The History Exam

Apr 27, 2023 4:00:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf sheds a light on how education abroad can help students connect perspectives from different continents on history, politics, and national identity.


I never enjoyed examinations. I’ve failed more than I’ve passed. At the age of 15, in the English system, my wisdom and knowledge was tested in about nine different subjects in what was called Ordinary Level. I failed Math, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, destroying the delusion that I had some kind of future as a nuclear physicist or brain surgeon.

I did better in the humanities where it didn’t matter much that calculus was an arcane and ugly mystery. Not knowing the right answer was OK because, essentially, there was not a single right answer. We learned to be agnostic about The Truth, to see ambiguity in the things we observed and read.

That is not to say that there is no such thing as truth or facts, but that we acquire the habit of skepticism and doubt rather than certainty. Study abroad reverses a widespread assumption about this process. The movement of the mind is towards the discovery that what we know and believe may be less true than we had assumed. Confidence in our knowledge is subverted by exposure to alternative realities.

I am not saying that this is all that may be learned abroad. Students may, of course, expand insights into specific disciplines, learn another language, gain information about global business, and so on. However, “abroad” is formally or informally part of the curriculum, and that is where things get messy. Encounters with the unfamiliar challenge the mental baggage we carry. To explore and analyze new locations necessarily transcends academic disciplines. Students cross more than one border when they study abroad. All the paraphernalia of local and national identities collide: past with present; beliefs and ideologies; customs and behaviors; power and authority structures; class, race, ethnicity; faith and doubt; signs and signals. Unsettling is both a consequence and an objective.

So, despite aversion to examinations, I have devised one in history intended to illustrate how what we believe may not be always true and that the past that informs the present is not always what it seems. There are hidden histories.

Instruction to Candidates

Take as much time as you like. Feel free to plagiarize. Discuss your answers with those around you. 

Question One

Multiple choice.

Please circle the correct answer.

When did World War 2 begin?

  1. 1931

  2. 1935

  3. 1939

  4. 1941

Answer: Simple enough. Students with even a rudimentary grasp of the 20th century will know that war was declared on September 1st, 1939, after Germany ignored Neville Chamberlain’s famous ultimatum:

This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

Later that day France also declared war on Germany. Thus, answer c) is correct. It is also not quite correct.

African students might instead mark option b) as correct. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, on October 3rd, 1935. Italians call this the Ethiopian War; Ethiopians, the Italian Invasion. This act of aggression effectively marked the beginning of World War 2 in Africa.

Thus, answer b) is correct. It is also not quite correct.

In Asia, students might choose option a). Japan’s invasion of Manchuria on September 18th, 1931 marked the beginning of an occupation that did not end until the defeat of Japan in 1945.

Thus, answer a) is correct. It is also not quite correct.

Americans might reasonably choose answer d) citing President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Thus, answer d) is correct. It is also not quite correct.

Can something be a bit right?

The answer is, of course, that “facts” are conditional on perspective. Education abroad offers mechanisms to unlearn certainty. The students who flock to Florence or Rome to experience the architecture and art of the past need also to understand that politically the Italian nation is almost 100 years younger than the United States.

Question Two

This is a different kind of question in that it involves considering ideological, ethical, and historical assumptions.

Is there such a thing as a good Nazi?

Holocaust deniers and the lunatic right may seek to reconstruct history for their own purposes but, for most of us, this requires a simple negative.

Then we might read about this man.

John Rabe was born in 1882 in Hamburg and moved to China in 1908 where he worked for Siemens in Nanking (now Nanjing) until 1938. In 1934 he joined the Nazi party and became the German representative in the city. Rabe never experienced life under Nazi rule until his return to Germany. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, then by the Soviets, finally dying in poverty in 1950.

There is a temptation to romanticize Rabe, rather as Steven Spielberg did with another Nazi, Oskar Schindler. As with Schindler, there were undeniable acts of great courage and compassion. Rabe’s story is simply told but the narrative reveals a paradox in which support for Hitler coexisted with resistance to Japanese murderous atrocities, described by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking. [1]

The story of the Japanese invasion of Nanjing is relatively muted in Western histories despite the scale of death which exceeded that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Somewhere between 260,000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians were slaughtered and between 20,000 and 80,000 women raped over an eight-week period beginning in December 1937. This was intimate carnage, face-to-face slaughter of unarmed men, women, and children.

In November 1937, as Japanese troops approached the city, John Rabe and a handful of Western residents established an “International Committee for the Security Zone,” a 4-square-kilometer area which was to provide sanctuary for Chinese civilians. Rabe used his fragile authority as an official from Germany, an ally of Japan, to protect residents from unrestrained Japanese excesses. The bravery and compassion of those remaining foreigners, including the American physician Robert Wilson, saved the lives of an estimated 300,000 Chinese civilians.

In a letter to his family on Christmas Eve 1937, Dr. Wilson described the extraordinary paradox of John Rabe:

He is well up in Nazi circles and after coming into such close contact with him as we have for the past few weeks and discover[ing] what a splendid man he is and what a tremendous heart he has, it is hard to reconcile his personality with his adulation of “Der Fuhrer” (cited Chang, pp. 208-209).

At great personal risk, Rabe “did what now seems the unthinkable: he began to roam about the city, trying to prevent atrocities himself” (Chang, p. 204).

There is something logical about missionaries, teachers, and doctors protecting the innocent and helpless. The paradox of John Rabe, however, is startling because of the innate contradiction between his status as a Nazi and his actions which mark him as one of the righteous of history who, in the face of evil, chose goodness.

H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939” at a time of “negation and despair”. Rabe typifies “an affirming flame”:

Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages

Supplementary question

Why is this history relatively unknown to us?

We might offer a number of explanations:

That the suffering of people in the East is of less significance to us than that in the West reflects recurrent myopia, a selective lens through which we perceive the world. Thus, a contemporary focus is on injustice in terms of White-Black inequities. Religious persecution, the subjugation of women in the Middle East, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Roma discrimination in Europe; these are secondary (even invisible).

There is also a reason why we know of Oskar Schindler but few, outside of Nanjing, have heard of John Rabe. Both were Nazis who displayed profound humanity. Both were represented in films but, we might suggest, that some lives appear to matter more than others. Schindler is rightly honored for the way in which he protected Jews in the Holocaust. The holocaust enacted in Nanjing and the heroism of John Rabe has no similar recognition outside of that city. Do Chinese lives matter less?

There may be a wider political reason. In the post-war environment, Japan became an important ally of the West in the Cold War. Silence about Japanese war crimes became political. If it was represented at all, it was only in the context of British and American prisoners of war. Their maltreatment was most frequently represented as a clash of military values; the Japanese view that there was dishonor in defeat. Unrestrained brutality inflicted by the Japanese upon the Chinese was not often a part of that narrative.

Iris Chang offers another explanation:

One reason information about the Rape of Nanking has not been widely disseminated clearly lies in the postwar differences in how Germany and Japan handled their wartime crimes...the Germans have incorporated into their postwar political identity the concession that the wartime government itself, not just individual Nazis, was guilty of war crimes. The Japanese government, however, has never forced itself or Japanese society to do the same. As a result, although some bravely fight to force Japanese society to face the painful truth, many in Japan continue to treat the war crimes as the isolated acts of individual soldiers or even as events that simply did not occur (Chang, pp.374-5).

In short, Japan has edited its history to align with a national myth of identity.

That might help us formulate an answer to the next question.

Question 3

Who was called the most dangerous woman in America in 1902?

A black-and-white photo of Mother Jones
Mother Jones: the most dangerous woman in America.
(Photo from Library of Congress)

Mary Harris was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1837. She was 65 years old when a West Virginian district attorney, Reese Blizzard, dubbed her "the most dangerous woman in America.” Mary Jones nee Harris was, at that time, an elderly, Irish woman of unremarkable appearance who adopted the name “Mother” Jones. She was a remarkable union organizer and activist in the coalfields of Appalachia. She confronted coal mine owners and their agents, often the police and army, with righteous anger and intense bravery.

In 1902, Mother Jones was on trial for ignoring an injunction that banned striking miners from meeting. This typifies her rhetoric:

Boys…this strike is called in order that you and your wives and your little ones may get a bit of Heaven before you die. [2]

The memory of Mother Jones’s contribution to the resistance of Appalachian miners has faded, as indeed has much of American labor history of the first decades of the 20th century. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), founder and president of the American Federation of Labor, Eugene Debs (1855-1926), a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Joe Hill (1879-1915), songwriter and martyred activist [3]—their lives and organizations have disappeared into a miasma of obscurity.

The radical history of Appalachia, and the struggle against capitalist exploitation, has become scarcely visible in mainstream histories. The prevailing narrative of American individualism leaves little room for recognition of collectivist militant labor. That radicalism is represented as a foreign intrusion, un-American. Conveniently enough, Hill was born in Sweden, Jones in Ireland, Gompers in England, and Debs’s parents were French.

The life and work of Mother Jones collides with several assumptions. Firstly, she defies the expectations imposed upon women in the early 20th century. She may have chosen “Mother” as an ironic counterpoint to expectations of domestic maternal convention.

She also reflects the reality that Appalachian history is full of rebellion, rebels, and resistance. From mine wars to roving pickets, Mother Jones to Widow Combs, Appalachians have fought exploitation. In contrast to the stereotypes of Hillbilly Appalachia, a paradoxical combination of primitive brutality and comic simplicity, the region has a central place in American labor history.The largest class war in the US, the Battle of Blair Mountain, is not found in standard textbooks. Over the course of five days in 1921, 10,000 coal miners resisted the forces of the mining companies in what was the biggest armed conflict on American soil outside of the Civil War.

The extraordinary life of Mary Jones is also related to a tragic period of Irish history. Between the years of 1847 and 1853 an estimated 2 million people, including the youthful Mary Harris, emigrated to North America to escape the potato famine, the Great Hunger. From this distance, it is difficult to imagine the scale of suffering and displacement that was endured in Ireland in those years though consequences are evident. The population of Ireland has not yet recovered to the levels of 1840. The Irish diaspora is apparent throughout the US, particularly in the cities of the Northeast. A monument to this suffering stands in the heart of Boston. An inscription records the scale of the disaster:

The great famine which ravaged Ireland between 1845-50 was the major catastrophe of the 19th century. It brought horrific suffering and loss to Ireland’s 8.5 million people. Over one million died of starvation and disease. Another two million emigrated, seeking sanctuary in Boston and other North American cities.

This Irish experience is woven into the history of the US. But Mary Jones’s rebellion and resistance to injustice has all but disappeared. Nations edit their histories to align with some version of a dominant myth.

Occupation narratives exemplify this process. Thus, Austria was the victim of Nazi occupation, a story that obscures the enthusiastic endorsement of the Anschluss by the majority of Austrians. Hitler, born in Austria, was no alien dictator but a symbol of restored Germanic pride. Double occupancy theories similarly exonerated Polish and Czech complicity with Nazi and Soviet dominance. The atrocities committed in Nanjing have no place in Japanese versions of its own history. Similarly, the US has written class conflict out of its mythologies. The most dangerous woman in America has largely disappeared except in the work of specialist labor historians or radical re-interpreters of the American past such as Howard Zinn and Nancy Isenberg. [4]

The events and key figures of labor history conflict with the notion of a classless, egalitarian nation, a land of equal opportunity. Mother Mary Jones represents an alternative version of America.

Those students who got the right answer are un-American. They know about things that contradict a central tenet of American identity.

What does this exam teach us about education abroad?

National identities are not single or simple. Teaching students about national identities is a process in which nuance, doubt, interpretation, and complexity dominate.

The conventional pathway envisioned in most education is that we take students (and we are also students) from not knowing to knowing. In learning French, for example, the process involves a progressive accumulation of vocabulary, structures, and usage. This is an educational process with which we are all familiar.

In education abroad, there is something of a reversal of this process. We enter unfamiliar spaces with an idea of where we are going. Technology offers substantial information to take on our journeys and some of it is true. And some of it is partly true. And some of it is false. Our examination questions demonstrate the importance of unlearning what we know. Going from knowledge to doubt.

World War 2 started at a time defined by where you were. Facts are conditional on place and time. Question two points to ambiguities of judgment. Wisdom exists more in doubt than in Absolute Truth. That is Harold Pinter’s message in his Nobel Prize in Literature Speech in 2005:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

Question 3 suggests that there are subtexts, hidden histories, other ways of knowing where we are and where we came from.

International education subverts assumptions about learning. The path to wisdom, as Socrates knew, is towards doubt. Certainly, we may gain more information about worlds elsewhere, but we will also learn to see that information through the prism of uncertainty. Metaphorically, this is a path from faith to agnosticism. Instead of asking what we have learned, we may ask what we have unlearned.

How can we pass this exam?

Perhaps by saying that we don’t know the answer or, more accurately, that there is no single answer. There are, instead, layers of knowledge, no path but pathways. This is not to say that there is no truth, no moral or ideological core. Rather, that we approach wisdom with humility, mistrust what we are told, mistrust what we say.



[1] Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

[2] Mother Jones, The Autobiography. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1925.

[3] Joe Hill is probably the best remembered. He was executed in Utah for a crime he did not commit and is the subject of a song still widely performed in radical circles: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” https://songofamerica.net/song/joe-hill/. See https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/joe-hill for more information on the life and death of Joe Hill.

[4] Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present (1980) and Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016) represent profoundly important perspectives on histories buried under mythologies of classless America.


Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, Dublin, Ireland, International Education, Sydney, Australia, Florence, Italy, Barcelona, Spain

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