How Nations Around the World Teach Their Most Difficult History

How Nations Around the World Teach Their Most Difficult History

By Daniel Malloy

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The technical department of the Don Bosco school works machine guns to chairs, benches and tables after the demobilization.
SourceMarkus Matze/ullstein Bild via Getty


Because history repeats itself unless the next generation learns from it.

By Daniel Malloy

President Suharto took the reins of power in 1965, buoyed by popular support, and from then on, the country became stable and prosperous. That’s the story junior high students in Jakarta learn, anyway. “They never talk about the massacre, the mass killing, the aftereffects of the transfer of power,” says Andi Achdian, a historian and university instructor. 

In July, Achdian met with teachers from around Indonesia to discuss how the nation’s standardized curriculum could give a three-dimensional view of Suharto, who stepped down only in 1998 after more than three decades of brutal dictatorship. But the truth about a foundational figure can be hard to learn — and to learn about — even though the archipelago of 250 million is now democratic. Tatang Suratno, a professor at the Indonesia University of Education, says the limited school instruction matches wider government aims: peace and unity throughout the sprawling nation, and resistance to Islamic radicalization. In that context, it’s best to avoid “such killing situations and such kind of darkness.” The Indonesian Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment. 

Indonesia is far from alone. Every nation has its skeletons, including, of course, the United States, where debates over representing slavery and Christopher Columbus are perennial. (Just last year, the College Board revised its AP U.S. History curriculum after conservatives blasted it as “anti-American.”) Herewith, some flash points in history books around the world.  


Algeria: In the north African nation, “it’s almost taboo” to speak about the Black Decade, says Dr. Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Those over the age of 35, their parents and their grandparents remember all too well the instability and bloodshed from 1991-2002, thanks to a deadly cycle of extremism. “But today, my young cousins, 22 years old, have no idea about the Black Decade,” she explains, noting how the history is not written into books. The story that’s told: “We fought terrorism and that is it, full stop,” she adds. But there’s no history being taught about the structural or social causes that led to the radicalization of thousands of Algerians. “We don’t talk about that.” 

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Algerian men dig trenches on January 13, 1998, to bury the victims of the massacre in the Sidi Hamed cemetery near the capital, Algiers.

Source Getty

Cambodia: An ongoing war crimes tribunal is still digging into the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975-79. For many in the country, the wounds are raw as the Sleuk Rith Institute, funded by foreign donors including the United States government, seeks justice for the atrocities and to tell the Khmer Rouge story to a new generation.

It was a fight to get into schools. Formal teaching of the genocide began in 2009, a full 14 years after the organization’s founding, says chairman Youk Chhang. He has distributed half a million textbooks throughout the country; the tome is a well-vetted work of independent historians, but strongman Hun Sen’s government had the final say. The institute also trains 3,000 teachers every year. Part of the goal, Chhang says, is to show that Cambodia is not alone: The curriculum compares Cambodia’s plight with mass killings in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and Germany.

The lessons hit close to home. “In the areas where former Khmer Rouge are living, you can make the assumption that more than half of students are children of perpetrators and a small number are children of victims,” Chhang says. “Sometimes teachers who are victims, they find it hard to teach because they become the minority.” Students in seventh through 12th grades now get the instruction, but Chhang is working on delivering the history to younger kids.

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Cambodian Reach Sambath, chief of the public affairs section of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), distributes booklets to students at a high school in Phnom Penh about the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge court and to inform the public about the court’s efforts to try former Khmer Rouge leaders.

Source Tang Chhin Sothy/Getty

Canada: Like the United States, its northern neighbor has a decentralized education system — leading to at times vastly different instruction. In northern Canada, it’s common for students to learn about “residential schools,” which the Canadian government forced upon First Nations people to try to strip them of their language and culture, in an ugly historical stain. But in parts of the country farther from where the schools were located (and where many indigenous descendants still live), the topic often is not broached, according to Canada’s CBC News. 

France: Young students learn about the nation’s 18th-century revolution, but the mass guillotining of la Terreur is often explained as a bloody but necessary revolt based on modern French ideals of democracy and secularism. Meanwhile, France’s messy process of decolonization isn’t even introduced to many until they’re nearly done with high school.

India: The world’s second-most-populous nation is in the midst of trying to settle some matters over its religious identity. Is it secular? Pluralist? What roles do minorities play? As with any culture war, schools are a major battleground. In the face of India’s colonial past, some have argued for an end to English-language education; communists in the state of West Bengal, in fact, pushed for Bangla-medium education in part as an attempted salve for the scars of colonialism. And now, some government officials want the dead language Sanskrit — which is today only read, not written, and usually for spiritual texts — mandated among schoolkids or college students.

That’s one way nations face down tough history — by harking back to a time before the history happened.