The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Empire and Imperialism in Education Since 1945: Secondary School History Textbooks

  • Karel Van NieuwenhuyseEmail author
Living reference work entry


Representations of empire and modern imperialism History textbooks Secondary education Grammar of schooling Educationalization Popular historical culture Academic historiography Historical thinking Us-them thinking and homogenization Nation-state perspective 


Modern imperialism not only heavily impacted many people’s life across the globe during the era itself, it still exerts an important influence on the political, social, economic, and cultural domain of present-day societies worldwide. It might hence be obvious that representations of empire and modern imperialism are included in history textbooks for secondary education across the world. The question arises as to how these representations look like and how their outlook can be explained. This is what this contribution examines in history textbooks since 1945 in different countries in the world, both former colonizer and colonized countries, in an international comparative perspective. History textbooks are compared on their content, the perspective they take, the agency they attribute, their tone and judgment, the way they (do not) connect past and present to each other, the extent they relate to academic historiography, their representation of “the other”, the identity construction they put forward, and the goals they aim for. That way, it is examined to what extent in this postcolonial world, the representation of modern imperialism is still colonial or has been decolonized.


Since its establishment as an autonomous secondary school subject in the nineteenth century, history education has been attributed with different rival and even contrasting aims. In many countries, particularly throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, history education had to contribute to nation-building and social cohesion and to the fostering of a national identity (Berger and Lorenz 2010; Carretero 2011; Grindel 2017). A second main goal that was attributed to history education, particularly from the 1960s onwards, in substitution for the aforementioned goal, was the fostering of a transnational (sometimes even global) citizenship and critical democratic civic participation. This often led to the replacement of attempts to build a national identity by fostering a global identity, which in practice, however, came down to a Western and Eurocentric-oriented identity-building attempt (Arthur et al. 2001; Van Nieuwenhuyse and Wils 2015). Those two aims can be considered as two sides of the same coin, as they both orient history education toward supporting certain identity construction processes and the transmission of values. A third aim for history education concerns a different coin, as it puts a disciplinary understanding to the fore, in educational terms called “historical thinking” (Wineburg 2001; Seixas and Morton 2013).

Those three divergent and competing aims hold many differences in approach of history education. The aims of “nation-building and social cohesion” and “democratic participation and civic behavior” do not only rely on academic historiographical representations of the past yet include social representations and historical myths within collective memory as well (Van Nieuwenhuyse and Wils 2012). Both clusters hence testify to the fostering of a rather naïve historical consciousness. The aim of “disciplinary understanding” by contrast relates much more solely to the academic discipline of history.

Despite the differences, however, some similarities can be discerned as well. All three aims, for instance, include the idea that a certain content needs to be taught to students and that historical knowledge and understanding need to be transferred. Each of them also connects past and present to each other, be it in differing ways: the first two in a rather naïve way, believing that the past can provide exempla for present-day behavior, and the third in a constructivist way, emphasizing that historical knowledge is always constructed in a present that exerts influence on the construction of historical representations. All three also aim to foster a certain historical consciousness, an awareness that past, present, and future are interconnected, on a societal level but on a personal level as well. Young people are situated in a continuum past-present-future; present-day society serves as the starting point for reflection on who they are and how they will act. In so doing, young people take the past into account and reflect for the future. The way in which they do so, nevertheless, differs significantly according to the pursued aim (Rüsen 2005).

Present-day society hence has an equally important place as the past in history education. In both studying the past and considering the present, one can rightfully observe that both past and present have been fundamentally influenced by empire and imperialism. Modern imperialism – by which is meant the colonial past from the mid-nineteenth century up to decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s – constitutes the object of study of this contribution. Modern imperialism had a huge and global impact on many people’s life during the era itself. Even though almost all former colonies have meanwhile turned into postcolonial countries, and despite the fact that European youth seems to emphasize discontinuity between the imperial past and the global present (Licata et al. 2018), modern imperialism still exerts an important influence on the political, social, economic, and cultural domain of present-day societies worldwide. The looting and racketeering of natural resources in parts of Africa, the unequal power balance and relations between the global north and south, the shaping of collective identities, phenomena as (intercontinental) migration and multiculturalism, and the worldwide entanglement of countries, nations, social, ethno-cultural, and religious groups and individuals, as well as so many other phenomena, can be directly linked to the imperial past. Understanding modern imperialism is hence a crucial issue to be addressed in history education, in order to foster a historical consciousness among young people.

The question then arises as to how modern imperialism actually is understood by young people within societies in a postcolonial world. Is modern imperialism still understood in a colonial or rather in a postcolonial way? Has the understanding of modern imperialism been decolonized, meaning that a mindset arose enabling to exercise critical distance from a colonial and Eurocentric regime of truth of the West and the Rest (Hall 1992) and from binary oppositions between former colonizers and the once-colonized (Grindel 2017)? A related question is where young people come into contact with representations of modern imperialism. Where do they learn about it, in order to build an understanding of the phenomenon? Representations of the modern imperial past circulate in different areas. In popular historical culture, young people encounter statues, museums, heritage sites, television documentaries, historical films, family stories, etc. related to the modern imperial past. Often, however, those carriers offer a rather dichotomous representation of the modern imperial past, attempt to contribute to specific identity constructions, and hence to not contribute to decolonizing young people’s minds. In academia, the approach of the imperial past has fundamentally changed since the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of the so-called New Imperial History. It pays much more attention than before to transnational, intercultural, and non-Western perspectives in colonial history. New imperial historians no longer start from a nation-centered model but concentrate on links between metropolises and colonies, on reciprocal encounters and influences, on cultural and social interconnection, and on migration (Grindel 2017; Stanard 2018). A third area in which representations of modern imperial past are disseminated is secondary school history education. This is a very important one, as in many countries history is a compulsory school subject, meaning that young people certainly encounter colonial representations here. History education can be situated in between popular culture and academia, as research has extensively shown that secondary school history education draws on both in constructing historical representations.

It is not easy to study history education from an international comparative perspective, as its outlook is different throughout the globe. In some countries, history is an autonomous school subject, while in others it is combined with other disciplines in subjects such as social studies or géohistoire. Furthermore, the subject is not always composed of one general history course yet sometimes of different ones such as general history, world history, or East Asian history (in the case of South Korea, for instance, see Kang 2017). Also, history education serves various goals in different countries, has different curricula, and is attributed a different weight (in terms of hours/week). An entry to nevertheless conduct international comparative research on history education concerns the analysis of history textbooks, as around the world, history textbooks are published and used in history classrooms. Of course, textbooks cannot be considered as a literal reflection of concrete classroom practice – far from that, textbooks are complex media, hard to interpret – and represent only one element of teaching practices; nevertheless, they provide a valid insight in what happens in history classes worldwide and in how modern imperialism is represented and young people are exposed to it.

Research Question and Method

This contribution examines representations of empire and imperialism in secondary school history textbooks in different countries in the world, both former colonizer and colonized countries, in an international comparative perspective. The analysis will be done in a diachronic perspective, starting from the post-World War II era (1945). It focuses on representations of modern imperialism, meaning the colonial past from the mid-nineteenth century up to decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s. History textbooks will be compared on the content they offer with regard to modern imperialism, on the perspective they take, on the agency they attribute, on their tone and judgment, on the way they (do not) connect past and present to each other, on the extent they relate to academic historiography, on their representation of “the other,” on the identity construction they put forward, and on the goals they try to achieve. That way, it can be examined to what extent in this postcolonial world the representation of modern imperialism is still colonial or has been decolonized and what possible explanations for the findings might be.

In so doing, this contribution draws on concepts and theories of different fields, such as New Imperial History (history discipline), us-them thinking and homogenization (social psychology), historical thinking including notions such as multiperspectivity and agency (history education research), collective memory and memory cultures (memory studies), and structures of thought, cultural framing, and categories of representation (postcolonial studies). From the field of the history of education, it takes into account the notions of the grammar of schooling (describing the structures and rules that organize and regulate education, whose inherent inertia and resistance to change often hinder educational innovation, see Tyack and Tobin 1994; Roldán Vera 2018) and of educationalization (the process enacting young people’s induction into socially desirable or societally required norms and values, see Depaepe 1998).

The international and diachronic analysis of textbooks leans on two types of sources. For a number of countries, such as Belgium, France, and England, history textbooks themselves have actually been analyzed. The second type of sources concerns secondary research literature particularly about representations of modern imperialism in history textbooks, such as special issues of three scientific journals the Internationale Schulbuchforschung [International Textbook Research] (Grindel 2008a), the Journal of Education Media and Memory Studies (Fuchs and Otto 2013), and the International Society of History Didactics Yearbook (Wojdon 2014); contributions in recently published handbooks on history education research, such as the Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education (Carretero et al. 2017); and a recently published edited book entitled The Colonial Past in History Textbooks: Historical and Social Psychological Perspectives (Van Nieuwenhuyse and Pires Valentim 2018). The latter contains contributions not only on representations of modern imperialism in history textbooks from former (European) colonizer countries – the object of most studies in this field (Müller 2018) – yet also from former colonized countries. Ultimately, textbook representations from no less than 23 countries have been taken into account in the analysis: from Belgium, Chile, Cameroon, DR Congo, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Malta, Mozambique, Portugal, Russia, Rwanda, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

In what follows, history textbooks will first be interpreted as educational media, at the same time addressing the question how to consider their content. The next part consists of the actual international and diachronic comparative history textbook analysis and includes possible explanations. Findings will be discussed afterwards.

The Complex Nature of History Textbooks as Cultural, Commercial, and Pedagogical Artifacts

History textbooks constitute much more than pure didactic teaching aids. They are commonly considered as cultural artifacts, as concrete manifestations of the historical culture(s) in a society (Klerides 2010). The values and norms that a society (through its government) considers important and wants to propagate are also present in history textbooks, as they underlie them to an important extent. History textbooks hence provide cultural clues about the society in which they are made and in which they are used. Does this at the same time mean that history textbooks are to be considered a mirror of the mentality within a society and of the dominant popular historical (and political) culture? This is subject of great debate among textbook researchers. Roughly speaking, a distinction can be made between maximalists and minimalists (De Baets 2004; Vanhulle 2009). Maximalists consider textbooks to be representative of the mentality of society and an expression of the knowledge that society expects young people to master (Müller 2018). In their view, history textbooks are socialization instruments that propagate norms and values with which society legitimizes itself. For textbooks support the societal consensus on the past and thus help to guarantee the cultural continuity of society. Minimalists, on the other hand, do not deny the ideological backgrounds of textbooks but rather regard textbooks as a reflection of the perspectives, understandings, and opinions of their authors and publishers. They also refer to the requirements that accompany textbooks as commercial and pedagogical products (such as the use of short texts and speaking images, or not deviating too far from existing learning content) and the influence they exert on the production process of textbooks and their content. This debate clearly shows that many (f)actors have an impact on the outlook and content of history textbooks.

Governments control textbooks, to a certain extent. This control can be exercised directly, through a system of official approval before permission of distribution. In other countries, where such system does not exist, control often takes place indirectly, via the issuing of curricular standards, delineating the objectives to be achieved by the students (Grindel 2017). If textbooks want to be successful as a commercial product, they must take these objectives into account. In that sense, (history) textbooks partly reflect – to a greater or lesser extent – the societal and political expectations as expressed in standards. Nevertheless, within one country, differences between textbooks are always to be observed, in terms of attention for different topics and of tone (critical, judgmental, neutral).

This immediately indicates that (teams of) textbook authors also have an impact on the historical representations in textbooks. These authors can be both teachers and academics. This finding can help explain why some textbooks lean more toward representations from popular historical culture, while others relate more to academic historiography. The time pressure that publishers impose on authors to prepare a new edition also plays a role. This pressure can bring about that textbook authors often rely to a considerate extent on previous versions of textbooks in preparing a new version and limit themselves to only few substantial changes. That way, textbook narratives form a relatively autonomous, stable, and fixed, not very changeable, vulgate, which develops independently of academic historiography (Tutiaux-Guillon 2006).

Besides authors of textbooks, publishers of textbooks also play a role. Not only the aforementioned time pressure that they impose on authors but also their commercial interests exert an influence on the historical representations in textbooks (Apple 1989). After all, a textbook is a commercial product that must be sold (Fuchs and Henne 2018). In the very competitive market of textbooks, with its often small profit margins, publishers hesitate to disseminate and sell textbooks that are too innovative and too different from what the customers (teachers and students) are used to and that contain too much controversial information. In that sense, publishers contribute to ensuring that textbooks closely reflect and reinforce the prevailing mentality and popular historical culture in society as well.

Since textbooks are intended for use in education, pedagogical-didactical theories also influence the editing of textbooks. “Traditional textbooks,” as Klerides (2010) calls them, mainly situated in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, reflect the then dominant pedagogical model that considered education mainly in terms of the pure transfer of knowledge from experts to novices. This model strongly influenced the content and outlook of the textbooks. Textbooks till deep into the 1950s (and even 1960s) of the twentieth century consisted mainly of text. Visual and other source material was scarce. The texts were very “closed”: they did not distinguish between past and history yet rather presented their representation of the past as “the historical truth,” with no eye for suggesting alternative interpretations. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, a paradigm shift took place in both pedagogical and historical science. Constructivism, the theory that places the student at the heart of the educational learning process, because he/she actively constructs knowledge, came to the fore. In historiography, the idea that historical knowledge is always constructed and that history is a construction and interpretation of the past gained importance (Donnelly and Norton 2011). Both evolutions influenced history textbooks. They underwent a process of didactization, meaning that source material was included in textbooks, in order to allow students to actively construct knowledge. Here and there, divergent, sometimes conflicting historical interpretations by historians, received attention in history textbooks.

In addition, history textbooks show a number of typical genre characteristics. They approach the past in a very abstract, structural, and social sciences way, through which they aim to identify broad and underlying patterns in the past. In so doing, they have little eye for the concrete human being of flesh and blood or for microhistory. Moreover, common people are often not attributed much agency (Wilke et al. 2018). The ability to act actively and take decisions, to bring about change in the past (agency), is almost exclusively attributed to large, nonhuman actors, such as “the government,” states, or powerful groups (“the army”). Such an approach also involves a very specific use of language. The language in textbooks is often very abstract and terse and avoids words that bring in doubt or irony and thus the existence of different historical interpretations. At the same time, the narrative of textbooks is very concise, connected with a formal template, in which each theme is assigned only a limited number of words.

Content and outlook of history textbooks are therefore not self-evident to analyze. They are influenced by many and diverse factors and also evolve over time (Christophe et al. 2018). The latter aspect makes any analysis even more difficult, since new generations of textbooks always rely on previous ones. Textbooks as cultural artifacts can therefore be considered as a palimpsest (Christophe and Schwedes 2015). Traces of different underlying narrative templates, different traditions, and different underlying norms and values can be found in one and the same text. This immediately makes it clear that textbooks always only reflect to a particular extent the prevailing mentality and popular historical culture of a certain time.

Comparative Analysis of Textbook Accounts Since 1945 on Empire and Modern Imperialism

The accounts on empire and modern imperialism in history textbooks worldwide since 1945 differ significantly in time and in space. In what follows, first the representations in textbooks since the end of the Second World War until decolonization (occurring from 1945 until mainly the 1970s) are examined; second, the influence of the decolonization on the textbook accounts; and third the current accounts in history textbooks.

History Textbook Accounts Since the World War II Until Decolonization

In history textbooks across European countries that possessed colonies, a lot of attention was paid to empire and modern imperialism. The same applied to the history textbooks used in the colonies. The colonizers had the monopoly on education there and imported European textbooks written by Europeans to be used in the colonial school system (Bentrovato and Van Nieuwenhuyse 2019). The textbooks of the various countries in first instance especially addressed the own empire and did so within the chapters on the national history (Grindel 2017; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2014). Besides, in separate chapters, they also included an account of modern imperialism in general and paid attention to the situation across Africa, Asia, and Oceania, as well as to both European and non-European (such as the United States, Japan, and Russia) colonizers. Those accounts were very extensive, yet “closed”: they only offered one representation of the imperial past and presented that as “the historical truth.”

Modern imperialism was almost exclusively framed in national terms and hence looked at through a nation-state lens (Grindel 2017; Müller 2018). Other perspectives, such as a pan-European, gender, or social class perspective, were not presented. The “own” empire and modern imperial endeavor were always perceived in a positive way and depicted as a mission civilisatrice (Müller 2018). Textbook authors emphasized that the own nation-state brought education, medical care, abolition of slavery, infrastructure, etc. to the territories it colonized (e.g., Haydn 2014). The violence and racism inherently accompanying modern imperialism were almost completely ignored (e.g., Pires Valentim and Miguel 2018). It is interesting to note that on the other hand, history textbooks across Europe were sometimes rather critical for other European colonizers. Belgian textbooks, for instance, stressed that Europeans (particularly the British, French, Spaniards, and Portuguese) brought order in indigenous territories as well as prosperity and development yet on the other hand imposed an authoritarian white rule and exploited the colonized territories (Van Nieuwenhuyse 2018). British textbooks then criticized the exploitation of indigenous people in the Congo Free State under the rule of Belgian king Leopold II (MacKenzie 1985).

The accounts of the own imperial past (and present) that were very positive, even triumphalist, served the fostering of a national identity. Textbook authors took national pride from their own nation, from a homogenized “us” (the national “in-group”) bringing civilization to a homogenized “them,” the uncivilized, backward, primitive indigenous peoples, who constituted the “other” or the “out-group.” That way, modern imperialism was “constitutive of the self-characterization of the nation” (Müller 2018, p. 284). It was presented in very dichotomous terms, and very simplistic identity markers were used to foster a national identity (Grindel 2013, 2017; Müller 2018).

In so doing, history textbooks across colonizer countries reinforced the “stereotypical dualism” (Hulme 1986) of a civilized West versus an inferior and backward rest of the world. They confirmed the (since the seventeenth century) long-existing “regime of truth” of “the West and the Rest” (Hall 1992, p. 205), in which “the West” refers to a developed, industrialized, urbanized, capitalist, secular, and modern society and provides criteria of evaluation against which other societies can be judged upon and ranked. Those criteria concern simplifying dichotomies (developed versus underdeveloped, modern versus backward, civilized versus uncivilized, etc.). This idea of “the West and the Rest” privileged a view as if the West walked a distinctive path into modernity, “excluding non-European trajectories” (Grindel 2017, p. 260). Europe’s and the Western World’s slow but steady rise toward democracy and freedom was set as the standard to judge other societies upon.

Textbook authors considered the modernity of the own nation as the driving force behind the nation’s imperial enterprise and at the same time the modernization of indigenous territories as the outcome of the colonial expansion (Grindel 2017). Taking this perspective, they ascribed agency solely to the colonizers: white Europeans seemed to be the only agents in the modern imperial endeavor. The indigenous, colonized peoples were represented as nothing but passive objects. That is, at least, if they were mentioned at all. For not only was the pre-colonial past of indigenous peoples almost completely ignored yet often were the territories that had been colonized described as “virgin lands” without any political and social organization. While for Asian societies the existence of a pre-colonial culture was acknowledged, particularly sub-Saharan Africa was represented as terra nullius, as if African territories were “uninhabited lands, rich in natural resources, waiting to be occupied and exploited without resistance” (Brescó de Luna 2018, p. 85; also see Macgilchrist and Müller 2012; Pires Valentim and Miguel 2018; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2014, 2018).

The triumphalist, ethnocentric, nationally oriented, and oversimplified history textbook accounts from the 1940s to 1950s reflected the state of the art in both popular historical culture and contemporary academic historiography. Here as well, the angle through which modern imperialism was approached was a national perspective. Furthermore, academic historians also lauded modern imperialism as a mission civilisatrice and made use of binary oppositions in their narratives in terms of modernity versus tradition, civilization versus a savage existence, or Europe versus the Orient and Africa.

History Textbook Accounts in the Era of Decolonization

Decolonization brought about a – gradual, not abrupt – shift in textbook accounts around the globe. The process of decolonization appeared on different moments in time. In 1946, the Philippines gained independence from the United States and India in 1947 from Great Britain. Many French colonies gained their independence throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960, just as Somalia from Italy. Several colonies of Portugal gained independence after the Carnation Revolution in 1974. Even though the timing differed, decolonization nevertheless caused similar evolutions in history textbook accounts on empire and modern imperialism.

In European and American history textbooks, it is first of all notable that the attention for modern imperialism, both in general and with regard to the own colonial enterprise, decreased, once the own colonies gained independence. Furthermore, the textbook accounts limited themselves more and more to a description and analysis of what happened in Asia and in Africa and to European states as imperial agents. Imperialism in Oceania, and the United States, Japan, and Russia as agents of imperialism, was increasingly ignored. The nation-state lens to look at modern imperialism, which was common during the imperial period itself, kept prevailing in many American and European history textbook accounts after the decolonization of the “own” colonies (e.g., Carretero et al. 2002; Grindel 2017). The attention paid to the “own” national imperial enterprise nevertheless decreased. Sometimes, even a true amnesia for the own modern imperial past occurred, as was the case in Belgian history textbooks, especially in the 1970s and 1980s (Van Nieuwenhuyse 2014). They started to ignore to a large extent the Belgian-Congolese colonial past.

The tone in which modern imperialism was addressed in most European and American history textbooks became somewhat more critical after the decolonization of the “own” colonies. Although they continued to present imperialism as a mission civilisatrice, history textbooks nevertheless launched debates about whether empire was a force of good or bad and started to pay more attention to colonial violence and at the same time to colonial resistance (e.g., Haydn 2014; Jackson 2018). This means they started to attribute – to a limited extent only – to the indigenous peoples. Textbooks also showed an increasing awareness of racism accompanying the imperial enterprise or resulting from it (Haydn 2014). Some textbook authors connected the imperial past and the present to each other. They established a link between the poor state in which the former colonies were in as well as the existence of a “Third World” on the one hand and the preceding modern imperial past on the other (e.g., Kokkinos et al. 2014). Other authors, however, did not make a connection between the imperial past and the contemporary state of the (third) world and passed the responsibility for the bad state of the former colonies solely onto the new independent states themselves (Van Nieuwenhuyse 2015). In general, the critical tone of European and American history textbooks with regard to modern imperialism should not be exaggerated. Although some bad sides of imperialism were somewhat mentioned, the overall judgment of the imperial enterprise remained positive.

Textbooks also kept addressing the “own” imperial past in a less critical way than modern imperialism in general. This is very obvious in, for instance, Russian, Portuguese, and Belgian history textbooks (Khodnev 2014; Pires Valentim and Miguel 2018; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2014). At the same time, however, in the first of two decades after decolonization, textbooks in many countries made less efforts to foster a national identity via their account of empire and modern imperialism. As a result of, among others, the diminishing attention for modern imperialism altogether in the whole of the textbook account; the call for a more global approach of history in history education in the 1960s and 1970s; the introduction of a more structural, social sciences approach of history education in that same period; and the troubled course of the decolonization process in several countries, textbook authors started to address the imperial past in a more distant and neutral way. Although in words a global identity was adhered to, in reality, a Western and Eurocentric rather than a national identity-building attempt came to the fore. This did not really contribute to decolonizing students’ minds.

Also, this evolution from a national to a Western identity construction underpinning the textbook accounts was not always continued. In Britain and France, for instance, in the 1980s and following decades, fierce debates took place about the extent to which the own empire was a force of good or evil and whether it should be taught about in a critical or a pride-stirring way. Conservative, right-wing voices required that history education in general, and the accounts on empire in particular, would approach the own nation in a positive way and instill national pride. Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Education in Thatcher’s first administration and considered to be the architect of the first version of the National Curriculum (introduced in 1991), argued that “pupils should be taught about the spread of Britain’s influence for good throughout the empire in the 18th and 19th centuries… These things are matters in which we should take great pride” (cited from a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1998, in Haydn 2014, p. 27). More patriotic forms of school history celebrating Britishness and British values were adopted since in English history education (Grindel 2013; Haydn 2014).

When comparing the American and European history textbook accounts for secondary education on empire and modern imperialism with the state of the art in academic historiography, it can be found that from the 1960s to 1970s onwards, a divergence commenced, with textbooks substantially departing from an academic historiography beginning to distance itself from the triumphalist discourse and to critique imperialism. The novel perspectives arising from the New Imperial History international research tradition since the 1980s, such as transnational, gender, and social class perspectives, and the constructed nature of historical knowledge of the imperial past were not adopted by most history textbook authors, who kept looking at empire through a nation-state and a quasi-exclusive Western lens (see Grindel 2012, 2013; 2017; Müller 2018; several contributions in Van Nieuwenhuyse and Pires Valentim 2018). This can be related to processes of educationalization, as many governments or other agents responsible for education were convinced that history curricula and textbooks should not introduce students to the most recent state of historiography but should rather foster national pride. Coinciding with a growing globalization trend and increasing intercontinental migration flows since the decolonization wave of the 1960s, such a view gained strength. Other reasons for the widening gulf between secondary school history textbooks and academic historiography might be found in the fact that textbook writing was passed on much more into the hands of history teachers rather than of academics and – illustrating the abovementioned notion of “grammar of schooling” – in the fact that textbook authors often relied on previous editions of their textbooks while writing new ones and only confined themselves to slight changes, rather than making significant changes. Textbook representations hence rather clung to representations of imperialism in popular historical culture within society at large than to historiography.

In the former colonies, it often took some years before the new independent states succeeded in establishing own national curricula for history education and, based on these, history textbooks. When analyzing the history textbooks from former colonies in the decades after their independence, a number of common characteristics come very obviously to the fore (see e.g. Bentrovato 2018; Bentrovato and Van Nieuwenhuyse 2019; Cabecinhas et al. 2018). First, these textbooks put a lot of emphasis on the own history and in many cases by extension on the region they belong to. Many African history textbooks, for instance, testified to a pan-African perspective. Second, they paid a lot of attention to the pre-colonial history of their country or broader region. Third, the textbooks focused on colonial violence and accompanying resistance. In so doing, fourth, they testified to a very dichotomous approach of empire and modern imperialism, in terms not only of violence versus resistance yet also of good versus evil, homogenized colonizers versus colonized (without attention for in-between stances), and a presumed (and often illusory) national “us” versus Western “them.” Arising from this, fifth, was a very morally oriented rather than analytical approach of the past, being very critical for the West. Sixth, in all the history textbooks from former colonies, a clear and explicit connection was made between the contemporary situation of the country (and broader region) and the preceding imperial past, thereby again pointing at the preponderant responsibility of the West for the often difficult contemporary situation of its former colonies.

Current History Textbooks from Around the Globe

Empire and modern imperialism are systematically present in current history textbooks worldwide, also in states which never colonized others, such as Switzerland (Minder 2011). No history textbook series for secondary education exist that simply ignore those issues. The reach of imperialism is often shown via maps, on which all colonizers and colonized areas are specified. In the written accounts, however, the focus is particularly on Africa and Asia, leaving Oceania as colonized area and the United States, Japan, and Russia largely out of the picture (apart from these countries themselves of course; see Cave 2013; Khodnev 2014). The “own” imperial past, in those countries having been either colonizer or colonized, still receives the bulk of attention. It is, however, much more than before located in a regional and global context (Fuchs and Henne 2018; Schissler and Soysal 2005). The “own” national imperial past, in other words, is often not addressed in a separate way anymore in chapters on the national past yet regionally or globally contextualized.

Compared with the 1940s and 1950s, the amount of attention paid to modern imperialism decreased in most history textbooks in Western countries (e.g., Cave 2013; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2014). In former colonies, by contrast, the attention remains high, both in Asian and in African countries. Another difference that can be noted is that Western history textbooks continue to mention Africa (and to a lesser extent Asia) only in relation to the West, when discussing imperialism. Furthermore, the representation of particularly Africa as “virgin land” or as terra nullius continues to exist (Abadia and Collins 2018; Brescó de Luna 2018; Gorbahn 2014; Marmer et al. 2010; Pires Valentim and Miguel 2018; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2018). This is also visible on maps: those areas not having been colonized at a certain time are simply left blank (literally, as white spots) without any explanation in the accompanying legend. History textbooks within former colonies on the other hand address to a large extent the pre-colonial past of their own area and emphasize the enormous disruption modern imperialism caused (Müller 2018).

In almost all countries worldwide, a nation-state lens to look at modern imperialism continues to prevail or even gains strength again, as is the case in, for instance, Britain, France, and Portugal (e.g., Abadia and Collins 2018; Azzopardi and Buttigieg 2018; Grindel 2017; Otto 2018; Pires Valentim and Miguel 2018). History textbooks in Europe do, for instance, still not discuss imperialism as a European project but continue to address it predominantly from a nation-state standpoint (Grindel 2008b; Müller 2018). The nation-state perspective is often closely connected to goals of nation-building and a national identity construction. Furthermore, it is accompanied by an underlying ethnocentric approach of the past. In Europe and the West, it concerns a Eurocentric approach and in Africa a pan-African approach (Gorbahn 2014; Holmén 2011), hence continuing to support a very simplistic and dichotomous identity-building process, in terms of homogenized us-them thinking (see, e.g., Abadia and Collins 2018; Pires Valentim and Miguel 2018). Two notable exceptions where the nation-state does not serve as a lens to look at modern imperialism, yet nevertheless with the aim to support a national identity, are Spain and Chile. In Spanish textbooks, the own modern imperial past is not paid much attention to and is dealt with rather critically, contrary to the premodern imperial past, which is addressed much more extensively and in laudatory and even triumphalist terms (Brescó de Luna 2018). In Chile, having been colonized in premodern time but being a colonizer country itself during the era of modern imperialism, history textbooks focus mainly on the different European colonial powers and the Western world. The “own” imperial past and particularly the conquest and occupation of the Araucanía territories where the Mapuche people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the Chilean state are completely silenced (Figueiredo and Gazmuri 2018). For Chile does not acknowledge this as a form of imperialism yet called the occupation of the Araucanía territories an act of “pacification.” Only in 2017, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet formally apologized for the historical injustice done by the Chilean state toward the Mapuche. To what extent this will influence future history textbook accounts is unclear at the moment.

The tone in which empire and modern imperialism is addressed in Western history textbooks has become more than before rather neutral, as a consequence of the textbook accounts taking a more structural and social sciences approach (e.g., Brescó de Luna 2018; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2018). Causes for and consequences of modern imperialism as well as different kinds of imperial systems are described in a somewhat distant way. At the same time, critical noises reverberate, as the violence accompanying the imperial enterprise is addressed in the accounts (without, however, being emphasized very much) and even debated (Cave 2002; de Michele 2011; Grindel 2017; Lantheaume 2013; Müller 2018; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2015, 2018). The finding nevertheless remains that in many textbooks, the “own” modern imperial past is addressed in a less critical way than that of other former colonizers (e.g., Haydn 2014; Khodnev 2014); in Flemish-Belgian textbooks, particularly the remote imperial past is critically dealt with the more recent past far less (Van Nieuwenhuyse 2015). Some textbooks start to include multiple perspectives in their account of the imperial past and, in so doing, to acknowledge the constructed nature of historical knowledge, hence – very carefully though – starting to foster young people’s historical thinking and a critical historical consciousness. In the history textbooks from former colonies, the tone is much more morally judging and condemning (Bentrovato and Rath 2018; Gorbahn 2014). Imperialism is strongly convicted, and violence is explicitly acknowledged as a constituent part of modern imperialism. At the same time, these history textbooks also use rather heroic terms while emphasizing the indigenous peoples’ colonial resistance.

This also means that current history textbooks in former colonies attribute a lot of agency to indigenous peoples (Bentrovato 2018; Cabecinhas et al. 2018; Müller 2018). The role of local population resisting the colonizers often gets the most attention. In Western history textbooks, by contrast, it is still the (homogenized) colonizer who is the most important agent. Indigenous peoples in the colonies, equally homogenized, are only sparsely attributed agency. Bentrovato and Rath (2018), for instance, clearly demonstrate this with regard to the representation of the First World War in European and African textbooks. They come to the conclusion that only few European textbooks include portrayals of Africa’s and Africans’ active participation in the Great War, while African textbooks include much more depictions of active Africa’s and African involvement.

History textbooks from former colonies also pay explicit attention to the continued effect of modern imperialism on the present-day world. They strongly connect past and present to each other, and emphasize that the difficult circumstances the former colonies often find themselves in are the consequence of the imperial past and are hence the responsibility of the Western former colonizers, are the consequence of imperialism and hence the responsibility of the Western former colonizers (Bentrovato 2018; Cabecinhas et al. 2018). In Western history textbooks, this continued effect is not always present in the accounts, even though the tone with regard to modern imperialism as such became more critical. Some textbooks indeed acknowledge the connection between modern imperialism on the one hand and racism, feelings of superiority, Third World problems, and the existence of a North-South divide on the other hand (Grindel 2017; Otto 2018; Raudsepp and Veski 2016). Others, however, ignore or silence this connection, as is, for instance, the case in all but two current Belgian history textbooks (Van Nieuwenhuyse 2015). In that sense, also taking into account the various degrees to which a national identity is supported and multiperspectivity is included, it can be stated that history textbooks worldwide only to limited extent instigate a critical historical consciousness and contribute to the decolonization of young people’s minds.

The latter finding can be closely connected to another finding by one, namely, that history textbook authors worldwide seem to not really or only to a limited extent connect with the current state of academic historiography on empire and the imperial past (e.g., Abadia and Collins 2018; Cajani 2013, 2018; Khodnev 2014; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2018). For New Imperial Historians precisely draw attention to multiple entanglements between colonizers and colonized, thus transcending a nation-state perspective, illuminating the transnational and intercultural dimensions of colonial history, and emphasizing the interpretive nature of history (Stanard 2018). Several reasons can be found to explain this gulf between secondary school history textbooks and academic historiography. The notion of “grammar of schooling” helps to explain that both publishing houses and textbook authors are reluctant to change too much in new history textbook versions, as customers (teachers and students) are presumed not to like too much change. As a result, both recent historiographical and educational insights do not or only very slowly trickle through school history textbooks. Besides, the notion of “educationalization” helps to understand that school history and academic historiography serve different goals. While academic historiography seeks to connect to the current state of affairs and in the research field and to expand historical knowledge, secondary school history education is primarily oriented toward the personal, social, and intellectual development of young people. The school subject is expected to induce young people into socially desirable or societally required norms and values and to support them in coming to a private understanding of the past, enabling to either urge upon them a certain identity or support them to develop their own identities (Husbands 1996).

Conclusion and Discussion

When looking in general at the history textbook accounts on empire and modern imperialism worldwide since 1945, it is striking to see that a number of characteristics remained the same throughout the past seven decades. All textbooks contain basically rather simplified than complex and nuanced historical narratives of the modern imperial past. They all start from a nation-state perspective and, in so doing, largely ignore other perspectives such as transnational, gender, or social class perspectives. This finding closely relates to the agency textbook authors attribute. This is done in very simplistic ways, not only with regard to the acknowledgment and amount of agency attributed but also with regard to the homogenization of agents. Textbook authors often offer very stereotypical and binary representations of the parties involved in modern imperialism, namely, colonizers versus colonized and Western versus indigenous peoples. More in general, textbook accounts are riddled with “stereotypical dualism” and simplistic dichotomies between good and evil, right and wrong, and us and them, “which in many ways remains ‘colonial knowledge’ instead of ‘postcolonial knowledge’” (Grindel 2017, p. 265). These accounts fail to facilitate complex, multiperspectivist and nuanced understandings. The complexity of the whole phenomenon of modern imperialism, the very existence and consequences of the entanglement that occurred throughout the imperial past, and the very mixed and various positions people involved in the imperial enterprise took are to a large extent silenced in the history textbooks. In so doing, history textbooks clearly do not truly connect to recent academic historiography written by New Imperial Historians.

When evaluating the history textbook accounts on empire and modern imperialism in the light of the main goals attributed to history education as discussed in the introduction, it is obvious that in many countries, the textbook accounts primarily (still) serve the aims of nation-building, reinforcing social cohesion and fostering a (homogeneous) national identity. Deconstructing identity construction processes or supporting an open and global identity-building, as well as fostering a global and critical citizenship or historical thinking, including taking into account multiple perspectives, is far less pursued. This is an important finding, as previous research has shown that the approach history education in general and many history textbooks in specific take has important consequences on young people’s historical thinking and worldviews, in terms of a narrow-minded and colonial instead of postcolonial understanding of the past and an ethnocentric stance toward intergroup relations (e.g., Licata et al. 2018; Marmer et al. 2010; Van Nieuwenhuyse 2019). History education and textbooks hence still have a long way to go in bringing young people to a true postcolonial understanding of the modern imperial past in this post-colonial present.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Educational Master in History, Faculty of ArtsKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium