This week's Economist argues that that along with religious texts, school books and material used in class are the most powerful instruments that shape national culture. As we have discussed before, schools can be a real battlefield of cultural and ideological warfare in any country, and France or the United States are no exception : think of the topic of creation vs. evolution in Texas (here) or colonialism in France (here).
Even though, this is not necessarily a hot topic in the media, much is at stake, and the Economist is right to remind us George Orwell's 1984 great saying that “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past”.
In the United States, Liberals worry that their children are being taught a nationalistic version of history that emphasises the wonders of industrialization and plays down slavery and the slaughter of Indian tribes. By contrast, conservatives complain about insufficient patriotism and too much secularism. (The Economist)The two main topics of controversy are sex and evolution.
In France, it is the economy and businesses which tend to be portrayed in a biased manner (see here in French):
For years the French seemed quite blasé about economics textbooks that were filled with unreconstructed Marxism. Peter Gumbel, a British journalist and academic who has studied the French educational system, says such books sat happily with the idea that rampant economic liberalism was responsible for France’s weakness in the run-up to the second world war. French textbooks today are rather subtler, but still not much in favour of the capitalist way of doing things.Then if you add the prejudices of many French teachers of economics, and the current devastating crisis, it is no surprise that the French should be so negative about business and capitalism (even if they keep buying Iphones and eating at McDonald's) .
A new study of 400 pages of high-school economics textbooks, by the Institute of Economic and Fiscal Research, reveals that only a dozen are devoted to companies, and none to entrepreneurs. (albeit a French word) (The Economist)
So I suppose, every people has its own cultural and ideological prejudices but it might be worth paying a bit more attention to the process through which the text books are chose for our children:
The United States is different than almost every country in that it has no identifiable national history standards. Almost every other country does. What ends up in the classroom often depends on where your classroom is located. The content of a history course in Tennessee might sound considerably different than a course in Massachusett.
But two states are most influential because of their population: Texas and California which are respectively the first and second largest textbook markets. The former tends to be very conservative when the second is more liberal. (read here for instance)
France has what's called a "programme national" which means that the Ministry of Education decides on what topics should be taught and then leaves it up to the independent textbook publishers to print the books, which must, of course, follow the programme. It doesn't tell them how to cover the events, only which events or issues to cover and during which years. While this is more centralized than the US, it is not the state-sponsored history (identity) indoctrination of non-democratic societies like Saudi Arabia, Syria and North Korea where the Ministry of Education decides on a curriculum, prints the textbooks themselves, and distributes them to the schools for use, an approach reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.
Besides, any attempt by politicians to meddle with the affairs of the National Education causes uproar and controversy: Sarkozy's attempt to impose a "positive view of colonialism" (here) was met with such opposition that it was actually never implemented.
In case you had any doubt about the differences in the storytelling of historical events in different countries, I would suggest this great book: History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, by Dana Lindaman & Kyle Ward. It presents excerpts about the same events from different textbooks around the world, and thus shows the contrasting perspectives on history and national identity, and should be a requirement in school.