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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Revisionist History in Wisconsin

This week tens of thousands of protesters occupied streets in four Chinese cities, denouncing attempts by Japanese textbook authors to whitewash atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation of China 60 years ago. Such attempts to rewrite history are nothing new. Revising or selecting facts so history aligns with one's political or ideological prejudices is a time-honored tradition, one which democratic societies like to pretend they don't engage in.

But in 1923 the censorship of textbooks was almost introduced right here in Wisconsin. As this contemporary newspaper story shows, uncomplimentary references to the nation's founding fathers were not to be permitted under a bill introduced by state senator John Cashman that year. After brief hearings at which educational experts testified, coller heads prevailed and the bill died a quiet death.

But we can only see the world through our own eyes, even if we're textbook authors, andjudgements are inescapable. The most common kind of revisionist history involves judgements about selection: some things are centrally important, others are marginal, and yet others are not worth mentioning at all. In that first act of writing history, before a pen is even lifted or a key typed, censorship takes place and revisionism occurs.

There are two good solutions to the problem. First, speakers or writers should state their values up front where all readers can see them at the start. Second (and better yet), put a repository of evidence in front of readers and let them make up their own minds. This is the approach we take with online collections such as American Journeys and Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Was Columbus a hero or a villain? Did the fur trade improve Indians' lives or ruin them? Read the contemporary accounts in your own home or classroom (or on a laptop at Starbucks), and decide for yoursef.
:: Posted in Curiosities on April 16, 2005

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