Across the news this week is proof of the explosive nature of textbook content if not got right. The Education Ministry in Bangladesh has released a new version of textbooks for grade one to grade ten that many say display a shift towards radical Islam.
Bangladesh has always had separate religious books in schools for followers of different faiths, and textbooks for other disciplines have always been secular. This year, however, the new books have religious content in disciplines that are not about religious studies at all. First graders now learn that ‘O’ is for ‘orna’, which is a type of scarf worn by devout Muslim girls, rather than for ‘ol’, a type of yam, for instance. In addition, and oft-cited in the press, 17 poems have been removed, which local media is reporting happened at the request of a group of conservative Islamic religious scholars – Hefazat-e-Islam – who reportedly told the government they were ‘atheistic’.
A few years ago, Hefazat-e-Islam rose up in the capital city of Dhaka, asking for Islamic education to be mandatory, including making changes to textbooks. Since then, leaders of Madrasa schools have been calling for changes to be made to textbooks, including in the way gender equality is portrayed. Now, there are no conversations between boys and girls in textbooks, and you won’t be able to find illustrations of girls not wearing head scarfs. Biology lessons no longer cover the word ‘period’ for girls. Names of people affiliated with religions other than Islam have been replaced, including that of Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote the national anthem for Bangladesh.
Immediately after the new curriculum was released, a group of 85 eminent scholars, writers and cultural workers issued a statement about the changes. It says: “We strongly demand the immediate withdrawal of the books. At the same time, we demand that the young minds be saved from being fed with ideas of extremism and negativism.” One of the three faults the statements finds with the books is that they “inject communally sensitive ideas”. “On the one hand,” it continues “the government is harvesting communalism in the textbook, and on the other, it is peddling poison of discrimination among the young mind.”
Textbook changes can easily raise more than just eyebrows because of values they insinuate, and because they can be seen as political tools as well. Some commentators believe the changes in Bangladesh’s books might have a political motive, given that the next general election is in 2019, and a move to Islamism could win over a particular electorate. The government has been quick to say this is not the case.
What is quite certain is that textbooks can easily breed and reinforce intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, as we showed in our latest GEM Report policy paper. In 16 countries in Europe and North America, for example, 50% to 75% of all coverage of Islam and Arab societies in world history secondary school textbooks is related to conflict, nationalism, extremism or terrorism, representing these societies as violent and unstable. There are positive references to Islamic contributions to civilization through art, science and architecture, but the overwhelming representations of Islam and Arab society are negative.
The contents of the new textbooks in Bangladesh reinforce the real need for us to carefully think through the purpose of education. Bangladesh is a country that is known for having had great success in closing the gender gap in school enrollments. This story reveals, however, that monitoring education progress cannot rely on access data alone. It corroborates the message made in the 2016 GEM Report: there is an urgent need to monitor the content of education if we are to ensure that education is promoting sustainable development.