1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The politics of school textbooks

Dana Alexandra Scherle | Daniel Heinrich
October 19, 2017

School curricula in Turkey and EU states Hungary and Poland have been trending more toward patriotism and religion, with less emphasis on diversity. Teachers and other education experts are voicing their criticism.

Frustrated schoolchildren
Image: Fotolia/michaeljung

The image of schoolchildren marching in step reminds many Eastern Europeans of life under communist dictatorship, yet it could again become reality in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has asked the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Human Resources to develop a patriotic homeland defense education program by the end of this year, which would be included in the national curriculum for Hungarian schools. 

'Nationalistic and religious indoctrination'    

"Introducing military education in schools is not surprising: After the complete political and administrative takeover of schools, they are already more like military barracks than institutions for teaching and learning," Peter Rado, a Hungarian expert on education policy and critic of the Orban government, told DW. He also expressed concern over the elimination of the free textbook market in Hungary.

In neighboring Romania, the minister of education sparked controversy by suggesting the introduction of a single school textbook system - with only one nationwide edition per subject and grade. Critics have warned that single textbooks would be reminiscent of the school system during Nicolae Ceausescu's regime, paving the way for ideological control. 

Christiane Brandauer, from Germany's Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, told DW a red line is crossed "if teaching aims at presenting a certain worldview as an absolute truth."

From Peter Rado's perspective, Hungary has crossed that red line, calling the new policy a "nationalistic and religious indoctrination" that goes beyond textbooks. "For example, the government introduced mandatory religious education - with the option of attending 'ethics' classes instead, but this subject is hardly any different from religion," he said.

Theory of evolution: 'Too complicated'

In Turkey, creationism has been present in textbooks since the 1980s. In the new academic year, Darwin's theory of evolution has less space in the official school curriculum. Large parts of the theory are "too complicated" and "too controversial," the Ministry of Education explained in an official statement. A new subject called "creatures and environment" is set to replace it.

Turkish schoolchildren with flags
Critics say skirting the theory of evolution in Turkish schools 'sidelines wisdom and science'Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Altan

Hatice Karahan, one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief advisers, defended the Turkish curriculum in an interview with DW. Removing the theory of evolution from lesson plans does not "contradict" the progressiveness of Turkish schools, she said. "Countries have different curricula, and many of our schools focus on technical subjects."

Academics and politicians from the opposition have strongly condemned the changes. "Removing a proven theory from the curriculum means sidelining wisdom and science," said Baris Yarkadas, a member of Turkey's largest opposition party, CHP. "The [ruling Justice and Development Party] government is replacing it with a program including Sharia principles."

Critics of these changes see them as an attempt to weaken Turkey's secular ideals. They also point out that in comparison to previous versions, the current curriculum left less space for modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who introduced secular reforms.

Historical revisionism?   

History textbooks can allow governments the opportunity to cast political figures in a positive light. In Russia, a book on Josef Stalin's campaign of repression was declared "dangerous to the health of students." Its author, history professor Andrei Suslov, has taken the issue to court. Stalin's dictatorship is framed in Russian schools as having been necessary for its time. He is depicted as the hero who defeated the Nazis in World War II, despite operating gulags and persecuting his political opponents.

A Hungarian textbook quoting Viktor Orban
A new history textbook in Hungary quotes a speech from Prime Minister Orban on refugeesImage: DW/D.Nolan

Addressing political figures can also impact the present. In Hungary, one textbook quotes Prime Minister Orban several times and includes a speech he delivered on the refugee crisis. Students learn that Hungary is a culturally homogeneous country - unlike former colonial powers - as an argument against accepting refugees.      

Good migrants, bad migrants   

The current refugee crisis has also found its way into Polish school textbooks. In a seventh grade "civic science" class, students learn that migrants have "positive or negative effects." 

"I don't know if I should laugh or cry at this," Jacek Staniszewski, a teacher from Warsaw and member of the European Association of History Educators (Euroclio), told DW. "The textbook says that migrants from Ukraine can fill gaps in the Polish labor market, while those who come from other cultures and religions cause social conflicts." Staniszewski is critical of education reform pushed by the country's ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), which abolished the middle school model and reinstated the eight-year elementary school system used during communist rule. 

'My students deserve more than just one perspective'

In Polish schools, subjects like history have taken on more importance. But the changes to the curriculum have also drawn criticism. "This curriculum divides people into us and them - the narrative shapes our identity against some nations like the Germans and the Russians," said Staniszewski.

Education reform protests in Poland
Tens of thousands of people protested against the education reform in PolandImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

From this school year on, lessons in fourth grade don't start with ancient history, as they did before, but with the 10th century, when the Christian ruler Miezko I founded Poland. For one year, children study a long list of Polish national heroes, said Staniszewski, adding: "My task is to show greatness - but history is not all about great people. And maybe they were not that great all the time."  

"My students deserve more than just one perspective," said the teacher, who does not plan to change his style of educating. "It's up to them to choose one and debate with me." Unlike in Hungary, Polish teachers can choose from a multitude of textbooks. "Our government is naive enough to try to indoctrinate people, but history shows that it's not going to work," said Staniszewski. "Communism hasn't succeeded in indoctrinating people in 50 years."