Islam and Migration in textbooks
“Diversity as part of everyday life”

Reality is all colours – textbooks too often present it otherwise
Reality is all colours – textbooks too often present it otherwise | © Fotolia

Diversity expert Viola B. Georgi of the University of Hildesheim explains why German textbooks still treat the subjects of Islam and immigration in an outmoded manner.

Ms Georgi, how do authors of German textbooks typically present Islam?

In contemporary textbook research there are three main findings. First, Islam is “detemporalized”. That is, textbooks often refer only to religious rituals and the Middle Ages, omitting the subsequent development of Islam. Equipped only with this preparation, schoolchildren fail to learn to distinguish between the positings of religious writings and the cultural and political pasts. In this way there arises more or less a gap in the narration between the Middle Ages and modernity, between the Crusades and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, which have swiftly found their way into educational media for the schools. This gap creates the impression that European modernity has developed positively independent from, if not in downright contrast to, Islamic societies, which have remained pre-modern. Second, we can observe the tendency to a unitary portrayal Islamic civilisation and culture. Differences within Islam are seldom broached. Third, Islam is often presented as a rigid religion of laws and associated with violence and the oppression of women.

Negative effect on self-image

What effect do such prejudices have on schoolchildren?

I prefer to speak of presentations, that can be separated from stereotypes only with difficulty, rather than of prejudices. They seldom show immigrants as active agents, but rather as needy and often as victims of social circumstances. Frequently school work in textbooks is formulated in the perspective of a dominant society. This is particularly striking in tasks for which the textbooks expressly assign a background to the children – such as: “Ask a fellow pupil with an immigrant background how his family came to us in Germany”. There are plenty of examples of this kind. For schoolchildren from immigrant families this means they are constantly referred to their country of origin, which makes the development of a sense of belonging here difficult. I’d add that, based on the findings of recent studies on the image of Africa in German textbooks, we find here the persistence of hierarchizing, colonial and racist clichés. These clichés have a negative effect on the self-image of children and young people “of colour” in Germany.

How can it be explained that textbook authors still write about Africa, Islam and immigrants in this way?

Textbook authors are usually teachers who specialized during their studies in a particular subject – for instance, history. They receive a contract from a publisher to develop individual textbook chapters or to revise already extant ones for a new edition in cooperation with an editorial team. Ultimately, their assessments reflect only certain dominant social discourses – such as the stubbornly maintained position that immigration primarily causes problems and is charged with conflicts. Some of the authors lag behind recent developments and findings in scholarship: they find it hard to capture the demographic reality of the German immigration society in suitable images and texts. Up to now they haven’t succeeded in grasping immigration-related diversity as normal – and to recognise and convey the potential of immigration and diversity.

More textbook authors with immigrant backgrounds

Is an improvement in sight?

I hope for a paradigm change. This has at least been announced in the 2013 recommendations of the Minister of Cultural Affairs for inter-cultural education in schools. There, for example, it’s said that textbooks should be examined as to whether they are diverse and take into consideration schoolchildren’s heterogeneity of origin.

Is the diversity approach, which gets schoolchildren to actively deal with the diversity and heterogeneity in society, the solution?

It’s not the solution, but an important strategy towards a pluralistic, democratic understanding of society. In such a self-understanding, diversity is the normal case. It is, to put it simply, normal to be different. Dealing with diversity is part of our everyday life. Difference – for instance, the immigrant experience – is then not defined as a deviation but represents only one aspect of human identity. The wide range of individual and collective difference are seen as a matter-of-course and made the starting point of learning processes – this applies equally to day nurseries, schools and universities.

What does this mean for authors of future textbooks?

I believe it would be very useful to upgrade the education of these authors and, further, to recruit textbook authors with immigrant backgrounds. But even then, an additional critical proofreading by a group of expert scholars and educationalists would be advisable.

Viola B. Georgi
Viola B. Georgi | Photo: private
Viola B. Georgi is Professor of Diversity Education at the University of Hildesheim Foundation and Director of the Centre for Inclusion in Education. Her work and research interests include diversity in educational media, inter-cultural education and professionalization, diversity education, Holocaust education, research on historical awareness, education in democracy and citizenship education.