Category: News

Title: What Post-WWII Schoolchildren Learned about the World

A look at the role of textbooks in shaping worldviews, global literacy, and national pride.

By Susan Douglass

Illustration from a 1960s Egyptian textbook portraying Egypt’s “march to progress”

The middle of the twentieth century was a watershed period in history for many reasons, with one of the most significant being the rise of mass education systems across the world. As Britain shed its colonies, newly independent countries with influential leaders launched efforts to educate their masses—efforts that had been held back under colonial rule. India and Egypt, under Nehru and Abdel Nasser respectively, began using government schools to strive for social integration and mold their citizens’ worldviews to enlist them in national economic development and modernization. Britain, too, launched a much-needed expansion of its secondary education system and revamped its elementary schools to meet the demands of the postwar baby boom.

My recently completed dissertation in world history and education, “Teaching the World in Three Mass Education Systems: Britain, Egypt, and India, 1950-1970,” examined the expansion of these three countries’ mass education systems. It explored the role of teaching world history and geography in forming citizens’ worldviews and contrasted the degrees to which their schools imparted knowledge of the world as a whole versus teaching the national story alone. In using as evidence both textbooks and curriculum frameworks, the research revealed that India and Egypt taught students significantly more about the world beyond their national borders, and situated their own histories within a broader regional and global context than did British schools. During the decades after 1950, pupils in the United Kingdom were exposed to a history and geography curriculum that dated back to early twentieth-century concepts of what students should know, institutionalized through university entrance exams. David Sylvester, founder of the Schools Council History Project of 1972, characterized the teaching of history in Britain as a “great tradition” whose main features and methodology were fixed by 1900 and remained unchanged for at least 70 years. Pupils’ exposure to the world was limited by the perception that British history was the most important for students to learn. Elementary students learned stories from ancient civilizations (Greek, Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Roman), and then later about British medieval and imperial history. Exposure to the world was limited, unsystematic, and skewed toward the lens of “the West and the Rest.” One 200-page world history textbook featured only a few paragraphs on India and China, and barely mentioned Africa. Information in textbooks was often dismissive of other societies’ accomplishments, elided the role of the Eastern Hemisphere in medieval trade, and generalized the European absence after the fall of Rome, ignoring the advances that took place in Asian societies during the medieval period. The most striking finding was the persistence of racially charged and culturally deterministic language and imagery in the textbooks, which could not have prepared British youngsters to live in an increasingly multicultural society as immigrants from Eastern Europe and former colonies filled post-war labor shortages, and must have been devastating to immigrant children’s social and cultural integration. Eventually, teachers led efforts to redress such regressive content but faced significant political resistance.

My research began with the premise that Britain’s colonial governance influenced the shape and content of colonial education systems, which were also influenced by the development of modern academic disciplines such as history and geography. From this starting point, my research aimed to gauge the extent of imitation vs. innovation in the history and geography textbooks produced in the education ministries of India and Egypt after independence.

Illustration from a 1960s Egyptian textbook portraying Nasser as mediator between Cold War powers

Surveying more than 100 textbooks showed that while British textbooks were clearly influential, Indian and Egyptian commissioned textbook authors had different stories to tell. British textbooks, played some role in the secondary-level humanities track in Egypt, but history and geography textbooks written by Egyptian authors specially for elementary through middle school level, in contrast, conveyed an original point of view aligned with what the Egyptian state wished to convey. These textbooks told how Egypt played a crucial dual historical role in the world—as bearer of the world’s original civilization in the Nile Valley and as a key player in the transition from classical to Islamic civilization. In the modern era, Egyptian textbooks portrayed Muhammad Ali as a nineteenth-century pioneer in the transition to modernization, and Gamal Abdel Nasser as leader of the post-colonial South and mediator between the Cold War powers due to Egypt’s leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement. Both history and geography textbooks portrayed Egypt’s leadership, not only among Arab and Muslim countries, but also among African nations in the Nile basin. Textbooks for upper elementary and middle school were particularly focused on inculcating this worldview, reflecting the government’s awareness that many pupils would not continue their education past the age of twelve or fourteen and that the best high school students would go on to pursue the ‘ilmi (science) track, limiting any further exposure to the humanities. This perhaps explains the intensity of the messaging in these texts.

Indian social studies textbook authors were tasked with supporting social integration among India’s diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic population. The authors were young, energetic academics motivated to effect change and support Indian national development. They sought to undo the distortions wrought by British narratives of Indian history, but they also wrestled with the divisive Hindu nationalist narrative of India’s history. This narrative simplistically portrayed a Hindu golden age that had been extinguished by the arrival of Islam, while the British took credit for ushering India into the modern age. Social studies textbooks commissioned by the National Center for Education Research and Training (NCERT) navigated these contentious topics and showed how India absorbed and transformed influences from outsiders and contributed to global civilization. They emphasized India as a source of desired products in world trade over millennia, the contributions of various groups to its culture over time, and the cultural sharing among Muslims and Hindus so as to portray the idea of a second golden age before British colonial rule began. Indian world history and geography textbooks covered civilizations and contemporary regions beyond India—from China to Africa to the Americas—more thoroughly than either British or Egyptian books. Finally, the Indian textbooks presented a devastating view of the effects of European imperialism and the realities of the post-colonial economic and political order for developing nations.

In the context of modern mass education systems, social studies textbooks serve the interest of the state in shaping attitudes of future citizens. As tools of social integration, they portray the national origin story. This research shows how schooling conveyed a picture of the nation’s place in the world, along with the push to advance literacy in newly independent India and Egypt. Conversely, the study illustrates the foreshortened view of the world that was presented to British schoolchildren, and shows how slowly the textbook industry in Britain responded to Britain’s changing role in the world as it shed its colonial empire, and as the nation absorbed immigrants from around the world. As an educator, I believe the study points to the need for global literacy alongside the cultivation of national pride.


Dr. Susan Douglass is a 1993 graduate of the MAAS program and the K-14 Education Outreach Coordinator at CCAS.