Paul Simon launches into “Kodachrome” with:
“When I think back on all the crap I learnt in high school/ It’s a wonder I can think at all.”
Of course, much of education is not intended to teach thinking. Quite the contrary.
The development of mass schooling went hand in hand with the rise of the nation-state during the 19th and 20th centuries. Governments saw education as the means to forge patriotic citizens. More recently, curricula emphasize globalization and human rights. Modern schooling features multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism alongside nationalism.
A recent paper by Julia Lerch and colleagues examines nationalism in education. They analyzed 576 secondary school textbooks from 78 countries. The books were published between 1955 and 2011. Topics covered were social studies, history, civics and geography.
Lerch and coworkers found that nationalism in textbooks has not declined in recent decades. The only exception is waning glorification of the military. The authors speculate that emphasis on military power might be a little antisocial in a global context.
The most interesting aspect of the study was that dominance in world society was inversely correlated to nationalist education. Countries that have a secure global status, such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, have less nationalistic content in their textbooks. In contrast, countries which enjoy less recognition tend to push the nationalist agenda harder.
It’s not difficult to see parallel examples of this trend in current events. The recent death of activist Liu Xiaobo provoked a frenzy of censorship by the Chinese government. Even emojis of candles — symbolizing mourning — were removed from the internet. China may be a rising power, but it doesn’t take much to scare its leaders. Challenges to the state will not be tolerated.
There are many countries with less power than China that show similar behavior. These are places where governments struggle to convince the world of their legitimacy. Citizens are kept under control by propaganda and, failing that, violence. Witness North Korea, Turkey and Venezuela.
In the final analysis, nations are made up of people and some of these people govern. All people want validation. If a person feels that society does not respect them, they become defensive. From there it’s a short step to fear and fear is the root of anger.
Governments under threat will respond by stronger assertion of the identity of their nations. Education is at the heart of this project. Curricula lie on a continuum. The one end is globalization, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. The other moves through militant nationalism to end at radicalization, extremism and terrorism.
Nations reveal much about how they see themselves in what they choose to teach their children. Only groups that feel secure will teach their children a tolerant, inclusive nationalism.
In Kodachrome, Paul Simon continues with:
“And my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none/ I can read the writing on the wall.”
That puts him far ahead of most current Western leaders.
Lerch, J.C., Russell, S.G., Ramirez, F.O. 2017. Wither the Nation-State? A Comparative Analysis of Nationalism in Textbooks. Social Forces (2017) 1-27. doi: 10.1093/sf/sox049
Featured image by Ken on Pixabay.com.