9/11, commentary, research

The Politics of 9/11 Narratives in History Textbooks


“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

Orwell 1949: 37

Think back to your high school history textbook.  How many hours did you spend bent over its pages, copying “key terms” onto flashcards the night before an exam?  How often did you complain of the weight it added to your backpack?

How often did you question what was written on its pages?

“The Politics of 9/11 Narratives in History Textbooks Worldwide” is an in-depth analysis of how political forces have shaped the narratives on 9/11 in high school textbooks worldwide.  It provides a never-before seen look into history textbooks from across the globe, illustrating how purportedly objective accounts are refashioned for political ends. While history textbooks are often seen as an authority on their subject, authored by teachers and historians, those who can be counted on to write objectively on events of the past, to distill the “important stuff,” this study reveals that it is press teams more than educators and politicians more than academics who are dictating the narratives currently found in textbooks around the world.

Textbooks reflect and inform national memory, serving as barometers of the accepted views of the day and acting as one of the most powerful means of socializing a nation’s youth into the ideals and ideologies of the nation.  The fact that textbooks target the youth – the country’s next generation of leaders – means these curricula have implications far beyond the present. Thus it is imperative to consider the consequences of such ‘official histories’ communicated through national textbooks, specifically how these narratives of the past are dictated by the very political agendas that they are, in turn, attempting to shape.

Although previous studies have examined how textbook narratives of past events reflect current political views, few have done so in as systematic and comprehensive a way as this study, with as large a sample size. Additionally, narratives of 9/11, one of the most definitive moments in recent history, will undoubtedly be examined for years to come. As such, this study stands as one of the earliest – if not the first – assessment of the documentation of this event, providing a critical examination of the first iterations of these histories worldwide.

In revealing the ways that textbook narratives are currently shaped, encouraging the reevaluation of such methods, and proposing a new way forward, this study seeks to not only examine the current state of education, but to also promote a transformation in the way we teach and view the role of history.

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I set out to examine these concepts by studying the differences in the way the events of 9/11 were being written into the textbooks of high school history textbooks from ten countries around the world: Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, People’s Republic of China (China), Republic of China (Taiwan), and Spain, and the United States.  I hypothesized that elements of each nation’s textbook narratives on 9/11 could be predicted based on the country’s current political and social characteristics.  To measure these political agendas and characteristics, I established a set of eight indicators, each of which would subsequently predict a specific part of the narrative; for example, the measure of a country’s political relations with the United States would predict how the narrative addressed the American response to 9/11 and its subsequent war efforts.  The indicators were split into two groups: (1) internal indicators, which measured internal political characteristics of the given nation, such as the effectiveness of its government and the religious composition of its population, and (2) external indictors, which measured the nation’s political, economic, and military alliances with the US. In order to ensure the integrity of the study – so I wasn’t simply cherry picking measures that would produce results that supported my hypothesis – I selected these indicators before I saw the textbook narratives.

To then thoroughly analyze the narratives in each textbook, I constructed a typology that consisted of ten questions, each of which focused on a specific aspect of the representation of 9/11 and its aftermath. I then collected the values of each indicator for each country, and conducted a thorough content discourse analysis (CDA) of its secondary school level social science textbook narratives using the typology above.

The results were astonishing.

For each nation, the narratives strongly followed the predictions of the set of eight indicators, which encompassed the description of the actors, the number of alternative views provided, the tone adopted in regard to the “war on terror,” as well as the view of the Untied States and the country’s own standing within the narrative.  Deviation from the anticipated results occurred in countries with a higher level of freedom of speech, as textbook from these countries provided a greater number of perspectives and prompts for critical within their narratives.  While I could speak to the results for the country-specific analysis for pages and pages, we’ll let a simple diagram do the talking for now.

In the figure below, countries are plotted according to the value of the eight indicators. The narratives of countries in Quadrant I (upper-right) have an emphasis on 9/11 similar to that in US textbooks, and a generally positive view of US actions abroad. The narratives of countries in Quadrant II (upper-left) stress different aspects of 9/11, but maintain a positive overall perspective. The narratives of countries in Quadrant III (lower left) have a more critical position on the United States, and their narratives focus generally on different aspects of 9/11 than the United States. Countries in Quadrant IV (lower-right) have narratives with emphases similar to the US in regard to 9/11, but maintain negative stances on US actions; this is the least common combination of internal and external characteristics.

I have found that overall, the patterns illustrated in the figure above strongly reflect those observed in the narratives analyzed. The higher on the Y-axis a given country is situated, the more positive (or the less critical) its views on US actions in its textbook narratives. The further to the left a country falls on the X-axis, the more one-dimensional and divergent from the US with regard to 9/11 its narratives.

In addition to country-specific variation, there were fascinating patterns between regional and political groupings. In each regional grouping, the narrative on 9/11 is constructed so as to relate to local events, thereby providing a forum for the discussion of relevant and politically sensitive issues. For example, in South Asia, the relationship between India and the Pakistan is a theme throughout the Pakistani narratives, with the “warmth of relationship” between the two nations driving a substantial portion of the narrative and leading directly into the description of the events of 9/11. On the other hand, in East Asia, Taiwan uses 9/11 as a metaphor for its own struggle for independence, examining dimensions of its own ethnic conflict through the lens of the event. In Western Europe, the event is used to highlight Islamophobic tensions, with the events of 9/11 used as an example of threats against Western freedom and strength.

With respect to political and military alliances, all NATO members had narratives that strongly emphasized the importance and success of the Afghanistan war.  On the other hand, the rising powers of Brazil, Russia, India, and China – the nations of the so-called BRIC alliance – address American dominance in a remarkably different manner than other countries in the sample. All of these countries challenge American authority, strongly rebuking US-led military actions abroad, emphasizing the lack of consensus in the international community, and stressing the increasing importance of multilateralism. Furthermore, while both Chinese and Indian narratives address US hegemony, they do so in conspicuously different ways. Whereas Indian narratives discuss American hegemony as likely to decline, Chinese narratives speak of waning American hegemony as “an irresistible tide of history” – a process already in progress. Strikingly, these tones directly reflect the countries’ current political prominence; both are strong powers, yet China has more influence than India.

How are these narratives constructed? While the substitution of a single word – incident for attack, grievous rather than horrific – may not seem significant, the impact on the narrative is substantial. All of the choices made in the creation of a narrative – the space devoted to the event, the phrases, the images, and the sentence constructions– combine to produce a distinct viewpoint and message. Analysis of these individual components and the tone they generate allows for comparison of the messages from various national narratives, as well as insight into how they lead to different interpretations of the same events. By focusing on specific aspects of an account, a narrative engenders selective learning, creating a distinct dominant view, a pattern seen repeatedly throughout this survey.  Through selective inclusions, omissions, emphases, and de-emphases, narratives of the past can be molded to directly reflect and reinforce current political agendas and aims.

Admittedly, narrative manipulation is not new; it has been employed in curriculum construction to establish and reinforce national identity since the invention of the nation-state (Anderson 1995). A “stable past” is necessary to “validate tradition, to confirm our own identity, and to make sense of the present” (Lowenthal 1985: 263). To create this distinct identity, however, nations have often had to define an out-group – the “them” – in order to establish a cohesive in- group – the “us.” While textbooks have the ability to “convey a global understanding of history and of the rules of society as well as norms of living with other people,” the comparison of these various narratives has clearly revealed that modern textbooks are not building bridges, but instead are establishing boundaries by emphasizing nation-centric political aims (Schissler 1989: 81). Today, when sustained success requires global cooperation and transnational alliances, textbooks that foster internationalization rather than divisions are not simply an ideal, but an imperative.

As such, is vital that textbook narratives begin to be seen as directly related to foreign affairs. Firstly, textbooks can be seen as powerful indicators of current dominant attitudes with narratives that strongly reflect current political beliefs, as has been illustrated in this study. Furthermore, textbooks can and should be used to foster understanding. The negative depiction of US bravado and unilateralism in textbook after textbook should serve as a warning to the US, illustrating the need for greater communication and exchange of ideas. Increased efforts to develop international textbooks, with narratives formed through collaboration among multiple countries, would be one way to achieve this goal. Such narratives would incorporate multiple perspectives, providing students with the opportunity to analyze various interpretations and reach their own conclusions.

It is this final point that provides the most promise – while educators may not be able to influence textbook narratives written and produced at the state level, they do have the opportunity to teach students to read beyond these narratives. I am currently working on developing an alternative curriculum on 9/11 that draws on the various textbooks included in the survey, providing students with accounts from a number of nations and encouraging them to consider these disparate narratives. By challenging students to reflect on why different countries would cast the same event in such starkly different ways, this cross-national curriculum provides a vital lesson in learning how to read and synthesize history.  Teaching students to think critically – to read between the lines – will empower them to consider events from different viewpoints, an approach central to fostering a truly “global understanding of history.”

All rights reserved.  Elizabeth D. Herman, © 2011.   You may not cite or use this information without written permission of the author.  For inquiries or more information regarding this research, please email elizabethdherman [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Apple, Michael W., and Linda K. Christian-Smith. The Politics of the Textbook. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Mendeloff, David. “Explaining the Persistence of Nationalist Mythmaking in Post-Soviet Russian History Education.” In The Teaching of History in Contemporary Russia, eds. Vera Kaplan, Pinchas Agmon, and Liubov Ermolaeva, 185-228. Tel Aviv: The Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies, 1999.

Rossery, Yvette. “Curriculum as Destiny: Forging National Identity in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.” PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2003.

Schissler, Hanna. “Limitations and Priorities for ‘International Social Studies Textbook Research.” International Journal of Social Education 4 (1989-1990): 81-89.

Van Evera, Steven. “Hypotheses on Nationalism and War.” International Security 18 (1994): 5-39.

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