The World’s Worst Textbooks

As students around the world head back to school, many of the lessons they're learning are not only false -- they're dangerous.



Lesson plan: Religious warfare, gender roles

Subject matter: Iranian leaders may have embraced new media to share political messages with the world, but at home, indoctrination still starts in print. According to one study, Iranian textbooks teach seventh graders that “every Muslim youth must strike fear in the hearts of the enemies of God and their people through combat-readiness and skillful target shooting.” Iranian males are obliged by law to perform 18 months of military service at age 19. The Islamic Republic, a 2008 Freedom House study reports, encourages students to embrace Islamic supremacy and an unequal political system in which “some individuals are born first-class citizens, due to their identity, gender, and way of thinking.” Women, for example, are portrayed as “second class citizens,” depicted mainly in family situations and at home.

Primary source: “Defensive jihad is incumbent upon every one, the young and the old, men and women, everyone, absolutely everyone, must take part in this sacred battle, fight to the best of his or her abilities or assist our fighters.” — from a seventh grade Islamic culture and religious studies textbook



Lesson plan: Alternate history

Subject matter: Chinese history textbooks, much like the country’s hesitant acceptance of itself as a world power, are full of contradictions. China, in the eyes of millions of its students, is both meekly innocent and unmatched in military power, simultaneously modest and boastful. Chinese textbooks ignore the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, launched by China in response to Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, and teach that China has only fought wars in self-defense. They also gloss over Chairman Mao Zedong’s 1958 to 1961 Great Leap Forward, which resulted in mass famine and 30 million deaths.

One example of Chinese textbook chutzpah can be found in the chapters on World War II, known in some textbooks as “the Anti-Japanese War.” The Japanese capture of the city of Nanjing — often known as the “Rape of Nanjing,” when up to 300,000 people were killed by Japanese troops — is described in one Chinese textbook as “the most horrible [event] in world [history].” (To be fair, Japanese textbooks are little better; they tend to skim over the event, calling it an “incident,” “massacre,” or “massacre incident.”) The Chinese version of history has it that Japan was defeated in the war because of Chinese resistance, not because of the U.S. entry into the war.

Primary source: “The fundamental reason for the victory [in World War II] is that the Chinese Communist Party became the core power that united the nation” — from a widely used Chinese history textbook

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Lesson plan: Enemies of the faith

Subject matter: After the 9/11 attacks — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi — King Abdullah made reform of Saudi textbooks, which had been replete with references to Christians, communists, Zionists, and Western “nonbelievers” as enemies of Muslims, a priority. Nine years later, progress has been slow. In 2006, Riyadh promised to remove “all intolerant passages,” but some sources say children are still learning from texts that promote anti-Semitism and jihad. Once again, Saudi Arabia has claimed that textbooks and programs used both in the kingdom and by schools funded by Saudi Arabia elsewhere “will be completely overhauled over the next three years.” Saudi schools in countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Turkey all use similar textbooks.

Primary source: “Fill in the blanks with the appropriate words (Islam, hellfire): Every religion other than ______________ is false. Whoever dies outside of Islam enters ____________.” — from a first-grade textbook 

“As cited in Ibn Abbas: The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus” — from an eighth-grade textbook on monotheism and jurisprudence



Lesson plan: Culture Wars 101

Subject matter: The Texas Board of Education ignited an international firestorm last spring when members approved a controversial new social studies curriculum. The new standards skew hard to the right — championing American capitalism throughout and suggesting religious intentions on the part of the founding fathers.

Some of the most notable arguments were over language surrounding U.S. imperialism (now known as “expansionism”) and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger as a promoter of “eugenics,” and an amendment to teachers that students be instructed to “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” The board even recommended that Thomas Jefferson, creator of the expression “separation of church and state” be excluded from a list of world thinkers who inspired Enlightenment-era revolutions. And, in a salute to Democrats, “Bill Clinton’s impeachment” will join Watergate in lessons on “political scandals.”

The curriculum standards are reviewed every decade and serve as a template for textbook publishers. Texas’s 4.8 million public school students make the state one of the largest markets for textbooks
and a determinant of what the rest of the country’s schoolchildren will study, with national publishers often tailoring their texts to Texas standards.

Primary source: The new curriculum hasn’t hit textbooks yet, but pop quizzes are expected to have a slightly different look — Newsweek recently published new study exercises that the Texas school board is likely to adopt:

“Explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.” And “Evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty.

Getty Images


Lesson plan: Buddy Stalin

Subject matter: It can’t be easy to put a positive spin on Stalin, under whose leadership more than 20 million Russians lost their lives. But that’s what’s being attempted in Russia today. Encouraged by wilderness enthusiast and former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, the country’s curriculum is engaging in a re-Stalinizing process called “positive history.” Aleksandr Filippov, the author of a new Kremlin-approved textbook told the Times, “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people.”

His book devotes 83 pages to Joseph Stalin’s industrialization plans, but only one paragraph to the Great Famine of 1932 to 1933 in which millions starved as a result of deeply flawed agricultural policy. The book also minimizes the role played by the Soviet Union’s allies during Word War II, saying that they “limited themselves mainly to supplying arms, materials and provisions to the USSR.”

Primary source: “[Stalin] acted entirely rationally — as the guardian of a system, as a consistent support of reshaping the country into an industrialized state” — from A History of Russia, 1900-1945


Suzanne Merkelson is an editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.
Read More On Economics | Education

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.