Commentary  History Books are Xenophobic

The Overlooked Role Educational Systems Play in our Levels of Knowledge and Awareness

Recently, someone asked me if we have sidewalks where I come from. I let out a small chuckle before I realized they were dead serious, and I was faced with the task of matching their level of seriousness to what is in my opinion, a ridiculous question.

Coming from the Middle East, as one of the thousands of international students flocking to McGill’s campus every year, I simply assumed these stereotypes didn’t exist anymore. I mean, how could they? After all, wasn’t this the modern, open- minded, unprejudiced West we learned about growing up? In hindsight, I realize that it was a mistake on my part to assume that history books all over the world are identical in the information they deliver. Throughout my education, history classes were a repetition of World War One, World War Two, European, and North American history. So I naturally assumed that if I spent my waking days writing essays on their history, they must be doing the same. Clearly, I was wrong.

Throughout my life, I have had to learn to relocate my anger and confusion, but whenever I was faced with this innocent ignorance, my eyes could not help but widen, lips grin in disbelief, and my head spin in anger. It’s unfortunate to see such a lack of awareness in such a progressive society. It is equally unfortunate that the relationship between people like me and the people who ask these questions is hostile. This person could not understand why I was taken aback by a simple question. Similarly, I could not understand how they expected me not to be. When people find themselves in situations like these, they back off before allowing the person in my situation to arrive at a cool-headed explanation. So, before we know it, a crucial conversation is left hanging in the air.

Forcing myself to re-address my anger towards the education system behind them was an uphill battle. I had to learn that it is not entirely their fault, but rather a shortcoming of the books they learned from. Just like my education focused on them, so did theirs. Yet the hypocrisy still troubles me. We sound like a broken record, when repeating that new generations need to eliminate stereotypes, prejudice, and most importantly the “othering” gazes. But how is this going to happen if history books are riddled with misinformation about other cultures, while barely dipping their toes into history and politics beyond Western borders?

Part of the blame falls on the education system for denying people of upcoming generations of this imperative knowledge, but the other half falls on the shoulders of each individual. It is the responsibility of each person to have a certain degree of knowledge of global issues. I am not suggesting that they become an expert in the field, but being somewhat well-versed in global issues can only positively affect the world. After all, these issues pertain to human beings, and so naturally, they exceed borders.

It is important to note that the reasons these issues are excluded from textbooks are multi-layered. First, we cannot forget the role white supremacy has played by seeping into the roots of our education systems. It continues to completely change and reshape society and our notions of the world. We are constantly taught to think that Western lifestyles are better, and thus, we must conform to fit in. I have caught myself saying that the 30 cm of snowfall is “not so bad”, or the -10 °C temperature is “not that cold”, when deep down I know well that it is bad, and that it is cold, in comparison to Jordan’s mere 2 cm of snow every two-three years. The same colonial attitudes that have taught me to say that have also taught this person to wonder if I ride camels to school. The prominence of these attitudes is implicit yet explicit. It is explicit in questions like the ones they posed, and implicit in the way I catch myself conforming. Nonetheless, they exist in the textbooks and education systems that are bringing up future generations, and they pose a threat to our potential for progress.

This is not to dismiss my main point – some responsibility still falls on the shoulders of individuals. Once we realize these biases that take up pages on our books, it is our job to challenge and outgrow them. It is our personal responsibility to confront racist history and educational systems.

Conversely, the same can be said about my role in my respective culture. It is my responsibility to fight the institutional sexism that takes place in workplaces back home, or the intensified role religion plays in governance. I recognize this responsibility, and I make an effort to challenge it at any given opportunity. This is why, I believe, as part of an interconnected generation and a global citizen, this responsibility should extend to people who have grown up with skewed, racist, and biased histories that shun out the socio-cultural aspects of other countries on this planet.