Textbooks to lay a solid ideological footing

Wan Lixin
It was announced on July 6 that a national textbook commission, headed by a vice premier and consisting of 49 officials and experts, will be responsible for guiding and supervising the production of textbooks.
Wan Lixin

IT was announced on July 6 that a national textbook commission, headed by a vice premier and consisting of 49 officials and experts, will be responsible for guiding and supervising the production of textbooks, particularly with regard to subjects with ideological overtures.

There is much anticipation about what the commission will be suggesting.

As a parent of a middle school student, I have aired my dissatisfaction on many occasions about textbooks currently used in national education system.

My dissatisfaction is two fold: as a tool crucial to the well-being of our children, textbooks in general fall short of the quality expected of them. Secondly, as a tool aimed to lay out the ideological grounding for children in their impressionability, the textbooks fail miserably. This is no alarmist talk. You just need to ask any child about what they think of thousands of years of Chinese “feudal” history, or its “tyrannical” or “despotic” governance. We can no longer construct a historical narrative without resorting to Western concepts and discourse.

On June 24, while traveling to Hongqiao Airport with a professor of politics from East China Normal University, I mentioned that textbooks compilation used to be the privilege of the top scholars. Why has it failed to deliver a coherent message today?

He offered a few explanations, adding that creating textbooks does not add to academic prestige in the same way an esoteric academic paper would. This commercial apology for academic indifference to the welfare of children is chilling.

On June 29, after listening to a lecture by Wu Xinwen, a researcher at the China Institute, Fudan University, on “The Origins of Universal Values Discourse,” I put a question to Wu, to the effect that to my knowledge, many textbooks have been compiled in light of Western concepts and discourse. I observed that scholars can argue and argue again about theoretical differences, but considering that generations of children are brought up on these books, and given the difficulty of ideological reformation later, did the professor sense any urgency in getting our textbooks right?

Wu concurred that there are serious problems with the textbooks. As an advisor to a commission responsible for compiling politics textbooks for senior high school, Wu said that he had been raising the issue on every possible occasion, regardless of whether his advice would be heeded.

The challenge can be daunting.

Immediately after the announcement of the textbook commission, responses were enthusiastic.

Here are some of comments following an online post about the commission.

“Education is a big issue that concerns the future of the country, the training of successors to the cause of revolution, the handing down of revolutionary tradition, and what road the country will take. It is of vital importance to educate our future generation from a historical perspective, and in a positive light,” one netizen wrote.

Another went deeper.

“Textbook provides a common language for the nation. The way the textbook has been manhandled in recent years, it is already difficult for one generation to understand the next. As a matter of fact, the so-called generation gap has become an annual affair now.”

“There is the urgency of reforming English instruction. Take the example of a bilingual kindergarten … and the amount of energy an average student invests in learning English … The weight of English in a matriculation test comes even closer to that of the mother tongue … If you go about in Wanda Plaza, there are not many Chinese characters except for the food floor.”

Some expressed caution.

“The biggest problem is that textbooks no longer constitute the whole spiritual world of the teachers and students. Even if all these textbooks have been ideologically sound, they represent only a small fraction of the knowledge today … In the age of the Internet, it is increasingly difficult to resort merely to Chinese, politics and history textbooks in laying the ideological foundation.”

In other words, we must consider the flow of discordant information, the media’s growing eagerness to amuse and entertain, the growing fragility of social support mechanisms, and all sundry agents that compete to socialize our children. Only when our children can rise above these insidious forces can they hope to gain a glimpse into something higher and purer.

I think a still greater challenge is for all society to achieve consensus.

In a lecture on July 5, Wang Shaoguang, professor from Qinghua University, observed that “widely accepted sense of identity and values can significantly reduce the costs of operation for government.”

I asked him that so many scholars, subscribing to different schools of thoughts and answering the dictum of “publish or perish,” are churning out novel theories daily. How do they achieve consensus, and absent consensus, how does their study serve the state governance?

There is no easy answer for this.

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