The misdirected goals of textbook revision

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Ramadan 18, 1425 2004-02-01

Special Reports

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 17, Ramadan, 1425)

Among the topics discussed at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Kuwait in December was that of textbook revision. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses the social, educational, cultural and political implications of this process.

Textbook revision has several meanings for those truly concerned about education and knowledge in today’s world. The use of a textbook implies that there is an agreed and centralized process of knowledge construction in a particular society, and that all debates about knowledge and education have ended. Textbooks are more in the realm of unquestioned knowledge, almost like revealed.

Textbooks are issued by state authorities and get wrapped up in state politics very quickly. They are not about seeking knowledge; they are about controlling it. Advocates of textbooks, most often the authorities in various state-controlled ministries of education, claim more benefits from them than are actually apparent, while at the same time ignoring their disadvantages. In addition, in an age of corporate colonization of public services, some of what used to be done by ministries of education is turned over to private companies. This latter development matters little in the broader view, and is more about who will control public assets and their accompanying market shares.

Most textbooks, whatever the cultural outlook of a particular society, promote uniformity of thought, and in that sense they do seem to have some power to determine the course of social development, if the goal of a society is uniformity of thought. But this is also an overstated claim, and it gives too much emphasis to schooling as the sole site of social and cultural development. Increasingly, many people learn how to fit into their society and the world in which they live from the media and other mass-market channels. In fact, one could argue that children and young adults learn much more about life, culture, history and politics from the Internet, the news media, television and the entertainment industries than they do from school and textbooks, or even their families. Textbooks, of course, claim to have the "correct" knowledge about such things, and that may or may not be true, but they are often of minimal impact.

So, before talking about revising textbooks, it is necessary to reflect on their existence in a more general sense. Revising textbooks implies that we accept that they are the best way to teach and learn, while, in reality, they circumscribe one of the most human of activities. State bureaucrats and corporate executives are obsessed with textbooks, and their obsessions spill over into the rest of society, whose members in many cases have ceased to think for themselves, and who have instead turned over their learning to corporate or government bureaucracies. This is the condition that Ivan Illich calls the "schooled society," a malady that afflicts most modern technological societies, the main symptom of which is addiction to programmatic and externally directed forms of learning and human development. So the first discussion that needs to be held is on this general level, and deep thought is necessary here to reassess the overall modern dependence on textbooks and schooling, as part of broader efforts to "deschool" societies, as Illich put it, and to develop more meaningful and humane ways of teaching and learning.

Of course, as long as societies are addicted to schooling and textbooks, questions of their control will continue to be raised, and so there is a sort of drama being played out wherever discussions about textbooks are held. Within this play are governments and businesses vying for control, with various special interest groups urging the power structures to adopt one or another pet position. While religious education is certainly one arena of this power struggle, it is not the only one. Important critiques of textbooks have been launched from several quarters, many of which have little or nothing to do with the issues currently being discussed, and they rarely reach the headlines.

The ecological educator C. A. Bowers, for example, has written often and eloquently about how science and social-studies textbooks embody an ethos of environmental destruction, that they promote anthropomorphic thinking and a naïve assumption that humans are somehow above or exempt from the laws of regional biotic communities, that human beings are not a part of or dependent upon nature, but that they are in control of nature and may simply use it as they please for any sort of selfish and materialistic ends. On a global scale, such narrow thinking is far more detrimental than parochial debates about ethnic, religious or national identity. Similarly, others have noticed how school textbooks promote forms of economic development that are equally destructive and threatening to humanity and its one, shared planet. One needs to ask, then, why these issues are not found in the headlines, also about the reasons for those few mentions of textbook-revision that do occasionally make the headlines somehow. Why now and why these topics?

At the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meetings in Kuwait in December 2003, textbook-revision was one of the items on the agenda. Several claims were made by various camps, primarily emanating from the American-Israeli matrix in control of most GCC governments, which has become obsessed with any expression of religion in public and political life, and in particular with the claim that textbooks are creating "terrorists." But this obsession did not begin in September 2001, and is not limited to intolerance toward non-Muslims or concerns about violence and terrorism; nor is it even entirely about the role of Islam in public life. While those are factors, an assortment of revisionist claims against textbooks were made for a variety of reasons long before 2001, and it is misleading or incomplete to see either the attack on the Pentagon or Islamic revivalism as the cause of this colonial incursion.

During their occupation of Japan after 1945, one of the first things the Americans did was to demand textbook-revision. The claim was that Japanese textbooks taught a self-centered and imperial doctrine of racial supremacy. That may indeed have been true, but the Americans themselves were hardly immune to such accusations, with their textbooks of the same period routinely teaching white supremacy at the expense of Black and Native Americans. For well over a century American textbooks taught the genocide of Native peoples and the subjugation of African slaves in particularly self-serving and triumphalist terms. The Americans have never been very good at practising what they preach. In any case the Japanese were simply doing their duty as new members of the "community of nations," following in the footsteps of the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Americans and others in their dogged pursuit of colonial and imperial power.

Despite instances of hypocrisy, there are other factors in textbook revision besides war and colonialism. In America during the 1950s, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) played an important role in revising American school textbooks, to purge them of what were seen as "communist" ideas. This was at the height of the second great American "red scare," the infamous McCarthy era. NAM believed that school textbooks had a major impact on the way children and young people understood their society, and it demanded that government oversee the publishing of textbooks in order to promote only capitalist values. An unforeseen outcome of that "purification" was the tumultuous period of the 1960s, when America endured a series of major cultural upheavals.

In the late 1970s, an important component of the Egypt-Israel peace accords involved the revision of school textbooks. The Egyptian government was made to revise its history textbooks with respect to how they portrayed the Arab-Israeli conflict, in an Orwellian move to rewrite history, in the belief that the present and future can somehow be influenced by a fabricated past. Some observers also noticed that religious textbooks were quietly revised to remove Qur’anic verses that talked about or addressed the Children of Israel, and that state-sanctioned recitations of the Qur’an in the Egyptian media ceased to include these verses; all this in some sense constitutes a de facto editing of Allah’s Book that was intended to serve narrow political ends. Similar politically motivated revisions of textbooks to reflect Israeli perspectives on Palestine have continued since.

More recently, the accusation being levelled against textbooks in the GCC region is that they teach intolerance toward non-Muslims and the West, and that they encourage violence and terrorism by glorifying jihad. These are claims from within the American-Israeli matrix, since no one has ever had anything to say about any other aspect of regional textbooks. For example, Saudi textbooks and state-sanctioned religious teaching routinely refer to the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority as monkeys and infidels, deserving extermination, in the name of an extremely narrow interpretation of a few texts. It seems that when Muslims express intolerance toward their own, this is of no concern to the revisionist forces. Similarly none of the revisionists, who pretend to espouse democracy, seem to care about the slavish devotion with which regional textbooks extol the virtues of corrupt and greedy kings and sheikhs. It appears that only those points that affect the current interests of the American-Israeli matrix are worthy of note.

If they truly cared about things like intolerance, the revisionist forces would look to their own textbooks first. American textbooks have treated peoples of African and Native descent in deplorable ways, not to mention the racist portrayal of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks. Turkey, a staunch American ally, issues state textbooks that treat the Kurds with extreme prejudice. The Bible and other canonical books of Western civilization are filled with glorifications of horrific instances of racism, violence and genocide. One could list many examples of the selective application of narrow concerns for intolerance and violence in textbooks.

One point that is not often mentioned in such discussions is that the demanded revisions are not limited to incidents of intolerance and violence. Under the guise of revisions aimed at intolerance and violence, further incursions are being made into Muslim education that are aimed at limiting religious teaching in general, extending to studies of Muslim ethics, history, law, philosophy and theology. It seems that the American-Israeli matrix wants to end all religious education in Muslim states, from behind the cloak of the ubiquitous "war on terror," which has been used to pass draconian policies in their own states, not to mention giving sanction to other states that are waging their own racist wars against various types of liberation movement.

Part of the problem, then, is that Muslims and the ‘third world’ are letting the West determine every agenda, including textbook-revision and the reform of education. However, despite the loud trumpeting of some issues by the West-controlled global news media, the West’s are not the only ways to conceive of textbook-revision and educational reform. A far more interesting discussion is being held in Iran, for example, where religious education is currently organised round the classification of religion as an academic subject. Although the Islamic Revolution led to many social reforms in Iran, the reformation of education remained largely unaddressed, except for appending courses in Islamic studies to the curriculum that had been developed under the Shah. Further reforms were sidetracked during the catastrophic eight-year war against Iraqi aggression (in which Iraq received American support), and the discussion of educational reform is only recently being revived. While the notion of adopting a single state-sanctioned textbook or curriculum is not being addressed in Iran, just as it is not addressed anywhere else in the world, there are meaningful discussions about education being conducted out of sight of the global media, which seem only to care about the concerns of the American-Israeli matrix. Recently Iranian scholars have come to the conclusion that classifying Islamic studies as another academic subject has in fact turned young people away from the deen, rather than deepening their awareness of it. Such startling conclusions, which are surely important not only in discussions of religion but which in general relate to the role of education in society, are drowned out by the noisy Americans, who demand that the world do everything the one and only proper, American way.

Perhaps we are all asking too much of textbooks. After all, they are a recent and rather limited innovation in the history of education, having arisen with the modern nation-state system and the advent of what some have called "mega-technic society". Instead of focusing our attention on selected symptoms of the schooled society, broader discussions are needed that will examine seriously the viability of modern doctrines about knowledge and social development. To the extent that textbooks embody those doctrines that blindly encourage a predatory economic system and the accompanying anthropocentrism, both of which are leading the world to ecological catastrophe, not to mention severe psychological problems arising from the ongoing dehumanization and the spread of the technological order, perhaps the entire idea of mass schooling needs to be revised, or even abandoned. To limit discussions of education to textbook-revision is to address the wrong questions from the standpoint of human and biotic survival. It is at bottom little more than a way for state and corporate bureaucracies to exert even more control over social and economic programmes, while congratulating themselves that they are spearheading a new wave of "progress," which is really a destructive form of global maldevelopment.

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