The Global Impact of International Understanding and Better History Textbooks

Theoretical concepts and underlying assumptions of UNESCO history textbook revisions

Falk Pingel

In this paper, the author introduces a framework for theorizing the premises behind the concept of international textbook revision reformulated by UNESCO. To this aim, the four dimensions of textbook revision are discerned: 1) textbook revision is a political activity grounded in a concept of political bargaining and strategies of implementation; 2) textbook revision targets a pedagogical process, i.e. the improvement of educational material; 3) textbook revision entails a psycho-social dimension, although this aspect is often not explicitly dealt with in textbook consultations, and 4) textbook revision brings about its impact analysis including scientific, subject-specific and consultative paradigms. The author mainly looks into their methodological basis and theoretical implications from the period of 1945 to the present.

Battling Minds: UNESCO Opponents and Supporters in Post-war America

Randle J. Hart

This paper tells the story of anti-UNESCO and pro-UNESCO campaigning in the 1950s America. The establishment of the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations coincided with important social, cultural, and political shifts in the United States. One of the earliest organized right-wing reactions to the United Nations was coordinated campaigns against the use of UNESCO textbooks in American public schools and libraries. In the context of the Cold War, conservative activists believed that UNESCO textbooks were communist propaganda meant to prepare American children for a communist, “one-world” government. There was, however, organized opposition to these campaigns, especially by pro-U.N. activists and librarians who not only responded to conservative critiques of UNESCO textbooks but organized their own pro-UNESCO and anti-censorship counter-movement campaigns.

UNESCO and “Better History Textbooks”: Reflecting the Public Discourse and Policy-Making in post-war Japan and Korea

Aigul Kulnazarova and Sungho Kang

Almost seventy years ago WWII ended, but there are conflicts and disputes of war crimes and territorial borders and, most importantly, their interpretations and teachings in history textbooks that still continue to negatively affect the peaceful development and cooperation in East Asia. By combining historical discourse, comparative and empirical methods of analyses, and bringing insights from the post-war Asian states’ public debates, this paper seeks to reflect UNESCO’s activities in promoting education for international understanding and cooperation, and better history textbooks in Japan and Korea. The history of history education in these cases is not just about the improvements of school textbooks and history teaching under UNESCO’s guidelines, but also about the changing power dynamics, which had operated in the context of colonialism and imperialism with its long-lasting effect on contemporary reconciliation.

Jamie Torres Bodet and the struggle over history writing of the Americas: The Mexican Experience

Ines Dussel and Christian Ydesen

This paper begins with the account of UNESCO’s Second General Conference, held in Mexico City in 1947 at which one of the central focus areas was the program for the improvement of textbooks. As the authors further show, Mexico already had a long history of dealing with textbook improvements. As early as in 1924, the Scientific Pan American Conference in Lima considered the textbook improvement as one of its main agenda issues. In 1933 Mexico joined the treaty signed by Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay providing for the periodic revision of their national history textbooks. The History Commission of the Pan American Institute for History and Geography, established in 1929, had commissioned studies on the subject, and also the Secretary of Public Education. Thus, a picture can be drawn of merging historical lines of development centered on the improvement of textbooks for promoting international understanding. This article aims to throw light on the complex intermeshing of the international and national ideas, knowledge and practice as they are expressed in Mexico’s education policies and practices on history textbooks between 1945 and 1960.

UNESCO’s Education for Living in a World Community – from teacher seminars to experimental activities

Elisabeth Teige

This paper focuses on the experimental implementation of the international understanding program through a series of seminars conducted by UNESCO from 1947. These seminars were designed to bring together leading experts from the field of education to stimulate discussions and lay a common ground for their transmission to the member states. But in this way, the author argues, UNESCO was only able to reach the pupils indirectly. It was also not clear what knowledge actually reached the pupils and in what way it could have been taught most effectively. It was time to turn ideals into practice. With this understanding, in 1954 UNESCO initiated the Co-ordinated experimental activities in schools of the member states. What were the reasons behind this startup? How was it done? Did it work? Based on reports on tests, mainly coming from Belgium and Norway, this chapter further explores if schools, teachers and pupils have changed their international understanding through those experimental activities in the given countries.

For peace, world citizenship and Europe: The Impact of UNESCO on Belgian historians and on political and ideological projects, 1944-1956

Eva Schandevyl

The starting years of UNESCO coincided with the beginning of the Cold War along with the difficult dealings of historical past and war memories. Belgium followed a new discourse aimed to replace the anti-German feelings with a better understanding between the two nations through reconciliation and European integration. The paper presents the Brunswick conference of 1954, where Belgian and German historians worked together for the revision of history textbooks, as an interesting case to explore the policies instigated by UNESCO. However, primary sources also reveal a heated public discourse that existed between the advocates of universal or world history approaches and nationalist historians, who strongly reproved UNESCO’s “dirigisme” in Belgium. The impact of UNESCO, as the author demonstrates, was diluted due to the barriers and confrontations of minds divided by an irreconcilable discrepancy of worldviews, interests and war memories; all this not in the international arena of opposing world powers, but in one country situated in the heart of Europe.

The Role of Science Education in the Nuclear Age: UNESCO’s ‘Atoms for peace’ in 1946-1964

Ivan Lind Christensen

Following the ramifications of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the increasing tensions of post-war atomic age, in December 1954 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted an “Atoms for Peace” resolution to promote the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the benefits of all humanity. Although the Resolution itself has been well covered in the context of international relations, national security and popular culture studies, far less attention has been paid to the subsequent “Atoms for Peace” initiatives undertaken by UNESCO within the field of science education. This paper explores uncovered stories and instructive examples of UNESCO’s peaceful atom that has been promoted in educational textbooks, teaching materials, syllabus recommendations and scientific missions and data collection around the globe.

Perturbed by ‘race’: antiracism, science, and education in UNESCO during the Cold War

Sebastián Gil-Riaño

This paper shows how “race” acted as an object that unsettled UNESCO’s cosmopolitan ambitions of manufacturing harmonious and peaceful relations worldwide and complicated UNESCO projects to promote international understanding through the revision of textbooks. The author, particularly, examines controversies concerning the publication of a UNESCO commissioned handbook for teachers on “Race Prejudice and Education”, written by British science educator named Cyril Bibby in 1955, and maps the itinerary of where the handbook did and did not circulate once published. In so doing, this chapter traces the political and geographical contours of UNESCO’s internationalist aspirations and how these were shaped and perturbed by the geopolitical climate of the Cold War and the ongoing presence of racial inequality.

South Africa’s “Strange” Relations with UNESCO: Anti-racism vs. Apartheid

Michelle Brattain

A founding member of UNESCO, South Africa withdrew from the organization in 1956 in protest of what it viewed as inappropriate interference in the nation’s domestic racial affairs. South Africa had been an active if occasionally critical participant in UNESCO activities in the late 1940s, and UNESCO educational materials were distributed in that country by the South African Institute for Race Relations even after the introduction of Apartheid. However, UNESCO’s expanding anti-racist educational mission ultimately ruptured what became an increasingly tense relationship. This chapter examines South Africa’s response to UNESCO activities and the nature of the ideological and practical conflicts that led to withdrawal.

Changing the Minds, Shifting the Attitudes: A Comparative Analysis of UNESCO Re-education Activities in post-war Japan and Germany

Aigul Kulnazarova and Poul Duedahl

By focusing on Japanese and German postwar educational reconstructions, this paper explores UNESCO’s policies and guidelines that had been applied to and deeply influenced both states. Although the two countries shared a common fate of defeated aggressors, they set their reeducation activities in different ways, which variably affected their reconciliation and international understandings with other states. The documented evidence substantiates that the opening of UNESCO Offices in Japan and Germany in 1949, years before their formal acceptance to the organization, was a major factor in expanding Japan and Germany launched UNESCO Associations and Institutes worldwide. However, it is not tenable to assert that the national reconstructions aimed at changing minds and shifting attitudes were easily malleable only on the basis of moral and political concerns alone, but they were rather subject to institutional constrains and opportunities.

Confronting the Political Divide I: The Impact and Implementation of UNESCO’s Education for International Understanding in the USA during the Cold War

Christian Ydesen

Right from the very outset of UNESCO’s program for international understanding and textbook revisions, the United States played an active role. It sent delegates to all the major UNESCO seminars and conferences devoted to the program, provided the organization with experts in the field, and actively pursued bilateral agreements on textbook revisions. In this paper, the author examines the relations between the United States and UNESCO as they are evident in the program for international understanding and textbook revisions. These relations are visible in multiple areas ranging from the political, the diplomatic, and the economic to the level of key agents such as a historian James Quillen. Using primary sources from the UNESCO archives as well as sources gathered from the US national archives, the chapter treats these fields with a special view on the dialectical impact between the United States and UNESCO in the context of the Cold War.

Confronting the Political Divide II: The Impact and Implementation of UNESCO’s Education for International Understanding in the USSR during the Cold War

Aigul Kulnazarova

What is surprising is that although the USSR was one of the founding states of the United Nations Organization, granting her permanency with the Security Council, it took almost a decade for the Soviet government to officially become the member of UNESCO. It would however be not precise to assume that the largest country in the world with the greatest multiethnic and culturally diverse population would not be sympathetic with UNESCO’s “Education for International Understanding and Cooperation” among nations. This paper, while dealing with the onsets of the Cold War that became one of the factors for the Soviet state to refrain from UNESCO, presents a refreshing insight about diverging and converging relationships between the USSR and UNESCO before and after she joined the organization in the context of implementation of international understanding.

The Impact of International Education in Africa: UNESCO and Rwanda in 1962-1975

Jean-Damascène Gasanabo

This paper shows that Rwanda’s membership to UNESCO in 1962 stimulated long-lasting effects on the Rwandan educational system through the promotion of literacy, numeracy, and publications of educational materials for primary and secondary schools. UNESCO-commissioned textbooks played a special role in Rwandan schools as they aided African children in education for international understanding and promotion of worldview. The widely distributed Catalogue films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire (1967), World Civilizations, Museums imagination and education (1973), no doubt, helped to shape an international perception of the world in children and youth rather than keeping to an African vision. The author emphasizes the importance of these publications along with teacher training seminars organized by UNESCO for Rwandan post-independent developments in the field of international education.

The Impact and Implementation of UNESCO Guidelines on History and Geography Textbooks in Brazil

Helena Ribeiro Castro and Christian Ydesen

This paper analyses the historical interplay between Brazilian peace initiatives and bilateral agreements with Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico. The authors highlight the role of international organizations and travelling of their ideas, knowledge and practices within national, regional and local contexts. It seems that the moment of the ratification of the bilateral agreements was coincidental with the launching of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History, which set out similar goals. The agreements called for a revision of history textbooks aimed at weeing out texts prone to create “aversion against any American people”, and providing an “insight into the wealth and production capacities of the American states.” UNESCO, as the authors argue, was a newcomer to this field, but an agent which quickly took a central role in the promotion of international understanding of which textbook revisions was a key feature. 

Conclusion: On future directions of the research trajectory

Aigul Kulnazarova and Christian Ydesen


Conference coordinator Christian Ydesen

Conference secretary: Marianne Høgsbro

Organizing Committee


Poul Duedahl 

Aigul Kulnazarova