Hong Kong textbooks contain negative stereotypes on cultures and religions, researcher warns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 4:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 11:54am

"Most countries in the north" are developed, wealthy and free while "southern countries" are poorer, with lower education levels, a lack of technology and more political censorship.

No offence, Australia, but this is what a Hong Kong school textbooks says, according to a University of Hong Kong scholar researching the subject.

Stereotypes are more prevalent in textbooks than she expected, says Dr Liz Jackson, a social-science education specialist who has been researching secondary-school liberal studies textbooks for a year and a half.

"I've been surprised to find … a lot of negative stereotypes about Islam and … just a very simple way of discussing diversity," Jackson says. "This doesn't really increase understanding."

Some textbooks, when discussing ethnic minorities, say these people are all disadvantaged, poor and discriminated against. Others say different cultures cannot get along.

In the "Political Globalisation" chapter in Longman New Senior Liberal Studies, published by Pearson, two pictures - one of a Western woman in modern clothing and the other of a Muslim woman in a niqab, or veil, covering her face - are juxtaposed on the same page. The chapter features six pictures depicting Islam - all showing terrorists and extremists.

The passage on the northern and southern countries appears in another set of textbooks published by the Hong Kong Educational Publishing Company.

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Discussions of new immigrants from the mainland appear disproportionately more than those about other minority groups and cultures in all textbooks, Jackson says, adding: "In general, there is a trend that the discussions are oversimplified."

The Educational Publishing Company says the comparison of northern and southern countries is made from a perspective of history and economics and tries to explain how globalisation and outsourcing have come into being. However, the passage does not refer to any time frame for the statement.

Pearson says it has completely changed the contents of the textbook in its latest edition.

Jackson, who is researching the 2010 edition of the four most popular textbook sets, says that when she compared textbooks in the United States over a 10-year span, she seldom observed dramatic changes in content.

Also, when she recently presented her research, many people in her audience told her they still used the 2010 textbooks.

Jackson says cramming too many topics into a few pages is one of the reasons for the generalisation. The media's focus on exciting or frightening news stories and prevalent stereotypes in television shows and films also prevent people from learning about the diversity of other cultures, especially in Hong Kong, where more than 90 per cent of the population is Han Chinese.

"Children don't necessarily know diverse people," she says. "Teachers, too, may not. If they're getting their information from the textbooks, the news and movies, there's no way for them to know what lives are really like for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong."

Jackson believes a lack of knowledge of diversity will lead to ignorance and poor policy making, as good decisions are made with the best information available based on the understanding of differences. "One of the purposes of education is to invite students to a broader world so they can transcend their social class and become upwardly mobile."

The Education Bureau says it does not assess liberal studies textbooks because it believes teachers should not rely only on textbooks and should draw on various teaching materials and discussions on current issues.

But Jackson says the relatively new subject means teachers, with little previous experience, tend to rely heavily on textbooks.

She says although it is not possible for teachers to learn about every religion and culture while handling a tight teaching schedule, the best thing they can do is to focus on training their own critical thinking and media literacy and to share these skills with their pupils. They can also take pupils out of the classroom to meet real people from different cultural and ethnic groups.

"In Hong Kong as a globalised society … if we're not including everyone in the society into the dialogue, we might make a decision that we will later regret," Jackson says.