Must History Textbooks be Divisive?

By Jim Williams

In January, NISSEM co-conveners Jim Williams, Andy Smart and Margaret Sinclair took part in a high-level workshop convened by the Conflict and Education Learning Laboratory (CELL), entitled "Narrating our Violent Pasts in Curricula and Textbooks." This is the second of three posts, one by each, stimulated by the workshop.

Growing up in the US South, I began my schooling just before the end of segregation, when black and white children were not allowed to attend school or see movies together, or even use the same public facilities or drinking fountains. Among my most important (unintended) lessons was a clear view of the contradiction between the ideals taught in school and the ways that schooling was used as a tool of division. And so I come to this topic naturally. Since my school days I have continued to think about the ‘two faces of school’ and the many ways that schools can work toward inclusiveness or toward division. Many of these ideas are elaborated in a series of books I edited on (re)constructing memory. The recent CELL workshop was also an opportunity to engage with a diverse audience on this theme...

In the preceding post, Margaret Sinclair discussed the challenges of using school textbooks to reduce conflict and promote peace. The presence of divisive images or stereotypes of others or biased accounts of history can make textbooks themselves into instruments of division. Removing such images and revising historical accounts and stereotypes can go a long way toward making textbooks into instruments of inclusiveness and peace (or at least neutral in their messaging). But doing so is easier said than done. Practical problems challenge the improvement of textbooks, including the multi-year textbook revision process, the lack of alternatives to old textbooks in many poorly-resourced or conflict-affected schools, the lack of appropriate social and emotional learning (SEL) content and pedagogy in many textbooks, the unstimulating and overly difficult content common in textbooks and curriculum as whole, and the lack of training for teachers in inclusive pedagogy.

In addition to removing divisive images and biased history, it may also be useful to think about the ways that textbooks are used in the classroom to promote either inclusiveness and peace or division and conflict. Here I share a few thoughts: Children do not ingest textbooks exactly as intended by textbook writers. In teaching, teachers make their own sense of the material and convey it, based on their own understanding of the content and appropriate pedagogy. Teachers, like textbooks, can pass on divisive stereotypes and content, intentionally or unintentionally, directly through words, or indirectly, by failing to challenge the divisive stereotypes and content that children (and teachers) learn in the “everyday history” curriculum of family and community. Similarly, children make sense of what they read and hear in light of what they already think and know. Textbooks or teachers may present stereotypical images of “others,” but they may also leave in place—through silence or lack of critical analysis—the conscious or unconscious negative stereotypes that children bring with them to school from home and community. Of course, history and other social studies textbooks can also be used to provide accurate information and address common misconceptions.

Particularly in history textbooks, images and stereotypes can be divisive and history overtly biased, but divisiveness is also promoted by silence, minimization, or presenting only one side of a “difficult past.” School textbooks tend to avoid controversy, and teachers often find controversy difficult to teach. Many teachers get little training in teaching controversial topics productively in the classroom. In some cases, the social atmosphere surrounding the school is one of divisiveness and prejudice toward an outgroup. In such cases, raising or even mentioning the prejudice can be controversial. In other cases, the social atmosphere can be less overtly toxic but quietly prejudicial in the portrayal of others or silence in the face of social prejudice or an inequitable status quo. Such is often the case with gender, an issue which is coming into increased awareness.

Despite this frequent divisiveness, we are hopeful that textbooks can promote inclusion and peaceful relationships among individuals and the different communities to which they belong. One way of course is to remove divisive images and stereotypes and provide history without bias. Along with this would be telling truth in history (as opposed to white-washing difficult events), presenting multiple sides and perspectives on historical narratives, and including groups previously left out of history books.
A parallel approach, promoted by NISSEM, is to develop and promote textbooks, instructional materials and pedagogies that foster social and emotional learning (SEL) at the individual level to help students learn to acquire such skills as: appreciating differences, identifying with others, dealing with conflict, finding their place in relation to their own group and others, etc.

Efforts at global citizenship promote identification beyond the nation or state to global communities and interests. This is likely to be effective to a certain extent. But at the same time, most textbooks are developed by or for national education authorities, and most human beings seem to need an in-group with which to identify. One of the key functions of history and civics textbooks is promotion of a love of and loyalty to the nation. Love and loyalty are typically promoted by presentation of national ideals, symbols and beauty. In the process, those not fitting some national ideal or less savory aspects of national history are sometimes left out.

But of course, national identity need not be exclusive or monolithic. One can love one’s own country and recognize that others love theirs as well. Membership in a nation may be defined by loyalties and commitment rather than ethnic purity. Possession of inspiring national ideals does not necessarily require perfection in their attainment. Theoretically at least, it is possible to identify collective ideals, admit ways that one’s people have failed to live up to their ideals in the past, and redouble efforts to align more closely with those ideals in the future.

An important dimension to all this is the way learners are taught to see themselves and the nature of knowledge: Are they taught to see themselves as passive recipients of inherited and fixed knowledge, or are they coached to see themselves as active learners in a complicated world, where understanding is continually evolving? Textbooks, instructional materials and pedagogies can foster social and emotional learning to help students acquire personal and interpersonal skills such as critically reflecting on narrative, appreciating differences, identifying with others, dealing with conflict, and finding their place in relation to their own group and the wider society.


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[2] NISSEM has an upcoming publication highlighting gender and SEL.


About the Author

James Williams, Chairholder, GW UNESCO Chair in International Education for Development and Professor of International Education & International Affairs, George Washington University; Principal, North America, Conflict and Education Learning Laboratory (CELL).

This blog post was jointly published by CELL and NISSEM.