A page devoted to thoughts and musings about two ongoing research projects – the first examining emerging representations of 9/11 in secondary school history textbooks worldwide, and the second focusing on how Bangladesh’s story of independence has morphed in its national curricula since the birth of the nation in 1971.

All rights reserved.  Elizabeth D. Herman, © 2013.   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.


The Politics of 9/11 Narratives in Secondary School History Textbooks Worldwide

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

Orwell 1949: 37

“The Politics of 9/11 Narratives in History Textbooks Worldwide” is the first in-depth exploration of how political forces have shaped the narratives of September 11th, 2011 in high school textbooks from around the world. While history textbooks are often considered authoritative – written by teachers and historians who can be relied upon to be objective – this study that it is press teams and politician rather than educators and academics who dictate the content of these accounts. As narratives of 9/11, one of the most definitive moments in recent history, will undoubtedly be examined for years to come, this study stands as one of the earliest – if not the first – assessment of the documentation of this event.

This cross-national textual analysis reveals that countries, through selective inclusions, omissions, and emphases, shape their textbook narratives in ways that are relevant and responsive to current political issues; the history of 9/11 becomes a vehicle by which politically minded institutions and individuals highlight and propagate key strategic aims and ideas. Since textbooks target the country’s youth – next generation of leaders – these politically shaped curricula have far-reaching implications.

This study also presents a supplemental curriculum on 9/11, using narratives from various national textbooks to encourage students to view this historical event from multiple perspectives. Challenging students to reflect on why countries would cast the same event in such starkly different ways, this transnational curriculum provides educators and students alike with the opportunity to develop a truly global understanding of history.

For more information or any questions on this research, please contact me.  Elizabeth D. Herman, © 2011.


Representations of Independence in Bangladeshi History Textbooks

For this project, I endeavor to examine retellings of the 1971 independence of Bangladesh in its official history and social studies textbooks to understand how the idea of Bangladesh’s origins, national and ethnic values, and cultural heritage has evolved and been influenced by the political and social changes since independence.

As Benedict Anderson argued, a nation “is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1991: 6). Nations use narratives of their origin and development to instill consistent political, social, and cultural ideals among their citizenries, to provide a unified idea of themselves, their delineation, their heritage, and characteristics that distinguish them from their neighbors. This process often begins in school textbooks, which are widely viewed as the “official history” of the nation and are accepted as one of the best indicators of popular historical views (Wang 2009; Mendeloff 2008).

As textbooks are among the first sources to reach the youth, providing them with an idea of self as belonging to something larger, they are particularly formative sources and thus have become important areas of ideological contestation. They are also a crucial means by which the political attitudes of the young are fostered and created; citizens’ understanding of where they come from – their history – determines the causes they choose to support, and consequently how they live their lives. Hence, it is vital to understand how the ideas of a nation’s origins have emerged, how and why they have evolved over time, and what implications differing narratives may have for political cohesion within and between nations.

Since independence, history textbooks in Bangladesh have been widely debated and have undergone a number of major revisions, with four distinct phases: before independence in 1971, during Mujibur Rahman’s rule from 1972 to 1975, during military rule from 1975 to 1991, and after the restoration of democracy in 1991 (Rossery 2003). Representations of certain events, including independence, have been repeatedly rewritten. Consequently, it is important and informative to ask: what has been, and is, the narrative of independence in each of these editions? As Bangladesh is a relatively young country, it offers a unique opportunity to examine how the representations have shifted over time. To address these questions, I intend to conduct a textual, institutional, and distribution analysis of textbooks using the methodology below:

Textual Analysis: I will conduct a descriptive examination, evaluating representations of Bangladesh’s independence in national secondary school history textbooks to understand: 1) the idea of the origin and purpose of the nation; 2) the prioritization of political, social and cultural values; 3) the representation of the perspectives of neighboring states; and, 4) the potentially relevant facts omitted, as absences can be crucial as inclusions to the creation of national ideals. I will use both quantitative methods (e.g., measuring the amount of space devoted to retellings, the number of pictures used) and qualitative methods (passive versus active voice, changes in terminology) that I have developed and employed in research for my research on emerging representations of September 11 in history textbooks. This evaluation will be repeated for each set of revisions that has occurred since independence, thus providing not only in-depth knowledge of each edition, but also time-series data on shifts in texts over time. This analysis will be mapped against Bangladesh’s political history to observe how the idea of the nation and the official concept of belonging may have reflected changing political and social climates.

Institutional Analysis: I will examine the process of national curriculum formation and textbook publication, including identification of various institutions involved in the research and writing of textbooks and how such entities have changed over time. I will interview past and present members of the Ministry of Education and other institutions, such as the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, to understand how procedures, objectives, and goals have evolved, and what values and ideals inform the creation of these books. I will meet with civic institutions working for education reform to understand how the past and current institutions have helped or hampered the process of the creation of history and/or the idea of the nation.

Distribution Analysis: Through visiting various local schools and interviewing teachers and administrators, I will observe the current educational system, examining how history textbooks and curricula are actualized in classrooms, used in lessons, and tied into examinations. I will identify which editions of the textbooks are used in various districts, and whether there are discrepancies between neighborhoods of varying socioeconomic standing. This distributional analysis may raise some crucial questions about existing disputes, particularly those between elite and lower classes, allowing me to see if conflicting or contrary narratives within different editions of Bangladeshi textbooks can shed light on existing divisions within the country.

This study is highly relevant as it presents the opportunity to contribute to the literature on the impact of national narratives in textbooks, which is, in the end, inextricably linked with peace. The variations on how the independence of Bangladesh has been and is currently written into school textbooks subsequently inform how Bangladeshis view their national identity; students of various times and textbook editions are the current and future leaders of Bangladesh, and their differing interpretations of independence, of the purpose of the nation, and of Bangladesh’s place in the world as generated from disparate narratives may have implications for political and social cohesion within and beyond Bangladesh as her influence and wealth continue to grow. Furthermore, the relevance of examining national narratives in history textbooks extends far beyond this single project, and consequently I hope that this research may serve as a model that can be expanded to other nations and regions dealing with similar matters.

Works Cited

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

Mendeloff, David. “‘Pernicious History’ as a Cause of National Misperceptions: Russia and the 1999 Kosovo War.” Cooperation and Conflict 43, no. 1 (March 2008): 31-56.

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

Wang, Zheng. “Old Wounds, New Narratives: Joint History Textbook Writing and Peacebuilding in East Asia.” History & Memory 21 (2009): 101-126.

For more information or any questions on this research, please contact me.  Elizabeth D. Herman, © 2011.