Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fisking Mrs. Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer has written a multi-volume history curriculum called The Story of the World:  History for the Classical Child.  For some reason, this curriculum has gained wide use among Christian homeschoolers.  Several of the homeschooling families of our acquaintance have used it, so when Mrs. Φ went researching curricula we should use for our children, she chose this one.

I can’t claim to be an expert in history, but I have sufficient interest in the subject to make it a subject of our dinnertime conversation, which often begins with me asking, “So, Γ, what did you learn in history today?”  And what I heard in reply began to disturb me more and more.

The first problem was that my daughter didn’t seem to be learning the dates of the events she was learning about.  Now, I know that my parents’ generation grew up to complain about how all they learned in history was “a list of dates,” but I don’t believe that history need be reduced to that in order for students to place the events they study in, say, the correct decade of the 20th century, or the nearest half-century for events of the last 500 years.  I don’t think it is inappropriate for me to expect this, given that dates are important ways of ordering events and grasping their relationships.  But when I asked Γ, “when did so-and-so happen?” I would typically get dumb looks.

More generally, however, I began to notice that the stories she would tell me followed a distinctly left-wing narrative.  Europeans bad; Third-Worlders oppressed; corporations bad; whites bad; southerners bad; civil-rights activists good; etc.  Lots of material on, say, Martin Luther King, Sacajawea, and Harriet Tubman; nothing on the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison.  It’s not so much that what she was learning was wrong; rather, it was that in any conflict, she was typically learning only one side of the story, and learning it in a way that lent itself to moral polemic.

I didn’t really worry too much about this for the first couple of years.  After all, part of the point of our dinner-time conversations were to give her a fuller understanding of the events she studied, but also an opportunity to encourage her to read critically and do her own research.  But finally, one chapter’s historical account was so egregiously one-sided that I had to make an issue of it.

As I mentioned two posts ago, Γ learned about the Bhopal disaster in the context of India’s post-independence history.  Here, in full, is Mrs. Bauer’s account of that accident:

An American company called the Union Carbide Corporation had built a factory in the center of India, at a city called Bhopal.  At its factory, Union Carbide made pesticides – chemicals to kill insects on crops and grasses.  Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, poisonous gases began to leak out of the storage tanks at the Union Carbide factory.

No one in Bhopal knew what was happening.  At first, some people thought the Sikhs were to blame again!

But what was to blame was a faulty tank at Union Carbide.  Twenty-seven tons of a poison called methyl isocyanate escaped from the tank.  According to Union Carbide, at least three thousand people died that night from the poisonous gases.  People from Bhopal say that the number was much greater – that as many as fifteen thousand died.

No one knows exactly how many people died later, from sicknesses caused by the gasses.  But at least another 150 thousand people, and maybe over half a million, were made horribly sick by the gases.  Thousands never recovered.  The Bhopal gas leak was the worst “industrial disaster” (a disaster caused by factories or manufacturing) in all of history, before or since.

Even now, over twenty years later, the ground and water at Bhopal are still full of poison.  Union Carbide never cleaned the mess up.

Indian investigators blamed the gas leak on sloppy safety procedures, and said that Union Carbide had not made sure that the storage tanks were secure because it would have cost too much money.  None of the warning systems or safety systems at the plant were actually working at the time of the leak!  Union Carbide, which is now part of an even bigger American company called Dow Chemical, insisted (and still insists) that the Bhopal tragedy had been caused by sabotage.  Someone had deliberately arranged for the gas leak.

The highest court of Bhopal demanded that the American DEO come to Bhopal and take part in a court hearing.  He refused.  He is still considered a fugitive by Indian law, even today.  And even today, twenty years later, many groups of protestors still campaign for justice for Bhopal.

It’s easy to see what the intended take-away of this lesson is:  an American company killed thousands of Indians and then walked away.  The problem is, this isn’t even close to being true.

The very first sentence in Mrs. Bauer’s account is, technically, a lie.  The Bhopal plant was not owned by UCC, but by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), an Indian company in which UCC owned 51% of the stock.  This was actually an important point made by the American federal courts when they referred post-Bhopal litigation to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts.  If Mrs. Bauer wishes to complain that the concept of limited liability in corporate law lets evil-doers off the hook, she should (a) make that point directly and (b) consider whether or not she wishes to be held personally liable for the actions of the companies in which her pension plans own stock.

Going through the Wikipedia article, we learn that UCC did, in fact, pay a lot in damages.  In addition to relatively minor charitable contributions toward victim relief:

  • When UCC wanted to sell its shares in UCIL, it was directed by the Indian Supreme Court to finance a 500-bed hospital for the medical care of the survivors.  $90 million from that sale ultimately went to create the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), which opened in 1998.  The hospital was “obliged to give free care for survivors for eight years,” although it is not clear if the operations of the hospital were funded by UCC outside of the $90 million initial contribution, nor can I find out what percentage of the sale’s proceeds were constituted by that $90 million.
  • In 1999, a settlement was reached under which UCC agreed to pay US$470 million (the insurance sum, plus interest) in a full and final settlement of its civil and criminal liability.

Was this enough?  There are a lot of claims and counter-claims swirling the controversy that bear upon the extent, such as it is, of UCC’s moral responsibility for the accident.  But at the end of the day, the legal settlement was what it was.  Mrs. Bauer’s insinuation that the events of 1984 are now somehow Dow Chemical’s fault is, again, left-wing agitation at its worst.

Likewise is her mention of Warren Anderson, erstwhile CEO of UCC.  What she doesn’t tell us is that Warren Anderson went to India immediately following the accident, was arrested, and promptly thrown out of the country.  While it is true that the Indian courts at some point reinstated charges against him, it is also true that the Indian government is not actually requesting his extradition.  Should Warren Anderson be held criminally liable for whether the Indian workers at one of his subsidiaries were following proper safety procedures?  I keep coming back to that story about the UA vo-tech school as indicative of the kind of justice Anderson would receive if he ever went back to India.

None of this is to make light of how ungodly awful this disaster was for the Indian people.  But it is illustrative how Mrs. Bauer makes selective use of facts to lend to historical events a moral narrative that those events almost never possess.  If history is to be given such a moral narrative, then I would much rather that narrative be one that encouraged, rather than discouraged, pride in her country and its civilization.


Novaseeker said...

Exhibit A for why we moved my son to a private school that uses textbooks from pre-1985. Even these need to be read with caution, but they are much better than what came later -- much better.

On the dates issue, I think it's important to have a general framework of dates, rather than a "list of dates" in terms of memorizing a chronology. I was a history major way back when and it was certainly useful having that general framework of dates handy when considering historical questions and parallels, just as it used to be handy for maths and physics people to have times tables in their heads (way back when they still taught times tables to kids).

Anonymous said...

Strange that so much effort is put into current events instead of history in a history curricilum. This is more properly in a political science, environmentliasm or tort review curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of what I was taught in school: "Can you believe that in the awful American medical system they actually have to pay for healthcare?!? Uncivilised!"

Mrs. Jawbone and I have occasional discussions about whether we will homeschool our kids. Because I never encountered the idea growing up, I have had ambivalent feelings on the matter, but I've recently been feeling inspired after reading this “suggested 11th-grade reading list” at the Thinking Housewife. Holy smoke! There's more on that list than I read during my entire high school career, probably. The concept that homeschooling means being able to teach my kids what I think is important, in the manner that I think is important, from the perspective that I think is important, has really fired my imagination. It's a big responsibility, but for the first time it's also striking me as really exciting. Imagine: actually being able to teach your children Truth!

Anonymous said...


I recommend reading John Holt's How Children Fail and Julia Weber Gordon's Country School Diary. The former describes the author's experience teaching math to upper class children in a posh private school. The latter is a teacher's account of four years in a one room school during the 1930s.

Sheila Tone said...

Phi, I'd cut your kid slack with the dates. Kids that age of whatever intelligence just hate dates because they mean nothing to them. They have too short a timeframe and no sense of their place in history. I don't think you can cure that with any teaching technique.

Φ said...

Sheila: that's an interesting point; I hadn't considered it quite that way before. I think a reasonable objective of a history curriculum is to teach a young person his place in history.

Prof Hale: with a handful of pages devoted to the last 50 years of Indian history, it's odd that Bhopal gets a full page, whereas, say, the persecution of Christians or the economic reforms of the BJT merits nary a mention.

Samson: candidly, I myself have only read a handful of the books on that list, although I have read others on many of the topics. I assume that a student reading Aeschylus and Plutarch have already read Homer and Virgil? And while I'm a fan of the Russian writers, I think Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina are much more accessible than War and Peace.

Dexter said...

"Kids that age of whatever intelligence just hate dates because they mean nothing to them."

Kids are forced to learn a lot of things whose importance is not immediately obvious to them. If you get the often-scorned "rote memorization" of dates out of the way at an early stage, you can move on to understanding the events at a later stage. But it is impossible to analyze and interpret the facts if you don't know the facts.

Anonymous said...

Kids are forced to learn a lot of things whose importance is not immediately obvious to them. If you get the often-scorned "rote memorization" of dates out of the way at an early stage, you can move on to understanding the events at a later stage. But it is impossible to analyze and interpret the facts if you don't know the facts.

Completely agreed. One might approach this from the perspective of music rather than history: the Mrs. and I were just talking the other day about making kids learn a musical instrument. Ever seen Rob Paravonian's hilarious rant about Pachelbel? (It's worth watching if you haven't.) Near the beginning, he mentions that while playing the cello as an adult is pretty awesome, playing it as a kid... sucks.

The reasons why it sucks are slightly different than what we're talking about here, but I only use that video as a springboard to make the point: being forced as a kid to sit through piano lessons, learning to sight read, may seem tedious and dull at the time. But when you're grown up, you'll very much appreciate having that skill if you want to learn a new instrument or participate in some sort of ensemble. I can say from experience that learning to play an orchestral instrument as an adult is much harder if you never learned music theory or sight reading as a kid.

Novaseeker said...

As for Russian novels, The Brothers Karamazov is by far my favorite, but then I am biased.

Justin said...

Thanks for this warning post, Phi. The need for a history curriculum written from OUR perspective is acute.

Being taught only your enemie's perspective is the essence of brainwashing, alienating you from your own self-interests.

Anonymous said...

The problem with forcing kids to learn things that they simply do not care about is that it is forgotten before it becomes useful. The best that can be said about forcing kids to remember dates that they don't care about is that they learn how to (temporarily, at least) remember things they don't care about. That is not a worthless life skill.