Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Furthering Nationalist Values Rather than Liberating Minds

By Lydia HolleyPublished January 1, 2017

Although education is frequently portrayed as the gateway to opportunity and equality, most education systems fall far from this ideal. The US' current treatment of history as well as Poland's impending changes to the history curriculum both demonstrate that nationalistic tendencies of governments infuse public education with fallacious interpretations of history and vocationally-oriented coursework, creating students that think less freely due to biased information and courses meant to prepare them for the job market.

The makeup of  history curricula, even in the United States, has become increasingly controversial in recent decades. Historians such as Howard Zinn have wrote textbooks re-examining the subject of colonization and other topics. Zinn argues that, typically, US history books used in high schools paint men such as Christopher Columbus as heroic figures while only superficially addressing how Native Americans were unjustly treated - and killed - throughout this period of colonization. Some students who take courses in international studies during high school, perhaps in the International Baccalaureate program, may be exposed to alternative viewpoints such as Zinn's. But these programs seem few and far between.
           US history textbooks in Texas have been recently scrutinized for their treatment of slavery. The relevant textbooks use the passive voice when discussing the torture and abuse of slaves in the United States. Words with more positive connotations are also frequently used, such as the use of the word "workers" to refer to slaves. Many movements related to nationalism that are studied in the US are framed negatively, particularly when nationalism impacts the curriculum in public schools. One such example is the portrayal of the public education system in the Soviet Union, particularly the infusion of the curriculum with information used to create children that are loyal to the Communist system as well as the leader at the time. However, even within our own education system, we paint US history as a picture devoid of many of the evils of colonialism and chattel slavery - the form of slavery that was present in the US - unmatched in cruelty and inhumanity by any other system of slavery throughout history.
           The rose colored glasses through which some history books tend to view US history are far from exclusive to the US. One might assume that as globalization continues and minority populations grow in many countries around the world, biased curricula might be amended as more perspectives are shared. However, as progressive movements such as increasing diversity and fights for reparations gain traction, conservative backlashes simultaneously strengthen. At the moment, Poland demonstrates an especially interesting case of a conservative backlash. After Communism fell in 1989 and the entire system took on a more democratic form, Poles had expectations for the extent to which capital should be redistributed from those who had previously held power. In reality, not much capital or power was really redistributed to the general population and the power-holders of the Communist era continued to profit (see the economic section of this paper), and perhaps for this reason as well as others, a much more conservative government, the Law and Justice party, took power. Although the largest controversial impeding change involves the equivalent of the US's judicial branch, another impending change involves the curriculum and structure of public education.
    Since the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 and the restructuring of the education system beginning in 1991, the country has achieved great levels of improvement in education across the board. International education ratings (for example, PISA) demonstrate that Poland has improved since then in every subject, and now is a leader in education in the European Union. College enrollment has also risen greatly. However, the more conservative government, PiS, has altered the education system within the past several months without research backing the decision. PiS not only changed the structure of the education system back to what it was during the Communist era (abolish the middle school stage - gymnazjum - that was added just after the fall of Communism, and have the equivalent of our 6th-12th grades all located in one school, liceum), but also made public education more job-oriented and altered the history curriculum in particular.
    The changes to the history curriculum are perhaps most concerning to many Poles who see the impending changes as reminiscent of returning to the education system of the Communist era. This seems, to many, as an effort by PiS to create the "New Pole" in a resurgence of Catholic values and Polish nationalism. The changes to the history curriculum include adding trips to historical sites related to cultural heritage. Although studies show that education related to culture and ethnic background is especially important for students, in the context of restructuring reminiscent of the Communist era, this is concerning. This is especially disconcerting given that this is a country where the prospect of including sex education courses in the curriculum is met with resistance, suggesting that the government and the church together may be more interested in creating Poles whose beliefs align with existing power structures than those who can objectively evaluate information presented freely to them.
    Vocationally-oriented changes to the curriculum suggest another concerning element of these changes. Because the college enrollment rates in Poland have risen so greatly over the past few decades (from 400,000 around 1989 to approximately 2 million in 2005), one might assume that the population has become more educated and knowledgeable in general. Molding liceum into more of a job-preparatory environment for many students may contribute to growing inequality as students from less privileged backgrounds are channelled into the job market. Additionally, if education moves away from its goal of provoking understanding of the fundamental workings of various subjects and the underlying reasons behind why things work, the result is a population with knowledge of useful tasks, but a population with far fewer innovators and theorists (find an extensive talk related to this idea in Africa instead from a Cornell Africana professor here). This eventually may create a country that falls behind in research and development, which may leave it helpless to eventual economic submission to other countries with less vocationally-oriented public education systems.
    Historically, public education systems across the globe have frequently been used to further the aims of a particular government or ruling class. This past September, Polish students were placed in a system which was signed off on based on extremely minimal research and without much public support. The US continues to educate students in history while glossing over the horrendous aspects of colonialism, slavery, and many other events and systems that impacted and continue to impact a variety of groups negatively. If education is meant to be a means of liberation - of bringing about free-thinking students and a multitude of opportunities - these governments, and many others, are not fulfilling some part of this task, particularly for less-fortunate students. Perhaps the curriculum should be determined less by those who do not have exposure to and research done on education, or perhaps determining the curriculum should be a more democratic process. In any case, the curriculum in both the US and in Poland fails to entirely liberate the minds of students, and should therefore be more fully examined and changed.