Chaos erupted recently over illustrations in Chinese primary and secondary school textbooks, drawing widespread attention to China’s state publishers. Amid the many reports and much discussion that ensued, we at Guancha News published in our product reviews section a comparison of the textbook industries at home and abroad. Our article summed it up nicely: “When it comes to children, the entire world is sensitive.” Drawing from personal experience and observation, I would like to share my take on primary and secondary education and textbooks in the U.S.
Although the U.S. currently rules as the global hegemon, it has not been a truly unified country for very long. It has been only 157 years since the Civil War ended the South’s 1865 effort to secede. The White House as an institution came about in 1939 during World War II, not terribly long ago.
For this country, whose origins lie in the experience of disparate immigrants who populated colonies across the New World, it has been persistently difficult to establish a common set of values given the absence of blood ties or common historical, geographical background. This issue has always plagued U.S. society.
It is reflected in the 1782 Great Seal of the United States. On the side bearing the principal design, a bald eagle holds a scroll in its beak that reads, “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “out of many, one.” On the reverse side, the Latin text hovering over the “Eye of Providence” floating above a pyramid reads, “Providence has favored our undertakings.” It is under this combination of gentile mysticism and Puritan absolutism that the U.S. would attempt to unify the world. This embrace of an impossible admixture of opposites is a burden the U.S. has born since its political beginning.
This burden extended to education. The most prominent manifestation of the difficulty in dealing with these contradictory values occurred when the U.S. tried to implement religious education in public schools and reconcile the differences in doing so. Prior to the 1950s, it was common practice in primary and secondary schools to require daily Bible readings and prayer. If you could say that religion in America was somewhat homogeneous at its founding, this was certainly no longer the case after three major waves of immigration in the mid and late 19th centuries and the early 20th century. The United States become increasingly more diverse religiously, and the number of people who were not religious steadily increased as well. In this period, the conflict, between ubiquitous public school mandates for Bible reading and prayer and the constitutional proscription against the establishment of religion by the state become increasingly acute. Finally, in 1962 and 1963, two Supreme Court cases successively set the precedents for prohibiting public schools from organizing prayer and Bible reading. activities. Subsequent cases banned public school employees from praying in the workplace.
Religious conservatives consider these Supreme Court decisions traitorous, but, in fact, the Supreme Court has not expelled God from the schools, as conservatives claim. The Pledge of Allegiance that American schoolchildren recite affirms “one nation under God.”
The pledge made its first public appearance in 1885, was introduced to schools in 1892, adopted by the Congress in 1942 and took its official name in 1945. In 1954, to mark the difference from its atheistic Soviet adversary, the U.S. added the words “under God” to the pledge. Although the Supreme Court had ruled in 1943 that schools could not force students to pledge an oath, there was no legal objection to saying the pledge everyday beginning in kindergarten. The pledge is heard not only in schools, but throughout society at major events and celebrations. In addition to singing the national anthem, standing for the Pledge of Allegiance became another essential part of American culture and has not given way to accommodate foreigners or atheists.
Today, in addition to retaining or highlighting religion in building a national consciousness, the U.S. has also begun to use textbooks to teach about the federal government and engage in behavior modification. The curriculum in U.S. primary schools generally covers English, mathematics, computer skills, science, social studies, sports and music. Social studies, which includes civic education, economics, geography and history, is the most important tool for thorough ideological training.
I have reviewed the format of workbooks available on Amazon for preschoolers and first-graders. The first few lessons focus on behavioral development, and clarify the kind of behavior students are expect to exhibit at school and at home, emphasizing the importance of courtesy, sharing and teamwork.
Later lessons seek to develop a sense of national identity. Children are first introduced to history and culture through entertaining national festivals that they are likely to relate to and gradually learn about important political figures. The indoctrination isn’t limited to teaching materials; books outside the classroom are brimming with examples of the positive role political figures play. Children’s picture books contain narratives about Vice President Kamala Harris’ experience growing up and her fight for justice.
One book is a real life story about President Joe Biden, who inspired a boy who stutters like him.
The bookstores I visited offered children’s books introducing all the presidents through Barack Obama, and there was an autobiography of former first lady Michelle Obama written for children.
The U.S. educational material market has assumed the characteristics of the network of financial backers from which it is inseparable. Pearson Education, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, five leading educational publishers, dominate 80% of the textbook industry, covering all three stages of education from primary and secondary school to university. Textbook sales revenue was approximately $7.85 billion in 2020, and the entire educational publishing industry was valued at around $16 billion.
The production process for textbooks looks like this. Publishers arrange for authors to write a first draft. The text is then submitted to textbook review panels in different states, where the text is modified in versions tailored to local standards. Finally, the textbooks are revised and sold to the school districts and the schools. Because states run their own school systems in the United States, textbook review panels vary considerably. Some panels are appointed by the governor; some have elected members. Some panels are appointed by education professionals; some include business representatives and even pastors. When you also consider that each state forms different camps based on political affiliation, it’s no wonder there is a degree of divergence in primary and secondary school textbooks from state to state.
The most controversial subject is social studies because it covers the conflict between old and current values and political divides, and involves prominent recent issues. For example, following the recent mass shootings in the U.S., the controversy over the Second Amendment and gun rights has returned to the fore. The battleground extends to textbooks; the California textbook is quite different from those approved in Texas. In California, books introduce the Bill of Rights together with a focus on Supreme Court decisions that restrict the right to bear arms, while Texan textbooks forego any extraneous explanation of the amendments, rolling out the red carpet for Second Amendment absolutism.*
Another example is the controversy surrounding sexual orientation. Recently, five states have banned teachers from explaining sexual orientation before students reach the third grade, in fear of interfering with a child’s normal gender identity.
There is also the issue of how to explain slavery. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought the debate over whether schools should be allowed to teach critical race theory into the public eye. Heated disputes ensued. The theory’s central idea is straightforward: Existing racial discrimination in the U.S. is not simply an issue involving individual ability to recognize it, but is instead an issue of systemic prejudice, ossified at the institutional level through a series of legal and economic arrangements. However, U.S. conservatives are bitterly opposed to this theory. The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation published a report claiming this theory will only exacerbate the problems of identity politics and threaten the founding principles that are the bedrock of the U.S.
This truly reflects the divergent views between the conservative right and the U.S. cultural left on crucial issues. The cultural left wants textbooks to highlight the historical plight, conservation status and contributions of marginalized minority groups, while conservative textbooks aim to deemphasize or skirt such issues altogether. For example, some state textbooks avoid discussing racial discrimination policies in housing.
Although these are real dilemmas in U.S. society, none of this obstructs from the central goal ascribed to textbooks of cultivating a fundamental national consciousness and identity. Despite altering textbooks from state to state, nothing in any of them questions the foundation of the U.S. economic and political structure. Instead, the controversial variation among textbooks in different states remains within the confines of cultural adjustment. Private capital supports the production of these educational materials. Even private capital at its most self-reflective would not undermine the political and economic arrangements vital to its own survival and interests. So, in this sense, the level of homogeneity among U.S. textbooks is remarkably high. The U.S. system, at least for now, is still functioning effectively, reinforced by subtle mastery of educational psychology and alluring textbooks with exquisite typography, binding and quality control.
Our ancient proverb “it takes 10 years to nurture a tree, but 100 years to cultivate a man” reflects the premium Chinese civilization has always placed on lifetime cultural and educational cultivation. Confucius admonishes us with the still relevant “let the will be set on the path of duty. Let every attainment in what is good be firmly grasped. Let perfect virtue be accorded with. Let relaxation and enjoyment be found in the polite arts.” However, with globalization, we are abruptly encountering countries on a competitive landscape. We are now thrust into an urgent systematic engineering project: how will we maintain dynamic equilibrium in creating a new educational model that balances being rooted in Chinese character while simultaneously supporting a pioneering mankind racing toward its destination?
I hope we see new textbooks and educational materials spring up in China that are elegant and pure, noble and high-spirited.
*Editor’s Note: The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”