The War on Memory
21 August 2017
On the eve of a new school year, it’s worth noting how education in the world is–perhaps as ever–under assault. And in every place where it happens, the goal is the same: to limit the ability of young people to think freely and critically about how power works on them; to compel them to complacency or motivate them to rage. In any case, it is to simplify their understanding of the world, to ask no questions of it, to mythologize the stories they live. As Primo Levi warned us about the Third Reich, it is nothing less than a “war on memory.”
Politicians have attempted to manipulate history for generations and centuries to favor political agendas, of course. The Chinese government wants to erase the slaughter at Tiananmen Square (and poet-teacher-activist-Nobel-winner Liu Xiaobo died this summer while under arrest), Putin arrests historians who document Stalin’s crimes (while erecting new statues celebrating his legacy), Philippines president Duterte has actually threatened indigenous schools with air strikes in fear of their curriculum, and Turkey’s president Erdogan is quickly submerging the legacy of modernist Ataturk.
The Hagia Sophia.
Turkey’s shift is particularly tragic. A country long hoped to join the EU, a NATO ally, a people with a rich cultural history learning to embrace its diversity. (Let the debate over the use of the Hagia Sophia symbolize this. Oh, wait–Erdogan is turning it into a mosque again as he strips his country of its secular culture.) He is arresting Turkish citizens if they have the ByLock messaging app on their cell phones. There may now be more imprisoned journalists in Turkey than in any other country on the planet. Over half a million people have been purged from their middle class lifestyles, tens of thousands of them teachers and researchers, because Erdogan fears that their schools are teaching rebellion. Teaching the previous secular curriculum has made them “enemies of the state,”
This summer has been filled with stories of Turkey removing Darwin from school curricula. But this is a small issue in balance: Erdogan and Turkey’s ruling AKP understand well that control of education and history means control of national identity. And the end of freedom.
“What we teach or fail to teach, what students are permitted to ask or chastised for asking, what resources we provide or limit, what subjects we select to fill entirely too brief spaces of classroom, these define possibility.”
All curricula mark ideological paths. What we teach or fail to teach, what students are permitted to ask or chastised for asking, what resources we provide or limit, what subjects we select to fill entirely too brief spaces of classroom, these define the possibilities for human futures. Orwell said it to, of course, with his pithy “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
The future of Turkey.
I have nothing to offer in terms of what we might do for the Philippines or Russia, China or Turkey or any of so many assaults on free thinking. Instead, I am merely a citizen and teacher in the United States, the bulwark for freedom in the world. And freedom, says Orwell, “is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” When we guard it well, our US curriculum encourages this free investigation and difficult inquiry.
Let’s get these classes started.