Outdated textbooks can breed intolerance, put sustainable growth at risk – study
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Outdated textbooks can breed intolerance, put sustainable growth at risk – study

IF your national curriculum uses school textbooks from the 1950s until 2011, chances are they either misrepresent or are completely void of key priorities seen as crucial to global efforts for peace and sustainable development, a new study by the Unesco Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report says.

In a policy paper released Thursday, GEM says its analysis shows the need for governments to urgently reassess their textbooks to ensure they reflect core values for sustainable development such as human rights, gender equality, environmental concern, global citizenship, and peace and conflict resolution.

“Our new analysis shows the extent to which most former students now in their 20s were taught from textbooks that had little if anything to say about the core values of sustainable development,” Aaron Benavot, GEM Report Unesco director, says in a press release accompanying the paper.

“Textbook revision is infrequent, and often involves slight revisions, rather than overhauls of content. In addition, governments simply don’t realise just how out of touch their textbooks are.

“Our research shows that they must take a much closer look at what children and adolescents are being taught.”

In some of its key findings, the paper highlights that only 10 percent of textbooks from 2000 to 2011 explicitly mention conflict prevention or resolution. Even more alarming is the finding that 50 per cent to 75 percent of 72 secondary school textbooks analysed in 16 countries related Islam and Arab societies to conflict, nationalism, extremism or terrorism.

The study, which was released to mark the International Human Rights Day on Dec 10, does not explicitly name these countries but notes that many in Europe and North America portray Islam and Arab societies as riddled with violence.

It says this risks promoting stereotypical images of Muslim communities and intolerance towards them.

“There are positive references to Islamic contributions to civilisation through art, science and architecture, but the overwhelming representations of Islam and Arab society are negative,” the study says.


(File) A research officer from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute reads a book at his office in Pakistan. The group conducted a review of textbooks to search for signs of intolerance and misinterpretations of Islam in 2005. Pic: AP.

It also highlights criticism of textbooks used in conflict-ridden Pakistan, saying they normalise militarism and war, and contain biases, historical errors and distortions, thus promoting intolerance and bigotry.

For example, it says Pakistani textbooks published after the country’s 2006 curriculum reform continued to emphasise wars with India while largely ignoring peace initiatives.

“Indian history textbooks from 2002, for their part, put the blame on Pakistan, and contain clear bias against Muslim elements of the history of the region,” it says.

The study also says the percentage of textbooks around the world mentioning human rights increased from 28 percent to 50 percent between 1970 and 1979, and 2000 and 2011, with the greatest increase recorded in sub-Saharan African.

While the jump sounds promising, from 2000 to 2011, only 9 percent of textbooks discussed rights of people with disabilities while 3 percent covered the rights of the LGBTI people.

Only 14 percent of textbooks from the same period mentioned immigrant and refugee rights.

These textbooks do call for tolerance of diversity in the general sense but sexual diversity is repeatedly excluded. This implicitly suggests that those of diverse sexual orientations are not part of society, the study says.

For example, it says some textbooks and curricular materials in China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Thailand even “perpetuate negative stereotypes and include inaccurate, stigmatising and discriminatory information on LGBTI people.”


Source: GEM Report

On top of that, also in the same period, it was discovered that only one in four secondary social studies textbooks mentioned ethnic cultural, religious and linguistic minorities.

Coverage is highest in Latin America and the Caribbean (40 percent), followed by Europe and North America (35 percent), while coverage in Northern Africa and Western Asia remains significantly lower, at around 3 percent.

Citing an example in Japan, the study says lower secondary textbooks on English as a foreign language published from 1987 to 2002 represented a diversity of countries but not the diversity of ethnic groups within the country.

Apart from the lack of the diversity, some textbooks also contained “stereotypical, simplistic interpretations” of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic minorities.

In Hong Kong , for example, a chapter ‘Living in Hong Kong’ had a fill-in-the-blank task entitled ‘Racial Harmony’ that included a sketch of a Filipina saying ‘I am a Filipino. I am a domestic helper in Hong Kong’; a British man: ‘I am an English teacher’; a Japanese woman: ‘I have a sushi restaurant in Hong Kong’; a Chinese woman: ‘Shanghai is my hometown’; and an Indian boy: ‘I study in an international school’.

The study also observed that the percentage of textbooks mentioning women’s rights increased from 15 percent in the 1946 to 1969 period to 37 percent in the 2000 to 2011 period. But only a sixth of textbooks in Northern Africa and Western Asia mention women’s rights at all.

An extensive number of studies also portray women in submissive or traditional roles such as homemakers or servers of men, only perpetuating their marginal status in society.

“Despite the explicit messages advocating against gender inequality, gender bias remains a significant problem,” the GEM Report said in a press statement.


Dec 10, 2016: Thousands gather in front of the presidential office building in Taiwan to support same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. Source: weniliou/ Shutterstock.com

Vietnam, however, has made taken significant strides in this respect, the study says. It noted that textbooks in Vietnam have been revised to better illustrate gender equality. The country has also issued several directives and policies, and has ratified international conventions supporting gender equality.

At the national level, the Vietnam National Strategy on Gender Equality (NSGE) for the 2011 to 2020 period has set goals for gender equality in education, training, labour and employment.

On environmental issues, the study says between 2000 and 2011, environmental protection or damage was discussed in half of all textbooks; more than double the percentage between 1970 and 1979. However, only 30 percent discussed environmental issues as a global problem and over half of curricular frameworks still do not mention climate change.

Some even refute scientific studies on the global phenomenon, it says, while others have attracted criticism for the way they describe the relationship between environmental damage and human activity.

For example, it says, people in developing countries are often portrayed as responsible for the environmental stress they face and why they are unable to solve their environmental or conflict-related problems. Efforts by poorer countries like India to solve their environmental issues are not mentioned.

SEE ALSO: China says didn’t invent global warming, vows to fight climate change

“Climate change and carbon emissions are sometimes mentioned, but issues such as interventions by multinationals or consumption patterns in richer countries are not discussed.

“Instead, population growth and outdated technologies in developing countries are considered as key drivers of environmental issues and conflict. Many photos show people in developing countries as combatants, refugees or individuals in need of help, thus communicating an impression of danger, chaos and passiveness,” the study says.

In its conclusion, the GEM Report urged governments to review the content of their textbooks to ensure values are in line with the principles in the new United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda (SDGs). The SDGs, adopted by world leaders during the UN Summit in September 2015, are a list of 17 goals aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all.

The GEM Report called for the values of the SDGs to be built into national guidelines used during textbook review, and taught in workshops for textbook writers and illustrators.

Findings for the analysis were drawn from secondary school textbooks in history, civics, social studies and geography. The materials were sourced from the Georg Eckert Institute in Germany, which holds the most extensive collection of textbooks from around the world in these subjects.