Academic experts should keep an eye out for bias in school textbooks

A publisher’s move to correct the undue influence of pro-Israel groups on a history textbook shows the value of engagement, says John Chalcraft

February 12, 2022
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Is the history we teach in schools only the proverbial “history of the victors”? Can school textbooks really claim to be the impartial outcome of objective expertise? Do they serve a fundamental educational purpose?

In regard to these long-standing debates, history textbooks dealing with the sensitive, controversial and polarised topic of Israel and Palestine provide an interesting case study.

To get close to the writing and editing of such textbooks is to uncover a high-stakes struggle of particular intensity. One finds what the Italian intellectual and communist Antonio Gramsci called a “war of position”: a cultural and organisational struggle in which the spoils of victory are words and meanings. On the battlefield, in this case, are multinational companies, at least one state, lobby groups, unions, educational charities, associations, lawyers, editors, authors, teachers and – last but not least – academics.

Pessimism of the intellect tells us rightly that the playing field is not level. These textbooks are skewed towards the received wisdom, which, as any historian knows, is not a byword for truth. Yet, optimism of the will is still possible: this particular case suggests that the war of position is open-ended and that positive changes, as well as setbacks, are possible.

I have been engaged for nearly 18 months as one actor in the trench warfare over two GCSE textbooks on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Pearson, their publisher, reported last week that these problematic books have now been discontinued, and new materials are under preparation.

What happened?

The story begins with a complaint about the books from a prominent pro-Israel blogger in 2019. Complaints of this kind have become increasingly common and organised in recent years. In this case, new textbooks were issued in 2020 after several months of revision, to the public applause of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) and other pro-Israel groups.

Given that the original textbook in this case seemed broadly credible, I, a professor of Middle East history and politics at the LSE, and James Dickins, a professor of Arabic at the University of Leeds, decided to take a closer look at the revised version, drawing on our expertise. What we found, in a line-by-line comparison of the original and the revised version, disturbed us.

First, the content of the textbook had been substantially reworked. We found that 294 meaningful changes had been made to 80 pages of text – in our view a disproportionate and invasive revision. Our assessment was that there were numerous pro-Israel distortions, such as Palestinian violence being emphasised while explanations for it were stripped out and interpretations, facts and perceptions cherry-picked to exonerate Israel or condemn Palestinians.

As a historian, the text read to me as though it had been reworked by lawyers acting as if for a client (Israel), rather than by historians acting to educate schoolchildren about a complex history. Second, and equally problematically, we discovered that the pro-Israeli lobby groups had been invited into the editorial process, and had collaborated with Pearson over many months. No pro-Palestinian groups had been invited to the table. Something, in our view, had gone dangerously wrong.

James and I linked up with colleagues in the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine because we realised we needed support if we were to raise this issue. Pearson, after all, is the world’s largest education company. In order to deepen our understanding, we met and corresponded with various parties, including schoolteachers’ union the National Education Union, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), equal rights organisation the Balfour Project, educational charity Parallel Histories, the author of a similar textbook, and several journalists. We published a report, and shared our concerns with Pearson.

It is now nearly a year later, and Pearson has just announced the withdrawal of these textbooks. The publisher is now working with Parallel Histories to develop new educational materials on the topic and has reassured James and me that no lobby groups are involved.

What does all this mean? Perspectives will certainly differ. But, for my part, one lesson is that there is value in academic experts getting involved in such issues. History books can be attacked and substantially altered by those who lack relevant expertise and objectivity. Publishers are driven not only by educational and commercial imperatives but by legal and reputational questions. The problem may affect many other textbooks, so we need to remain vigilant. While, naturally, publishers will attend to complaints, whatever their source, history textbooks should be written by historians.

But we should also be pleased that a principle to this effect has been quietly established by this case. A major international publisher has, it seems to us, recognised its error and has now corrected it; for that, the Pearson Board needs to be commended. This principle of editorial independence needs to be underlined, preserved and publicised so that publishers maintain the confidence of educators, parents and students.

Perhaps textbooks can, after all, serve a fundamental educational purpose, against the history of the victors and beyond the fiction of objectivity.

We can certainly understand these textbooks better – and improve them – if we engage robustly and without illusions with the conditions of their production.

John Chalcraft is professor of Middle East history and politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is Secretary of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES).

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