In the field of public health, it isn’t difficult to recall instances where flawed research has had far-reaching consequences, from misguided claims discouraging the COVID-19 vaccination to debunked theories linking the MMR vaccine to autism. These and other examples have been well documented.
However, societal well-being is dependent not only on public health. The impact of educational curricula and the very textbooks that children study not only shape millions of impressionable minds but are key to the way society will look in decades to come.
So, when these veritable foundations of education are flawed, they should be treated with a similar sense of alarm.
An obvious case in point is recently published textbooks in Russia, which justify the invasion of ‘ultranationalist’ Ukraine and depict occupied lands as part of Russia.
Clearly, the Kremlin has calculated that inculcating young people today will help bolster its expansionist goals into the future.
Meanwhile, there is evidence that differing perceptions of the European Union within textbooks are closely aligned with individual national narratives on the issue.
A comparative academic study of English and German textbooks revealed that the English curriculum portrays the EU primarily as a controversial issue, whereas German textbooks reflect a more positive approach.
Problematic textbooks and an analysis gone awry
Clearly in any country, publishing textbooks can make a deep imprint on societal norms.
As such, textbook production must be carefully monitored and all the more so when it is being funded by European taxpayers.
A prime example is the textbooks published by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which are replete with hateful portrayals of Jews and encourage violence against Israel — acts of terror such as the 1972 Munich Massacre are endorsed and even scientific theory is taught through the prism of shootings and attacks on Israelis.
Given that the EU constitutes the PA’s single largest funder, it is no wonder that Brussels has taken a keen interest in the issue.
That is why from 2019 to 2021, the EU commissioned the Georg Eckert Institute (GEI), a German centre for international textbook analysis (named after a former Nazi who volunteered for Hitler’s Brownshirts and defected in 1944 to join the Greek resistance), to “provide the EU with a critical, comprehensive and objective foundation for political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the subject of education”.
Unfortunately, there was nothing «critical» about the report by the institute, which totalled about 170 pages of analysis on 156 Palestinian textbooks and 16 teaching guides published between 2017 and 2019.
When research is flawed, decision-making is impacted
On closer inspection, mainstream media, public figures, and organisations exposed alarming shortcomings in GEI’s work.
Instances of antisemitism and incitement to violence were overlooked and the institute’s director of the study, Dr Riem Spielhaus, even admitted to German media that in some cases the wrong textbooks were analysed altogether.
One glaring error showcased an Israeli textbook in Arabic promoting peace and tolerance, which Georg Eckert Institute mistakenly identified as a Palestinian textbook.
GEI’s director, Eckhardt Fuchs, finally admitted in testimony in the European Parliament that the PA textbooks did not meet UNESCO standards, and the report’s FAQ section published after its publication confirmed that “the textbooks contain anti-Semitic narratives and glorification of violence”.
However, the institute has still not admitted its mistakes or taken responsibility for its flawed work.
Whether GEI’s report is evidence of rank incompetence or a worrying bias, the failure to conduct research with accuracy and integrity has a serious impact.
After all, the debate over PA incitement and the poisoning of millions of young minds via its education system, is a live and important discussion in the European Parliament, the UK Parliament and other key international decision-making bodies.
More often than not, views expressed in these forums and ultimately the decisions made by national and international leaders are reliant on quality, accurate research.
Preventing corroding effects of prejudice and discrimination
The stark reality of PA incitement via its textbooks and GEI’s subsequent failure to properly analyse the issue, alongside Russia’s exploitation of curricula for political purposes, should provide a wake-up call.
After all, in every country whether in a conflict zone or not, education plays a crucial role in perpetuating national narratives and fostering societal norms.
No matter where in the world, educational curricula must be rigorously researched to prevent the real-world consequences of prejudice and discrimination being disseminated, which if left unchecked, corrode the foundations of progress.
If we are to build better societies, we need more analysis and greater awareness of the importance played by textbooks studied by millions of children.
Just as public health research has been subjected to endless scrutiny, the same maxim must now be applied to analysing the curricula which will frame the attitudes and values of the next generation.
The Most Hon. Marquess of Reading Lord Simon Isaacs is the Chairman of the Barnabas Foundation.
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