Problematic content in English textbooks used at German schools

In the course of the teacher training class I currently teach at the University of Vechta, we looked at English textbooks used at German schools.

Now textbooks have gotten a lot better since my day, when we sometimes had books that were older than the students (in the mid to late 1980s, we were still using textbooks dating from the early to mid 1970s), when English textbooks showed a Britain and America (if they showed America at all) where everybody was white, when German textbooks for 5th and 6th graders were illustrated with gloomy modernist art by the likes of Paul Klee or Joan Miró, fostering a life-long dislike of classic modernist art and when every woman was a cook and every man a mechanic in some foreign language textbooks. BTW, this was the English textbook line we used at my school, dating from the 1970s. The line is still around – we used an updated version at the school where I taught.

Even my students who went to school in the late 1990s and 2000s remarked how much more colourful and attractive current textbooks look compared to the ones used in their day. And from my experiences as a tutor in the 1990s, I can attest for how long badly outdated textbooks hung around. I once tutored a kid using the exact same math textbook that I had used at school eight or nine years before.

Compared to that, current textbooks, even the not so good ones, are lightyears ahead of what was used even ten years ago. They are in full colour, there is usually a nice range of diversity with regard to race, ethnicity, religion and ability. Activities are a lot more interesting than the stiff grammar exercises I remember from my day.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of problematic and sometimes flat out wrong content you can find even in current textbooks. Here are some examples:

  • “In 1914 Pocahontas married an English settler” – Actual quote from a 4th grade textbook.
  • Unfortunate illustrations that hint at interspecies sex between a pig and a cat – luckily in a 3rd grade book, so the kids are unlikely to have dirty imaginations yet.
  • A 5th grade textbook expects students to learn the word “discman”.
  • A 6th grade textbook asks students to compare the amount of pocket money they get with their neighbour – way to make low income students feel bad.
  • Gross stereotyping: Scotland consist of Nessie and castles and men in kilts, Manchester is football, Liverpool the Beatles, Wales rugby and daffodils (if it exists at all). The US consists of New York, California, sometimes Florida and sometimes Alaska. Sometimes there are Amish people as well. There usually are Native Americans, but they are horribly stereotyped.
  • A unit about Native Americans in a 4th grade textbook presents images of a teepee, a totem pole, a buffalo, Pocahontas, the First Thanksgiving and Sitting Bull next to each other, even though they come from totally different cultures and eras.
  • A unit about American food in an 8th grade textbook has white people eating pizza and burgers and apple pie, the only Asian woman eating chop-suey, the only Hispanic person eating chilli and fajitas, an Inuit eating fish, a man in a business suit who looks like a banker or lawyer (the only person in business attire in the whole picture) eating a bagel (“It’s a Jewish food.”) and – worst of all – the only African American person in the whole picture declaring “I like Southern food like fried chicken and watermelon.” – Aaaarrrggh!
  • The only Indian person in a 3rd grade textbook is a greengrocer.
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