Textbooks As Manipulation (Part One)

The first real instances of educational literature we come across, by and large, come from our school textbooks. This is kind of obvious if you think about it; if you consider that most people are in school around the ages of five or six (lets not haggle over the large sections of the global population that don’t make it that far).

Like a cheap whore.

Textbooks are interesting items. I recall some pretty appalling ones in my time. I had the privilege to study American history in a school in Atlanta. It was essentially an exercise in American jingoism. They mercifully didn’t make us chant ‘USA! USA! USA!’ in each lesson but I got the impression it wasn’t a far off thought. ‘So what?’ you say. I went to school in America, it is mildly understandable. Except I went to an expensive private international school. So much for an exercise in international understanding; the school was a liberal (in the American sense of the word, not the actual sense – this is a topic for another day) hotbed in a conservative state. Our history classes in particular, left much to be desired.

Not to pick on Americans alone, I went to a British/Dutch primary school in another country (the Dutch part comes from it being paid for by Royal Dutch Shell. Yes, the oil company). And in this far flung corner of the world I learned about English kings and queens and all the wonders that they blessed us with. Again, this us somewhat understandable what with it being British, and most of the student body being British. The Dutch kids were taught Dutch history. Oddly enough I don’t remember being taught about William of Orange. Never mind. Again this was a bit of an international school. There were Americans and Australians and other people. But I don’t see how British history was relevant to them at that age since the gory details of their former colonial masters was not really suitable reading for 9 year olds. Though Henry VIII made an appearance.

Interestingly, in between these periods of cultural brainwashing, I went to two other international schools. In the first, between the tender ages of eleven and fourteen I learned about apartheid, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the Industrial Revolution, and the slave trade from the British and American view points. This, I firmly believe, gave me a grounding in international politics and the ability to understand events in their context that I did not get in predominantly British or American schools.

In Hong Kong recently there was a big kerfuffle over some text books. That’s possibly downplaying it a little. There were some pretty big protests and a hunger strike against the introduction of new textbooks approved by the Chinese government in Beijing. Hong Kong is, at times, nominally free from interference from Beijing, and has a distinct leader, a chief executive (a weirdly fitting title in a place like Hong Kong), though this leader is always Beijing approved. Long story short, the introduction of these textbooks didn’t end up taking place. The protests stopped the introduction because they were seen as mainland propaganda and public anger was widespread. What justice for free speech, and down with authoritarian diktats I hear you say. I’m not convinced.

Warning: May contain outdated opinions.

Lots of bad places have some rather substandard textbooks. Chinese textbooks noticeably leave out famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, preferring to call it the ‘Three Years of Economic Difficulty’. Saudi Arabian textbooks note that “Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers”. But these, I can hear your cry, are obviously places where propaganda must be introduced to brainwash citizens. True. I do not dispute this. These are government written textbooks that push an agenda. But what of Japanese textbooks? Living in Asia, and having lived in China, a current hive of anti-Japanese sentiment, this raises a pertinent question. Japan has been a democracy since the end of the second world war, and doesn’t quite fall into the scary authoritarian stereotype. It must be noted though that the government doesn’t write the textbooks, they just approve of them. Which I would say is an act of complicity, since they noticeably leave out the events in Nanjing. Between China and Japan, it’s mostly a case of pot, kettle, and black. But the point stands.

The reason I began with anecdotes of my own education is that I believe that what I know now is in spite of most of what I learnt in school rather than because of it. Though at times was healthily complemented by it, thankfully. But also because the British and American education systems are not seen as houses of propaganda. And they should be. There is nothing to suggest that these democracies are any better at giving a balanced education in their histories. Or even culture.

For example, note the picture that is featured for this article. Who was it? Darwin. And where is it that Darwin’s ideas on evolution are disputed, where they really shouldn’t be? No, not the 19th century you fool. (Is it not funny that those less likely to believe in evolution are the ones that look less evolved? Discuss.) This is not the only mind bendingly hilarious example of the strangeness of American textbooks. In 2010, the Board of Education in Texas managed to remove Thomas Jefferson from a list of important revolutionary figures. Yes, remove. Why? His insistence on the separation of church and state. Which so profoundly un-American and so American at the same time, it makes it difficult to decide in which order to face-palm, and laugh hysterically. I would go on about teaching abstinence as the only form of sex education, but that can be saved for another day.

Though never formally having gone through the British education system, the insistence on teaching a mild form of British exceptionalism is on par with America. Bear with me on this. Britain is an island. It has a long history of being invaded and then invading others. The fact that Britain going to war over there really was a case of having to go other places. The effect is seen in the normalised British psyche. I am guilty of it. My very lovely Swedish fiancée laughs in derision when I point put that Britain is not part of Europe. It is, obviously. But not really. The British suffer from an island mentality, and this concept of otherness. That lot, in Europe, well, they’re a bit different. Where does this idea come from? Well, as a Gramscian, I would say this is passed on by the government, through the aristocracy and education system, and church and schools. The British are socialised to believe this idea of themselves. I have no doubt. I believe it too. And I didn’t even grow up there. A stiff upper lip and a love of queues warms the cockles of my heart; and should a dirty foreigner step in my path, I shall curtly say “Out of my way; I’m British”. No amount of reverse socialisation will change that. Scary thought, no?

Tomorrow, in Part Two, we take a further look at the tragedy of national education, American exceptionalism, and the words “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past”.

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  1. […] am just going to jump right in to what I was talking about yesterday, so if you didn’t read Part One, go take a step […]



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