The fourth and second last part to the series covering the Museum of Impossible Forms New Narratives Summer School summarises Pia Mikander’s presentation titled, Finnish school textbooks avoiding and silencing Western violence and hegemony.
Mikander holds a doctorate in pedagogy and currently working as a University lecturer in History and Social Studies didactics at the University of Helsinki.. Her talk and research focused on a postcolonial study of the content of Finnish Swedish textbooks, used in Finnland, in the subjects of history, geography and civics , published between 2005 and 2010 for year levels 5-9 . The talk, as indicated by the title, specifically focused on the portrayal, or lack thereof, of violence perpetrated by the west and how it upholds western superiority.
In her article for Finsk Tidskrift (2017) Borde vi vara solidariska med u-länderna…?: En postkolonial analys av finlandssvenska läroböcker“, she points out that text books are supposed to present objective knowledge and information that is important to learn and correlates this with how postcolonial theory claims that European and the western hegemony have been equated with the idea of objectivity. Mikander begs to question how a history text book could claim to be objective in the first place.
Western beliefs, as represented in the text books she researched, establish the concepts of whiteness, Christianity and capitalism as the neutral norm. By default this means that all who stand outside are not neutral. According to Mikander, despite recent edits to these texts aimed at eliminating overt and unfounded concepts in support of white superiority, ideas of western authority remain culturally coded within text books that ultimately maintain the discourse.
The portrayal of the idea Greek History being “our history” as opposed to Egyptian history or any other history for that matter exemplifies the concept of white domination in our text books. It is important to remember that the content of text books are limited and selected, even if they are presented as something that is neutral and necessary to learn.
Looking closer at the representation of violence in and around the Middle East in history textbooks, none is attributed to the West. In addition there is an absence of representation of civilians from the Middle East and all humanistic language and terms are attributed to the West whereas the opposite is true for the Middle East. Not to mention, a certain certain degree of undisputed islamophobia is conveyed in these texts. To follow is a quote form a text book that subtly suggests that the intentions of muslim immigrants and refugees are threatening the European way of life.
“Migration och flyktingströmmar har fört islam in i hjärtat av Europa. I bland annat Frankrike, Belgien och Tyskland har muslimerna visat att deras tro skall synas i vardagslivet – i klädsel och livsföring. Och de vill att islam skall sätta sin prägel också på staternas styrelse.”
Migration and refugees have brought Islam to the heart of Europe. In France, Belgium and Germany and other countries, Muslims have shown that there belief must be seen in everyday life- clothing and way of life. They also want Islam to make it’s mark on matters of state” (From Historia 1900-talet -Ahlskog & Sandholm 2008 chapter titled ”Islam – en ny politisk faktor” / Islam – a new political factor)
The story of Vasco Da- Gama’s exploits are empathetically told from the perspective of his journal which renders local populations invisible, text books describe the mass killing of the local population as non-violent and omit any attempt to convey the historical event from the perspective of those who where invaded.
Mikander also points out how westerners right to unrestricted movement around the globe in historical and contemporary contexts goes uncontested in text books, which sends a significant message to it’s learners who for the most part are born and raised in the West. The following text subjectively describes colonialism as something that was problematic for the colonisers from the standpoint of geography, natural phenomena and health, ignoring once again, violent encounters with the local population that where a necessary part of the “explorative” journeys that preceded the colonial act. It is necessary to point out that the following extract is not a quote from a historical source but reviewed text that makes up the body of the text that was printed in 2006 .
“På äldre kartor var stora områden av Afrika utmärkta med vitt vilket innebar att de var outforskade områden. Naturen och kulturen i det inre Afrika var okända för européerna som inte heller kände till de gamla mäktiga negerstaterna. Söder om Sahara var Afrika ogästvänligt för dem som försökte ta sig till den inre delen av kontinenten och dessutom försvårades färden av forsarna och vattenfallen i de stora floderna. Den olidliga hettan och svåra sjukdomar, såsom malaria och sömnsjuka, utgjorde också hinder för upptäcktsresandena”
In older maps, large areas of Africa highlighted in white, indicate unexplored territory. Nature and culture in central Africa was unknown to Europeans who where also unfamiliar with the old powerful negro states. South of the Sahara, Africa was inhospitable to those who tried to enter the central parts of the continent which was made harder by rapids, waterfalls and big rivers. The never-ending heat and fatal illnesses such as malaria and sleeping sickness also created obstacles for the explorers. (From Textbook Horisont, 2006, Chapter “Det okända Afrika” / The unknown Afrika )
Mikander points out that part of the reason these texts remain post editing is because the are not read often enough with a critical eye, as publishers are open to correction upon receiving feedback. So even if an attempt to remove language and concepts that support a white hegemony are made it is almost an impossible task if the editors are not well versed in the discourse. In some cases a simple turn of phrase or the inclusion of both sides of the story would make the world of difference, both literally and metaphorically.
Read more of Pia Mikanders research:
- Finsk Tidskrift: “Borde vi vara solidariska med u-länderna…?”: En postkolonial analys av finlandssvenska läroböcker
- Thesis: Westerners and others in Finnish school textbooks
- Full list of publications and activities