Skip to main content

Book of the week: state indoctrination in schools

Apart from English set texts, textbooks are the most widely read form of writing in schools, yet in the UK they have been virtually ignored as a subject of research. To an extent, William Marsden argues in this pioneering and highly accessible study, The School Textbook: geography, history and social studies (Woburn Press pound;45 hbk, pound;18.50 pbk), this is because British teachers have long had an extraordinary prejudice against them.

Although most are attractively produced and written by experienced and dedicated teachers, textbooks are still associated with a heavily formal, even authoritarian, style of teaching. Using your own handout, even if it is photocopied from a textbook, is still seen as an affirmation of professional autonomy. It is not a view, Marsden points out, with which pupils have ever had much sympathy.

British teachers have much to learn from practice in the United States and Europe; Marsden, an American, holds that British teachers are unnecessarily sniffy about American practice.

Marsden is right to focus on history and geography, which are so open to manipulation by the state. He is strong on geography textbooks' uneasy relationship with curriculum development; historians, while often wary of coursebooks, have been more prepared to use textbooks for their views and documentary extracts.

Early 19th-century textbooks were written in a simple catechism style, suitable for pupil "monitors" to drum into the heads of younger children. Later, academic experts took over, cramming indigestible reams of facts on to closely printed pages. But these facts carried a message -nbsp; patriotism. British disasters in the Crimea were blamed on insufficient understanding of maps, so it was down to the nation's geography masters to save the Empire.

Many Victorians understood imperialism as part of a wider citizenship of the world, and frowned upon chauvinistic or racist texts. C R L Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling's notorious School History of England , which talked of black people as "lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement", was condemned by the Educational Times as "uncontrollable and irresponsible".

Sean Lang teaches history at Hills Road sixth-form college, Cambridge, and is co-editor of Modern History Review

  • Picture: the charge of the Light Brigade was blamed on insufficient understanding of maps
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazinenbsp;

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you