Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Ideology as Core Curriculum? Textbooks and German Re-Education in May 1945

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Ideology as Core Curriculum? Textbooks and German Re-Education in May 1945

Article excerpt

The following case history of early postwar Germany addresses a vexed topic: how what purports to be "education" veils propaganda--and how school curricula promote ideology. Of course, it's no secret that education transmits culture--or that the so-called culture wars have long been raging in U.S. schools. Indeed American parents and school district administrators have wrestled for decades over what kinds of lessons those novels and plays assigned for classroom use should teach. In these battles we have banned many a classic--from Brave New World and 1984 to The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, and Catcher in the Rye--that failed to satisfy cultural vigilantes on the lookout for four-letter words, sex scenes, evolutionary theory, and Commies between the covers.

In recent years the fiercest struggles among educators, parents, and religious authorities have centered on what textbooks to adopt. The textbook campaigns have introduced newfound rules and expectations into the age-old book wars. Traditionally, in the case of a novel or play, schools either use it or ban it, but they don't change it. That's not the case with textbooks, in which the content is insidiously malleable.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the textbook wars continue, with small watchdog groups disproportionately influencing textbook adoption policy. In my own state of Texas the state board of education--which purchases K-12 textbooks for the entire state--holds public hearings that witness no-holds-barred matches among family-planning, pro-life, gay-advocacy, fundamentalist Christian, and other lobbying groups on the merits of proposed textbooks. Those hearings often result in one or more textbooks being withdrawn from consideration for adoption (and even in the reconsideration of previously approved texts). It warrants mention that, among the thirty-six works of fiction currently banned in some Texas public school districts are Orwell's 1984 (for its sex scene) and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (for its "mystical content"). Until recently, the American Heritage Dictionary was also banned, because some parents objected that certain listed words were obscene.

Creating "Textbook Reds"?

Though textbooks undeniably fulfill important tasks in the school systems of all states and nations--capitalist as well as communist, democratic as well as authoritarian--perhaps nowhere were textbooks more consciously and completely turned to propagandist purposes than in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Throughout the forty-four-year existence of the GDR (1945-89), the Ministry of Education controlled textbook content tightly, and the textbooks and teachers' guidebooks kept, in turn, a tight rein on GDR teachers. The task of writing textbooks was entrusted by the Ministry of Education to scholarly "collectives" (i.e., groups of academics, each headed by an elite Party member) who could be trusted to adhere to the communist line on all questions.

The most important of these editorial collectives were at Verlag Volk und Wissen (People and Knowledge Publishers), the central state publishing house in East Berlin. (Volk und Wissen is still publishing textbooks today, in reunified Germany--though, of course, the GDR's system of socialist editorial collectives has been replaced by a conventional Western model of editorial staffing.) To guarantee that there would be no ideological deviations among members of the collective, recalls Helmut Roske, formerly an editor at Volk und Wissen who escaped the GDR in 1961 just before the Berlin Wall went up, his superior always took special precautions. Roske's department chief, Heinz Frankewicz, would regularly summon collective members to his office and remind them of the educators' ideological mission. In his memoir titled "'The Textbook Factory," published in the 1963 Atlantic Monthly, Roske recounts one such meeting, during which the political lessons that GDR textbooks sought to indoctrinate became painfully clear:

    The editors would listen in silence while he [Frankewicz] read out
   a perfectly correct sentence from the text[book] and then proceeded
   to smother it beneath a mountain of objections. … 
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