My Take

Textbook example of a global problem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 1:29am

The fight over what textbooks to use in schools - which is at the bottom of our acrimonious row over national education - is a near universal condition. At least that's the impression you get from reading an excellent survey of textbook rows around the world in The Economist magazine.

I don't know whether that should offer solace or merely pique our curiosity. But at least our beleaguered officials from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying down can take comfort in the fact they are not alone - governments the world over face serious problems, even political crises and international incidents, over the contents of textbooks, or subjects that are missing from them.

This is to be expected. Rulers, parents and educators all want to impart their own views and values on the next generation; but my truth is your propaganda. And children are rarely born readers, so textbooks often become their most serious reading material.

Christian South Koreans and Texans in the US fret about the exclusion of creationism in the teaching of evolutionary biology. New Yorkers complain there is not enough sex education, while the French, who have no issue in the sex department, apparently teach too much Marxist, or at least socialist, economics at the expense of (neo)liberal economics.

Americans put the highest diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia after September 11, 2001, to reform school curriculums that encouraged extremist fundamentalism. Riyadh said it has done so. But outside independent studies and those by the US State Department still find the same material in textbooks today.

Chinese and Koreans complain about the right-wing influence in the writing of history textbooks in Japan, which sanitise Japanese war crimes, including the use of sex slaves, in the 1930s and 1940s. Foreigners and dissidents cry foul over mainland textbooks that skip over the great famine during the Great Leap Forward and airbrush the brutal Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and rampant official corruption during China's economic take-off.

What is the best model? The state should not be the sole authority to decide what to teach. But extreme decentralisation or a free-for-all model is a recipe for disputes. There is a middle ground, but it often proves elusive.