The cruel politics of textbooks

Our textbooks have mirrored successive governments’ visions and hopes—with teachers and students too often mere bystanders

One of Adolf Hitler’s first priorities after coming to power was to transform the German education system, expelling teachers who were Jewish, Communist or simply dissident, and rewriting the textbooks. The education of a Nazi child was all-encompassing, from the picture book that depicted Jewish people as insects or cockroaches, to the biology lesson on how species survive by fighting and defeating inferior species, to the math question of “if there are X number of Aryans and Y number of Jews in Europe today, and if the Aryans are growing at the rate of A and Jews at the rate of B, how long before the Jews take over Europe?”

Imagine arriving at this answer yourself, at the age of 12 or 13; imagine how convinced you would be then of the Nazi project; imagine if the numbers were wrong all along because, after all, this is simply a hypothetical math problem, not a political science lesson. The Nazis were confident that, if the young people were properly educated in Nazism, the Third Reich would last for a thousand years.

While I had heard scattered stories about Nazi education for a long time, I began to understand it as a powerful and incredibly systematic propaganda tool when I encountered the book Education for Death by George Ziemer as part of my research for my college dissertation.

I read the book in one sitting, morning to night, and that night I had the strangest nightmare. In this dream, I was walking down the street having finished my grocery shopping, and I noticed that across the road, two people were lined up to be shot by a policeman. In the dream, I had no reaction to this information; I simply walked past, with only a sideways glance.

It was only when I woke up the next morning that I shuddered—and, over a decade later, I still shudder remembering the blankness in my body during that dream, the ease of watching violence. That dream was my beginning of understanding the book I had just read and the power of education, the ways it can shape minds and hearts, the ways it can awaken and also numb.

Ever since, I have thought of textbooks as an aspirational document, a record of who and what a society aspires to become, for better and for worse. In the last two decades in particular, as Indian politics have become increasingly polarized, school textbooks have become an important battleground on which ideological battles are fought.

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Cover illustration by Swati Addanki.


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