Brazil’s new government – led by the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro – has not been short of criticism and scrutiny since the country’s election in October last year. Ranging from Bolsonaro’s past comments regarding women’s rights, Brazilians with African ancestry, or gay rights, to the more recent act of ordering the military to commemorate the 55th anniversary of their infamous coup d’état in 1964, Brazil’s government is at the forefront of 21st Century populist politics. However, the government’s most recent decision by Minister of Education Ricardo Vélez Rodriguez to rewrite school history textbooks, favouring a more positive spin on the nation’s coup and 21-year military dictatorship, poses a significant question about both the nature of historical revisionism and our relationship to the subject of history in general.
Though markedly less violent and brutal than its South American neighbours’ military regimes, Brazil’s quasi-dictatorship still lead to the torture of over 30,000 people, disappearance of at least 434 individuals, and widespread censorship of leftist media platforms. The argument by Bolsonaro’s government that the dictatorship was ‘a democratic regime of force’ is highly contested by historians from Professor Carlos Fico to the president of the Brazilian Association of Textbooks himself, Cândido Grangeiro. It should be noted that President Bolsonaro has gained a reputation within Brazil’s congress for his long-held admiration and sympathy for the regime, and that the rewriting of textbooks has been just one of the many steps he has taken to whitewash the nation’s history.
But how has Britain dealt with the subject of ‘rewriting the books’? Can it ever be justified here on the other side of the pond?
The rewriting of textbooks is nothing new in modern history, nor is it necessarily tied to the idea of strengthening nationalism or national identity. In fact, Britain has had its own fair share of rewriting history textbooks: post-war public intellectuals such as E.H. Dance planted the seeds of the latter decades’ complete overhaul of traditional methods of teaching history. Marred with post-colonial guilt, a distaste for narrative textbooks based upon acquiring knowledge of history, and an incessant urge to instil a borderline Marxist mindset into the following generation, intellectuals within the education system – most notably the 1974 School Council History Project – set out to revolutionise history teaching to prioritise skills over knowledge, where one of those key skills was the student’s ability to empathise. In turn, curriculum changes within the subject coincided with the overhaul from O Levels to GCSEs, where national criteria made it mandatory for history teaching to be examined for discrimination or sexism in any form, as well as promoting the role of multiculturalism in the subject.
As a result, history teaching has concerned itself with sowing doubt into the children of our generation: instead of answering exam questions on ‘what happened’ and ‘why x happened’, exams ask to evaluate and analyse. Knowledge of British heritage, the history that has put us where we are today, the myths and legends that have archetypically materialised into British culture, our most elementary foundation of national unity has been replaced by historical methodology, pre-selected source evaluation, and historiography. These are, of course, vital areas of the subject, but shouldn’t be stressed at the elementary – or even intermediate – levels of history teaching in primary and secondary schools.
Hence, with the purpose from history in the classroom stripped away, many contemporary students regard it as a discipline not worth considering, given that it only concerns the past and what has already happened. This is understandable – why would you want to learn about what the awful conditions of sailors on Nelson’s fleet were, or why millions of young British men have fought and died in war, when their moral, patriotic, and cultural background has not been explained, and is therefore not understood, by the pupils? The traditional teaching of history was one of the vital apparatuses to ensure nihilism and apathy towards the nation state did not impregnate the minds of society’s next generation. History’s purpose should be to facilitate children’s connection between their current environment and what caused it to be so; to establish a sense of national unity between each individual, regardless of class, ethnicity, or gender. Paradoxically, the post-war education reformers embarked on their overhaul on the pretence of wanting to be inclusive to the increasing influx of immigrants from the ex-Colonies – yet, it was these very immigrants that were almost more British than our islands’ citizens. Largely educated in traditional schools based upon the old English system of teaching history, these immigrants had come to Britain to share those very traditions that they had learned.
Bolsonaro’s rewriting of history is diametrically opposed to the traditional teachings of history, however. This latest policy concerns itself with 21 years of Brazilian history that Bolsonaro just happens to be intertwined with – it’s a move that is meant to secure his position within the Brazilian populace and is not justified. What would be justified here on the other side of the Atlantic, however, would be a reversion to the old British method of teaching history; when the universal truths of a nation are eroded and a people cease to believe in their nation’s tales and common heritage, it does not follow that they become internationalists the day after, instead, they cling onto the xenophobia, football club rivalry, and fervent local patriotism we witness today. Which do you prefer?