perspectives. Most of my students are white suburban high school juniors, but my classes also include some African-American students who come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and generally come to our school from the city. While I use primary sources and other historians' interpretations, I continually search for sources that go beyond the mostly benign representations of U.S. actions overseas, which have dominated textbooks for generations. This is not just academic; how students regard U.S. conduct in the past influences how they view the exercise of U.S. power today. Therefore, when I read Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward's recent book, History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, I was excited to find textbook passages from countries that could help my students recognize that their texts are not impartial.

History Lessons contains passages translated into English from textbooks around the world that describe many major historical events. The passages that have proved the most valuable are ones that directly challenge the accounts found in my students' textbooks and provide them with a different way of seeing the same event. While every account is not totally at odds with their own textbook, passages like the Filipino version of the Philippine-American War, the Cuban version of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnamese account of the Vietnam War — the Vietnamese call it the American War — have been invaluable in allowing my students to examine opposing historical perspectives.

Recently, I asked students to compare an account from their U.S. history textbook on the Philippine-American War with a Filipino textbook passage from History Lessons about the same event — called the War of Philippine Independence in the Filipino book. In order to help students unravel the perspectives presented in both nations' textbook accounts, I first taught lessons that offered students a range of viewpoints on this event.

First, students watched the video, Savage Acts. This documentary depicts U.S. racism to help explain the expansionist policies to "civilize" the Philippines at the turn of the century. For instance, the video describes how 1,200 Filipinos were brought to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and placed on exhibit. One American observer said that she saw "the wild barbaric Igorots who eat dogs and are so vicious that they are fenced in. They thirst for blood and are the lowest type of civilization I saw." With the prevalence of these racist attitudes, it is not surprising to hear U.S. Col. Frederick Funston say that the Filipinos "are as a rule an illiterate, semi-savage people who are waging war not against tyranny but against Anglo-Saxon order and decency."

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