The Importance of Textbooks: Controlling the Past, Present, and Future

I’ve been reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong during my hour-long commutes in London. It’s a survey of American history textbooks, and everything that’s wrong with them: myth-making, hero-worshipping, downplaying slavery and racism, and denying the cultural and historical significance of Native Americans among other things. James Loewen is so spot-on with his analysis of the current representation of our past: history is written by those in power and for those in power. And those in power like to conveniently sweep all the dirty details under the blanket of American exceptionalism (or national culture/identity). George Orwell in 1984 says,

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

And the easiest and most insidious way of controlling the past, present, and future is through textbooks. A great article by the Economist explains why textbooks are so important in shaping national culture and identity, and how they become a foreign policy concern.

Few, if any, instruments shape national culture more powerfully than the materials used in schools. Textbooks are not only among the first books most people encounter; in many places they are, along with religious texts, almost the only books they encounter. 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.

Textbooks are often the only source of information and history for students, and because they are written with such authority the content will not be easily questioned. It’s so easy for ideologues to brainwash the next generations when their personal beliefs and values are passed on as unquestionable fact. Also, if the only resource students have is their textbook, they won’t be able to develop the analytical ability that comes from reading widely and critically.

But there’s still hope for us yet.

The Georg Eckert Institute and the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East produced a joint textbook of Israeli and Palestinian history in 2008. It’s a really interesting concept, where the same events are told from Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on opposite pages, with space in between for students to write their reactions to the two histories. This kind of textbook teaches students that there are always two – very often multiple – contrasting versions of history, which will hopefully encourage tolerance. Unfortunately, the textbook is not currently used (at least officially) in Israel or Palestine.

Then there’s the Internet, the great equalizer. At least when your government doesn’t block sites because they are “corrupting the minds of the youth” or they “go against the national character” (China, Iran, I’m looking at you). And when you already have a filter of sorts to distinguish between reputable sources and bullsh*t sources. I would say when you have the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, but that may be asking for too much considering our senior politicians and leaders can’t seem to do that (ahem, male members of the Republican Party?). But at least you can Google a historical event and find differing opinions, and maybe even filter out the most likely version.

In terms of how this relevant to my work, it’s not really. At least not directly. Using a textbook to teach a language is a bit different than using one to teach history, and in any case I don’t use the government-issued English textbooks because they are quite frankly terrible. It’s like a semi-trained parrot dictated the book. But I wonder about the history and language textbooks in Kurdish, what they include and how they portray Kurds, Kurdistan, and their neighbors. There is probably more ideological dissemination in the Kurdish textbooks than in other countries, because the Kurdish national identity remains threatened.

I’ll either have to learn enough Kurdish to read the textbooks myself, or like a smart person would do, just ask someone who can read Kurdish. In the meantime, any thoughts, comments, enlightenments?


(image via Getty)


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