Thursday, January 21, 2010

How Textbooks Your Children are Using Distort the World

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By Barry Rubin

My son brought me a book from his class’s library, The Usborne Illustrated Atlas of World History,  published originally in 1995 by Scholastic books. This was the 2000 edition, in other words the publisher had five years to fix the errors I enumerate below. While showing less purposeful bias than other texts I've analyzed, the combination of factual errors and acceptance of mainstream contemporary (bad) thinking makes for more miseducation.

Page 74: The Iron Curtain. The book is careful not to say much critical about Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. We are told (and this is rather amazing), “After [World War Two] communist [lower class “c”!] parties came to power in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.” Came to power! You mean through violence and repression?

On page 78 we are told about the rise of Solidarity in Poland but again nothing about the internal repression or failure of Communism. In fact, the issue is reduced to being merely one of nationalism:

“The rise against communism began in Poland. The Polish people were not happy that the Soviet Union dominated their government.” In response to Solidarity, we are told that the government introduced martial law but that in 1980 “the Polish people were granted free elections.” Under “The Iron Curtain Dissolves” we are told that other countries then “changed” and that “the Communists allowed new political parties” It sounds like an act of generosity.

Nothing about torture, shootings, deportations, the wrecking of the economy, the war on religion, or all the other features of Communist life.

So what does the book say about the Soviet Union under Stalin? On page 68:

“The Bolsheviks…set up a communist government which was based on providing equality and state control of people’s everyday lives….[Stalin] took much land away from the peasants and many people died of starvation or were sent to harsh work camps.”

This is a rather positive reading of the Bolsheviks intentions--isn't "equality" a good thing, the little reader might think--though it does mention the regime's totalistic control and even the famine induced by collectivization.

Even worse, it reduces the Gulag to merely be a series of “harsh work camps.” Nothing about the murder of millions of people by shooting them in the back of their head or death through overwork, freezing, and starvation.

In comparison, the book does talk a little bit about repression in Communist China but only during the brief Cultural Revolution and not before, as if this was a problem during a relatively small part of the regime's history.

Evenhandedness on the Cold War is very carefully maintained, not implying in any way that the U.S.-led side must have been better. For example:

“In the 1970s and 80s, the superpowers continued to back groups close to their own ideas. The USA supported revolutions in Chile and Nicaragua, while the Soviets occupied Afghanistan.” The book doesn't attack U.S. policies, which is why I say it is not as bad as many more radical texts. Yet it is just badly thought out. It would have made far mor sense to include the attempted invasion of Cuba, in the first category, along with Soviet support for terrorist groups in Europe and the Middle East.

My view is that the greatest bias in general in teaching is the understating of the crimes of Communism.

Regarding Israel, the book tries for fairness but is riddled with errors, including one gigantic mistake that is objectively quite malacious. On page 72, it shows Israel’s flag and describes it as “the first new nation created after World War Two,” which is nice but will come as a shock to Syrians (1946) and Indians and Pakistanis! (1947). Often the carelessness on facts which with these texts are compiled rivals any political bias.)

Another silly error is a map it also shows the West Bank, Sinai, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights as “Israeli territory” which is just not accurate since of these areas only the Golan Heights was annexed. That isn’t any political bias but just sloppiness.

The book's main paragraph on the issue states:

“During the 20th century, great numbers of Jews had arrived in Palestine which they saw as their traditional homeland. However the Arab Palestinians resisted the arrival of Jews in the area that was their homeland too. In 1948 the United Nations came up with a solution—the creation of a new Jewish state of Israel in Palestine. The Palestinians soon became a nation without a home and years of violence between Jews and Arabs followed.”

Here is where the gigantic misstatement of fact comes in. The UN’s proposal—which the UN “came up” with in 1947, not 1948—was to create two states, one for the Palestinian Arabs. Thus, a fair solution is turned into what seems to be an unfair one. And of course once one admits that the intention was to create two states, the book would have to say that the Arabs turned down getting their own state. Thus, if they are “without a home” it is by their own doing and they thus become responsible for the subsequent conflict.

Here’s what the book says about Islam:

“In the early 1980s, an old force began to gain power—Islam. The dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East was seen as a religious struggle. Enthusiasm for Islam in Arab countries grew.

“The focus of this was Iran, where a revolution had taken place in 1979. The new leaders were religious officials called ayatollahs, who insisted on Islamic law....”

It then refers briefly to the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

This is an example of how a book can think it is observing PC, unintentionally violate it, and be inaccurate all at the same time. The book doesn’t mention Islamism (or Islamic fundamentalism) as a political movement. It only mentions the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than the attempt of Islamist movements to seize state power. Thus, the student would be confused and have no real understanding of the actual contemporary struggle.

I realize that these issues must be simplified for grade school students and expressed in very few words. Yet I often marvel, even given these constraints, what a poor job they do. It is also important to point out that where they fail in terms of substance the problems are always the same: too soft on Communism; too critical (or at least mindlessly evenhanded and mirror-imaging) of the United States; too unfair to Israel; and too fearful of dealing with the Islamist issue.

While this book presents a somewhat mixed picture—better than others I’ve seen—it repeats this pattern. In fact, it is more shocking since the errors don't seem to be deliberate based on a strong political bias but just a combination of sloppiness and accepting what others who may be biased have written.

I’m proud of my son for catching some of these points and calling it to my attention. I feel bad knowing that virtually no other students would either see what’s wrong here or discuss it with their parents.

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