Eurocentrism has long been an issue, with many globally dominant countries choosing to present their version of history as the only one that matters. This fear of non-dominant cultures is reflected within their education system, instilling these values into children who then go on to become leaders within that culture, allowing this self-perpetuating belief system to continue. The purpose of this paper is to explain the negative impact of eurocentrism in the classroom and to make a suggestion on how we can learn from the past.
In order to fully understand the implications of eurocentric textbooks, it is useful to revisit the traditions of a country well known for its aggressive cultural dominance. Back in the 1800s, the culture of Britain was predominant in textbooks used within the British empire, thus promoting the white, middle-class Christian values prevalent in that country. Stereotypes of other inferior cultures can be easily identified in classic British literature, for example, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes, while in India, describes the natives as naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes and distorted features [.
] They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast. (#WhiteHistoryMonth: Sherlock Holmes, a Racist? 2015). While this example is from a book of fiction, it’s important to note that these books were commonly used as teaching tools in classrooms alongside textbooks. Another example is Joseph Chamberlain, British Secretary of State for Colonies and a man raised within this education system, who is now well known for having made many racist remarks. At the turn of the century, he is quoted as saying, I believe in this race, the greatest governing race, so proud, self-confident and determined, this race, which neither climate nor change can degenerate, which will infallibly be the predominant force of future history and universal civilisation” (Sherwood, pg. 1). Attitudes such as this led to cultural uprisings and native revolts, as British imperialism, learned in the classroom, ignored centuries of local culture, tradition, and history. It is perhaps little surprise that the current American education system, based as it is on the European, has an equally flawed approach. Taking the history of the Native Americans as an example, it doesn’t take much digging to see the racist similarities between 19th century British texts and current US counterparts. American textbooks are obligated to include Native Americans as they are a crucial piece of US history, but typically present them as a simplistic people, grateful for the teachings of the superior’ white man. This is highlighted in an observation by Jeffrey Hawkins, Typically, in the past, when teaching about Native Americans, teachers used to favor two approaches in developing their lessons from their textbooks. The first is the “dead and buried” culture approach, which portrays Native Americans in the past tense or extinct. Second is the “tourist” approach that allows students to visit a “different” culture that usually only includes the unusual or exotic components of Native American culture. (Hawkins, pg. 2). However, unlike the 19th century British, the American education system is at least aware of the issues surrounding cultural imperialism, and attempts to alter misconceptions often taught to very young students. These days, while young American children learn that Native Americans were naive beings who worshipped and spoke to nature, older students are taught a more realistic, though still negative and misleading version of history. They do finally learn that the pilgrims weren’t pure examples of goodness, but the textbooks still focus on pushing the negative traits of Native Americans, dedicating pages to their violent nature and unwillingness to change. Here, I have focused on the Native Americans, but this mistreatment of other cultures can easily be found in textbooks focusing on all periods of American history.We cannot pretend that the flaws in the American education system do not matter. This is emphasized by what Frances FitzGerald notes in her seminal examination of history textbooks, Children have to read textbooks; they usually have to read all of each textbook and are rarely asked to criticize it for style or point of view. (Parks, pg. 2). Critical thinking is a crucial life skill that students should be taught from a young age, however, confusion can arise when a student believes that a history textbook is based on facts and that therefore, no critical thinking is needed. It would serve students better if textbooks were presented not as objective facts, but as competing and diverse ideologies, allowing the student to develop a more global mindset. A eurocentric education can lead to global blindness. Ignorance and arrogance led to the collapse of the British empire, and we are seeing US dominance wane as we become ever more insular. Not presenting cultures as having equal value has led to ignorance and fear of the unknown. It is perhaps Obama who said it best, To be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. And it is our responsibility to ensure that eurocentric textbooks are relegated to the sidelines of history classes and replaced by those that respect all cultural identities equally.