the worst kind of revisionism

I’ve been reading Churchill’s Secret War, a book on the Bengal famine that doesn’t seem to have entered popular discourse, and I’m reminded of some discussions I’ve had with people here about the things taught in history classes in the US. I don’t know if I sound kind of bitter when I tell them, “Perhaps you are not aware, but we actually learn your history.”

I took ‘world’ history for a year, where we covered almost exclusively events relevant to Europe:

  • Birth of Democracy and the Enlightenment
  • French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon
  • The Industrial Revolution
  • Imperialism
  • Rise of Totalitarianism (in Russia and Germany)
  • WWI & II

(reproduced the above list from an old blog post of mine)

How is it possible to skip over the histories of some of the most populous countries in the world in favor of focusing all attention on Western Europe? Despite the one measly section on imperialism, we never talked about countries like Algeria or South Africa or Chile. We spent many months going into great detail about the histories of the UK, France, and Spain – I can still recall a stash of notes on their civil wars, revolutions, intermarrying royals, and imperialistic ambitions.

We never even discussed the histories of countries in the Global South without framing from European imperialism. India had a history prior to imperialism, not under the term ‘India’, perhaps, but we never once mentioned the existence of the Mughal Empire or Ashoka. I learned about the latter from playing Civilization, which was arguably a better history teacher than my actual one. In class, it seemed that my teacher could only ever see the history of the Global South through the eyes of Europeans, whether revisionistically (‘we improved their lot’) or guiltily (‘we screwed them over’).

We just couldn’t discuss imperialism’s effect on other countries without immediately tying things back to Europe or the US. For example, a significant part of our foray into imperialism involved reading poetry by Rudyard Kipling (a man labeled the ‘prophet of British imperialism’) and discussing his influence on the American concept of Manifest Destiny. Is that really the most important lesson we could’ve taken away from a unit on imperialism?

I wonder if the teacher even saw the class she was teaching.

70% of the class was not white and had no European ancestry.

In fact, more than half the class had ancestors from the Global South, from countries whose histories she either knew nothing about (but had been shaped irreversibly by imperialistic ambition) or didn’t care enough to discuss. Is it not sad that, after high school, I could name more kings of England than talk about the mere existence of a famine in Bengal?

I do wonder what my (many) Indian-American classmates thought of that class – surely their parents had thoughts about British imperialism that would contradict the Eurocentric claptrap we were being fed in class. By my rough calculations, maybe 1/5th of my graduating class were Indian-American and 1/5th were Chinese-American, but in a world history class we couldn’t even devote half an hour to the histories of either India or China.

I’m not even complaining that the history we were taught was pro-imperialism or revisionist – I’m just frustrated that we simply never learned world history at all.

Perhaps the worst kind of revisionism is just omission – erasure.