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Rewriting history

In December 2010 California state legislator Mark Leno introduced a bill that would have far wider ramifications than he may originally have intended: a law that would require the state’s schools to teach the contribution made to American history by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“I am well aware of the fact that California leads on many important social issues,” he told Bloomberg. “I would not be surprised if students elsewhere learn about the important contributions of these Americans [because of the bill].”

Unsurprisingly, the move reignited tensions between Democrats and Republicans, Christians and secularists. “That wouldn’t pass muster in Texas,” Patricia Hardy, a Republican on the Texas Board of Education, the body which approves textbooks in that state, retorted in an interview with Bloomberg. “It wouldn’t be something the voters in Texas would accept. Period.”

“Ever since the end of World War I, the real-world ramifications of politically and religiously-skewed textbooks have been clear”

Just over 20 per cent of America’s $3.4 billion school textbook market is attributed to the states of California and Texas, which makes what goes into their textbooks a huge political, religious and economic issue. Leno’s bill promoted a spate of counter bills, policies and aggressive lobbying from textbook publishers which lifted the lid on the febrile world of school textbooks, whose power to influence – not to mention make money – has made them such divisive documents.

“The Führer and the movement he created are the dynamic forces that made the impossible possible. They rescued Germany from the edge of the abyss and gave it a new face, its true face.”– Extract from a school history textbook,  Germany, 1938.

The controversy surrounding what we teach our children is a far from recent one. Ever since the end of World War I, when a nascent international community emerged in the League of Nations, the real-world ramifications of politically and religiously-skewed textbooks have been clear. The brutal hyper-nationalism and fear of other countries that had helped fuel the Great War had its roots, in part, in the history and geography that had been taught to Europe’s children.

“[With] the emergence of nation states in the last century it became quite obvious that schoolbooks contain statements that glorify their own nation and disparage others, that glorify the ruling groups within one nation or society and disparage so-called minority groups,” wrote Dr Falk Pingel in a Unesco guidebook that has been adopted by the Georg Eckert Institute for Textbook Research, the world’s leading research facility looking at how history and geography is taught in post-conflict societies.

“During this time… educationalists and politicians had already noticed that textbooks, especially history textbooks, don’t only convey facts but also spread ideologies, follow political trends.”

In 1937, 26 nations signed the League of Nations’ Declaration Regarding the Teaching of History (Revision of School Text Books). It recognised the potency of textbooks in international relations, and promoted such ideals as “giving prominence, in the teaching of world history, to facts calculated to bring about a realisation of the interdependence of nations”. It also stated that: “Every government should endeavour to ascertain by what means, more especially in connection with the choice of school-books, school-children may be put on their guard against all such allegations and interpretations as might arouse unjust prejudices against other nations.”

It remains the only international treaty to try to standardise guidelines on how history is taught to children. Sadly the timing of its agreement – just as Nazi Germany was flexing its muscles and resurrecting historic claims to territory – meant its profile and impact were small.

After World War II, the German historian and educationalist Georg Eckert – whose name adorns the institute he established – was determined to avoid the mistakes of the past and to standardise histories between Germany and its neighbours and former enemies. He drafted agreements between Germany and first France, then Poland and finally Israel about the teaching of contentious historical and geographical issues. By dealing with the ghosts of the past, this process helped to free future generations from the conflicts of misunderstanding.

Similar moves had been made in Japan after World War II, but with less success. The US occupying forces had taken the production of textbooks out of the hands of the government and placed them into the private sector to ensure that nationalistic interpretations of imperial Japan’s past were expunged. But Japanese history textbooks were – and still are – screened by the government, and nationalists fight what they see as a revisionist view of the country’s history, backing textbooks which downplay Japan’s role in genocide, mass rape and chemical warfare. New textbooks are released in springtime each year and international diplomatic incidents often follow.

In April 2005 anti-Japanese protests broke out in China, sparked in part by a new textbook controversy. More than 10,000 protesters stormed the Japanese embassy in Beijing, chanting, “Japanese pigs come out!” after reports emerged that new history textbooks in Japan appeared to gloss over many of Japan’s pre-World War II imperial atrocities against China, including the Rape of Nanking in 1937. Such was the outpouring of anger that Japan may now have gone too far the other way to appease its neighbour. This year Taiwan reacted furiously to two new junior high textbooks in Japan that state that Taiwan is part of China.

New Japanese textbooks also provoked a fight with South Korea this year, during the weeks immediately after the 11th March tsunami. The Korea Times reported that relief donations to Japan from South Korea dried up following revelations that this year’s Japanese middle-school textbooks claimed Japanese ownership over the disputed Dokdo Islands, a series of tiny islets administered by South Korea. According to the Community Chest of Korea, the country’s biggest charitable body, it was receiving as many as 167,000 donations a day to Japan before the news of the textbooks broke. The day after it received just 82.

“Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, wings, etc.”  – Extract from ‘Of Pandas and People’,  the first US biology textbook to mention the intelligent design theory of creation, published in 1989.

Few people had heard of the Kansas Board of Education, even in Kansas, but that all changed in 1999. What should have been an obscure vote buried deep in America’s education bureaucracy became world news when the board voted six-to-four to strip virtually every mention of the theory of evolution from its science textbooks.

The move started a battle that still rages across America today. On one side is the religious right, which claims that evolution is contrary to Christian doctrine and which promotes the alternative concept of intelligent design (the theory that life on earth is too complex to not have been designed by some form of higher intelligence). On the other is the scientific community, which dismisses ID as backdoor creationism by those trying to inject religion into the classroom.

“The Darwin lobby say we should teach dumbed-down theory, that we should teach from rote,
memorising facts” Casey Luskin

Whilst Unesco has been concentrating on the geopolitical implications of school textbooks, the relative success of the Kansas Board of Education in challenging the Darwinist teaching of evolution opened a new front in the religious battle for hearts and minds. In 2005 there were more than 20 courtroom battles over the right to teach ID in schools, with the Kansas board voting six-to-four once again in that year to allow it to teach the farthest-reaching critique of evolution in the US public school system. This year the Texas Board of Education was split on the issue of teaching evolution: eventually religious conservatives were narrowly beaten, meaning 2012’s science aids won’t include the theory of intelligent design.

But that won’t stop Casey Luskin, a policy analyst at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and a champion of the teaching of ID. “This is a legitimate view point,” he tells me. “There’s a whole movement growing of scientists who question Darwinian evolution and who are sculpting ID.”

The Discovery Institute was founded in 1990 by Bruce Chapman, former head of the United States Census Bureau under President Reagan. It claims to be a non-partisan think tank and didn’t come to public prominence until it threw its weight behind the Kansas Board of Education’s decision on evolution, helping to turn a local issue into an international controversy.

“Everybody cares about what children learn: taxpayers, parents, students…” says Luskin, a science graduate who began to have doubts about evolutionary theory after reading Michael Behe’s ‘Darwin’s Black Box’. He stresses that the Discovery Institute doesn’t campaign to replace the teaching of evolution with ID, just to have the two theories taught side by side. “The Darwin lobby say we should teach dumbed-down theory, that we should teach from rote, memorising facts,” he says. “It is diminishing people’s [faith] in science. We are dumbing down students with dogmatic evolution instruction. [Children should] learn competing theories.”

“Fill in the blanks with the

appropriate words (Islam, hellfire):

Every religion other than _________ 

is false. Whoever dies outside of

Islam enters ____________.”

– A first grade exercise in a religious studies textbook, Saudi Arabia, 2006

After 9/11 questions were asked about how young men could be drawn to commit such hateful acts. The majority of the hijackers were Saudi Arabian, and for a time the focus fell on the Saudi educational curriculum. In 2004 a Saudi royal study group found that the kingdom’s curriculum “encourages violence toward others”. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, spread the news that Saudi Arabia was changing. “The kingdom has reviewed all of its education practices and materials, and has removed any element that is inconsistent with the needs of a modern education,” he said during a speaking tour of the US.

But 12 months later The Washington Post discovered that little had changed: Saudi children were still being taught intolerance. “An ideology of hatred toward Christians and Jews and Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine remains in this area of the public school system,” the newspaper concluded. As one eighth-grade book explained: “As cited in Ibn Abbas: The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus.” The textbook then went on to set the homework for that week. “Activity: The student writes a composition on the danger of imitating the infidels.”

The textbooks were not just a problem in Saudi Arabia. Saudi-funded madrasas (religious schools) across the world, including many in Pakistan and Indonesia, were using the literature in their educational programmes. Some books even made it to the UK. In a ‘Panorama’ documentary in October 2010, it was claimed that textbooks in some Muslim weekend schools were anti-Semitic and homophobic. They also carried descriptions of how to amputate hands and feet in accordance with shariah law.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, an Israeli organisation accused by some of being partisan, has nonetheless legitimately highlighted hundreds of examples of how Israel, Jews, Christians and even different Muslim sects are disparaged and abused in textbooks used to teach children in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, in Israel itself, Professor Dan Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University wrote in the Palestine Israel Journal: “Over the years, generations of Israeli Jews were taught a negative and often de-legitimising view of Arabs… [describing their] primitiveness, inferiority in comparison to Jews… their violence.” In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned the term “Al Nakba” from Israeli textbooks, calling it anti-Israeli propaganda. “Al Nakba” is the term Palestinians use to describe the creation of Israel in 1948. It means “The catastrophe”.

A recent Middle East tour by Hannah Rosenthal, the US State Department envoy in charge of combating anti-Semitism, revealed how seriously the American government takes the issue of school textbooks. Rosenthal told the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that the US would be monitoring all future textbooks. “They’re claiming all the bad stuff has been taken out. We’re going to do an honest academic review and see what’s there,” she told the JTA news agency.

Senator Mark Leno’s bill promoting the role of gay figures in America’s history passed the Senate on 14th April and went on to become law in California. The economic clout that a state the size of California has in the textbook industry means this decision will have wider ramifications. But the internet has weakened that power, meaning the battle for influence in future will be far more complicated, global and immediate. Shortly after Senator Leno’s bill was passed, another was passed, this time by the Tennessee State Senate: it banned school children from learning about any gay figures at all.

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