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Do School Textbooks Shape National Attitudes? Yes, says Study

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Last month we wrote about US publishers protesting what they saw as “bigotry” embedded within Saudi schoolbooks. Now, a recent article in The Economist, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” looked at the ways in which school textbooks around the world reveal and shape national attitudes. As the reports states:

stack of books“The degree to which a government keeps control of the textbooks used is a good, if imprecise guide to its commitment to ideological control…America’s State Department employs people to keep an eye on other countries’ textbooks, in an effort to understand better how their people think and what their countries want them to think. Other countries probably do the same.”

So the Georg Eckert Institute, a center for textbook research in the small German town of Braunschweig has gathered samples of textbooks from over 160 countries. The institute’s director, Simone Lassig, says that the most contentious are books covering history and geography, in particularly when maps are included, although, perhaps not surprisingly, religion is a growing area of dispute.

Some highlights from the article include:

A study in South Africa showed that fewer than half of pupils had access to more than ten books at home. In 2010, a study by Egypt’s government found that apart from school textbooks, 88% of Egyptian households read no books.

The Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA), a Washington-based think tank and human rights lobby reports that much of the “curriculum of intolerance” found in Saudi textbooks pre-9/11 is still found there today. “Ali al-Ahmed, director of the IGA and author of a forthcoming work on Saudi textbooks, cites such examples as “The Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers,” and “The Jews occupied Palestine with the help of the crusaders’ malevolence towards Islam…But the Muslims will not remain silent.” And while the Saudi education minister says that there is a three-year program in place to revise the textbooks, Mr. Ahmed insists that the change isn’t happening sooner, “because the state would be putting its survival at risk.  The purpose of education is to ensure social obedience to the ruler.”

In China, the official term used in high school textbooks for the famine that resulted from 1958s Great Leap Forward is “Three Years of Economic Difficulty;” and while poor harvest is mentioned, the 30 million estimated deaths that resulted are not. At the same time, while earlier editions of the textbooks mentioned “The Political Disturbance of 1989,” a polite reference to the Tiananmen protests — those mentions were removed when the textbook was revised in 2004. The “Disturbance” is no more.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people, led by a group of students called “Scholarism” began protesting against plans by the government, “prompted” by Beijing, to introduce a new “national education” curriculum designed to foster patriotism. Again, the Cultural Revolution and crackdown at Tiananmen were noticeably absent in the text; in their place was a denigration of democracy and praise for the one-party system.

In the United States, liberals worry about students being taught a “nationalistic” version of history that emphasizes industrialization while playing down slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans, while conservatives complain about not enough patriotism and too much secularism. In 2010, for example, the Texas board of education made headlines when it attempted (and ultimately failed) to remove Thomas Jefferson from the “approved” list of important revolutionary figures, primarily, it seems, because of his insistence on the separation of church and state. Sex education and evolution are also subjects under serious debate as to how (or if) they should be taught.

In South Korea, a campaign led by the Society for Textbook Revise (STR) appears to have succeeded in persuading South Korea’s textbook publishers to remove a number of references to evolution. The umbrella group responsible for the STR includes the Somang Church, one of several evangelical churches that have become increasingly prominent in Korean politics.

In France, “evolution causes no problems. But economics does. For years, the French seemed quite blasé about economics textbooks that were filled with unreconstructed Marxism.” Former President Sarkozy attempted to reform economics teaching, but a new study of 400 pages of high school economics textbooks shows that only a dozen are devoted to companies, and none whatsoever to entrepreneurs.

But on the other hand, many of the myths suggesting Palestinian textbooks that glorify death and violence against Jews, prove to be just that — myth. A report by the State Department in 2010 concluded that Palestinian textbooks, while showing “imbalance, bias and inaccuracy,” did not incite violence against Jews. (At the same time, Israeli textbooks depict Palestinians — when they’re depicted at all — as refugees, farmers or terrorists, never as any kind of working professional.)

And Afghanistan poses the question of how to teach modern history or whether even to teach it. “We are not ready to take that risk at this stage,” said Attaulah Wahidyar, an advisor to the ministry of education. “We are working on nation-building and on state-building. Analyzing our recent history will not help us in this. We do not want schools to be places where children start fighting over Afghanistan’s history.”

As Simone Lassig insists, “as long as textbooks in one form or another are used, and as long as they are issued or approved by the state, they will remain a political issue.”

Read the entire article here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.