Creating Young Comrades: Politics, Numbers, and the Uses of Ideology in East German Math Textbooks

By Rodden, John | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Creating Young Comrades: Politics, Numbers, and the Uses of Ideology in East German Math Textbooks


Rodden, John, The Midwest Quarterly


When you see how they [East German educators] twisted even arithmetic exercises for first-graders into ideological lessons," a retired professor of mathematics in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) once said to me, "you know they were serious about inculcating the tenets of M-L [Marxism-Leninism]." He showed me a couple of East German textbooks from the 1960s, and I immediately saw what he meant. GDR educators' approach to mathematics ultimately resulted in a math curriculum more ideological than even that of the Nazis. And for a simple reason very much connected with simple arithmetic: more decades available to propagandize. Nazi educators had fewer than a dozen years to develop their curriculum, whereas East German policy makers had more than four decades to refine "M-L math," not to mention the advantage of drawing on Soviet scholarship since 1917 as well as a distinguished radical German and European legacy stretching back long before Marx and Engels. GDR educators fully exploited math's didactic possibilities, using it to promote socialist patriotism, Marxist class-consciousness, specific communist doctrines, and hostility towards the "imperialist" West.

My aim here is to examine the mathematics textbooks themselves, proceeding grade by grade to analyze their ideological content and strong attempts to legitimate GDR cultural and military policy. It bears noting that no more than one-fifth, sometimes less than one-tenth, of units in GDR mathematics textbooks bear ideological traces. Still, as in the case of school subjects such as biology and chemistry, SED (East German Communist Party) educators did not hesitate to exploit "M-L math" whenever it might serve party goals: to strengthen solidarity with the working class, promote socialist patriotism and internationalism, and deepen hatred of Western imperialism and militarism. This essay addresses these ideological uses via diverse examples, whose scrutiny yields an important, still relevant lesson, even though the communist state that promoted them is now defunct.

That lesson is a simple one, and it serves as a cautionary warning for educational policymakers everywhere, including the United States. And the warning is this: education that becomes political "re-education"--an attempt to "makeover" human beings according to the requirements of an ideology--undermines the freedom and dignity of the individual. And that, in turn, ultimately undermines both the ideology and the state that champions such a policy.

Such "education" loses touch with what it means to be human--and miseducation is the result.

The Simple Arithmetic of Progressivism

Except for German language and literature, mathematics was the only subject taught in all grades of the GDR. The curriculum ran as follows:

Grades 1-3: arithmetic

Grades 4-7: arithmetic, geometry, algebra

Grades 8-9: geometry and algebra

Grades 10-12: geometry, calculus, advanced mathematics

The typical method of fostering "socialist personalities" in GDR math class was via workbook problems, which sometimes functioned as subliminal indoctrination. Alongside exercises on magnitude, on the relations between figures and forms, and on quantities expressed symbolically, there would suddenly appear a multiplication problem on GDR brown coal exports, a decimal problem on Soviet space records, a geometry problem on the potato yield from a Czech collective farm, or an algebra problem on American arms expenditures. As in the case of German grammar and spelling exercises, a sampler of such math problems furnishes insight into the ideological convictions that SED educators felt most important to inculcate at different ages.

Consider, for instance, the following second-grade problems. Pupils are asked to compute something more than just whole numbers; the problems introduce work-related topics relevant to school field trips and to the child's immediate experience. …

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