Professors Slam K-12 Textbooks For Failing To Promote Social Justice

REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

Ian Miles Cheong Contributor
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A team of academics led by a City University of New York professor has taken aim at K-12 textbooks for their failure to promote “social justice” in their illustrations of women and racial minorities.

According to CUNY professor Sherry Deckman and her colleagues, the textbook pictures reflect “social power dynamics” that they say are “inherently Eurocentric, male-centric, Christian-centric, heterosexual-centric,” Campus Reform reports.

The team published its findings in a paper titled “Numbers Are Not Enough” after reviewing around 1,500 images in school textbooks.

The academics report surprise at discovering that women and racial minorities were represented in numbers parallel to real-world demographic statistics, and were in some cases given over-representation since they were introduced into textbooks in the ’90s.

Nonetheless, the professors expressed dismay at the illustrations, which they argue are “superficial” and “tokenistic” because they do not challenge “social power dynamics” that reinforce a “Eurocentric” vision of society.

Campus Reform reports that Deckman is “especially worried” about how minorities are often depicted in a “celebratory” manner, in what she calls a “heroes and holidays” approach to understanding cultural diversity. She suggests that this form of inclusivity is the wrong way to go about things.

The professor, who is part of CUNY’s Social Studies Education Program, highlights depictions of a Japanese woman in traditional dress and a Mexican mariachi band as particularly problematic.

“Yet, with its uncritical tone of ‘we are all different, but the same,’ it does not explore societal power dynamics,” reads the paper, arguing that the approach is “limited in terms of addressing injustice” and fails to promote “social justice.”

“Furthermore, such depictions essentialize culture and suggest ‘some aspects of culture [are] indispensable attributes that must be shared by all people within a particular group,’ dishonoring the complexity of lived experience,” writes Deckman.

Deckman’s findings, which were co-authored by professors from Ithaca College and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, were published in the January issue of Educational Studies.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.