WOJDON, Joanna. Textbooks as Propaganda: Poland under Communist Rule: 1944-1989. Routledge, 2018. Resenha de: VAJDA, Barnabas. International Journal of Research on History Didactics, n.40, p.265-260, 2019.
How did a Communist political system, the Polish one, deal with primary school textbooks? How did it try to influence teaching and learning through Marxist political messages? How did it deliberately distort the content of all school textbooks in order to make an impact on the minds and thinking of future generations? Joanna Wojdon’s Textbooks as Propaganda. Poland under Communist Rule, 1944- 1989 gives us a thorough and detailed explanation which goes well beyond Poland’s historical experience. Even if her starting point is that ‘schools were supposed to install communist ideology and a positive attitude toward the Soviet Union’ (p. 140), in fact, I am convinced that the lessons we can learn from this book stretch far beyond the post-Communist countries.
Certainly, we have already known many things. In fact, there is no need to prove that communist regimes wanted schools to indoctrinate young people even from the very first grades. And Joanna Wojdon’s book gives us a substantial amount of proof that neither the Polish nor other Eastern European communist regimes even tried to hide their intentions. On the contrary, they openly declared their ideological goals. She rightly touches upon a general rule as an overall context for communist textbooks: ‘The term “doing a textbook” was coined to characterize the flow of many lessons’, i.e.
to follow the book step by step, and she reaches an extremely important conclusion that ‘textbooks, not curricula, were what teachers and pupils actually “did”’ (p. 1).
It has also long been known that Eastern European communist school systems used to have a significant amount of teaching content in textbooks inserted purely for political reasons. Anybody with just the slightest experience form those pre-1989 years could remember the achievements of the Soviet natural sciences and especially space research, the presentation of workers’ achievements of those times – and not only in history textbooks! And this is one of the features that places Joanna Wojdon’s book on the top of our bookshelves, i.e. ‘She explores the ways in which propaganda was incorporated into each school subject, including mathematics, science, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, history, Polish language instructions, foreign language instructions, art education, music, civic education, defense training, physical education, and practical technical training.’ (p. i) Joanna Wojdon has rightly chosen primary textbooks as the source and subject of her research since she reconstructs the universal message of the communist regime aimed at ‘the youngest citizens’ who as the youngest readers are vulnerable and ‘therefore more susceptible to propaganda messages’ (p. 2). The author who is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wroclaw, Poland, and who follows in the steps of her earlier book The World of Reading Primers: The Image of Reality in Reading Instruction Textbooks of the Soviet Bloc’(2015), nicely explores the most significant ideological strategy of the times, the all-present and omnipotent workers’ perspective which used to be the foundation of mass-oriented communist indoctrination. This one-sided world view, where the imaginative ‘worker’ was the alpha and the omega of all arguments, produced for instance ‘in the history of the Roman Empire the reason for its collapse was reduced to, the characteristics of its social classes and the rebellions of its slaves’ (p. 111).
Since Joanna Wojdon has researched almost all Polish textbooks of the selected time period (from 1944 to 1989), we can be curious to know if there was a special ideological stress in history textbooks? There certainly was. I regard as extremely fascinating how the author explores the great variety of distortions and biases in the books surveyed. Completely distorted topics such as ‘the imperialist First World War’ (p. 111) and the fact that WW I was dealt with from the universal perspective of the constant struggle of the working class rather than from the Polish national(ist) view, perfectly fits into a general pattern typical of most Eastern European communist textbooks. It is no surprise that in these textbooks, often written from the Soviet point of view (p. 118), little attention was paid to Polish national(istic) ideology (p. 114). More precisely, the nationalist layer in the textbooks was intentionally selective. One only needs to look at the fact that while on the one hand the Polish textbook omitted any trends of Russification, on the other hand they massively stress Germanization. But the most interesting discovery by Joanna Wojdon is the constant appearance of pictures of the enemy in communist Poland. It was ‘the Christian church as general, and Jesuits in particular, as exploiters of the workers’ society’ and as stubborn representatives of ‘retrograde conservativism’ (p. 115).
To measure the quality of propaganda is not an easy task, and to research the specific means and methods of propaganda in school textbooks is a huge scientific challenge. Many propaganda tricks are hidden in the language. Selective language (and branding) for national affiliation of some historical personalities was typical. It concerned for instance Charles Darwin as a ‘famous English biologist’, Dmitri Mendeleev as a ‘great Russian chemist’, and Wilhelm C. Roentgen who was left without a nationality (p. 117).
It is even more difficult to spot and identify latent language structures, i.e. deliberate omissions, or as I call them, the ‘structures of silence’. Let us be no naive, language tricks happened on purpose, deliberately and in a systematic way (p. 140). In Polish textbooks researched by Joanna Wojdon there are many well-known omissions, such as the system of Gulags or the Katyn massacre, eastern borders of Poland, as well as dozens of other ‘sensitive’ issues. As the author puts is: ‘The textbooks’ narratives […] did leave out certain historical facts, figures, processes and phenomena’ (p. 108). The same tendency to deliberate omission is true for the imagological apparatus. As a result one would rarely see church buildings as illustrations is many Eastern European textbooks. And I think that all these ‘structures of silence’ contribute to the general amnesia and harmful silence about social and historical problems.
Probably the greatest challenge for any researcher identifying the ideological burden in a history textbook is of a semiotic character, as the author puts it, ‘propaganda motives, topics and techniques intertwined in the text’ (p. 119). In other words, spotting covert messages, and especially those which are hidden not in the text but in the didactical apparatus (questions, tasks, photo captions, etc.) of the textbooks, that make both descriptive text and didactical apparatus almost cognitively indigestible. In this field Joanna Wojdon rightly states that in methodological terms, Polish communist ‘textbooks made clear judgements on everything from the past, and left children with no doubts or ambiguity’ (p. 109). It may sound weird but it is my own experience that the Marxist ideological burden was palpable in the text, nevertheless it is very, very difficult to prove it scientifically. And yet, it was a pre-calculated effect which contradicted the true nature of history as a science because for professional history ‘either – or’ situations, disquieting questions and constant doubts are fundamental. What can we say about a school textbook which entirely switches off critical thinking or multiperspectivity over people and their deeds in the past, and compels a one-sided worldview? No contradictory opinions were allowed (p. 143) in order to change societal opinion en masse, and in order to attempt to change cognitive structures from where divergent thinking is excluded (p. 143).
Since the time period selected by Joanna Wojdon is the era of the Cold War, it is worth asking how did these textbooks handle the superpower rivalry? To what extent did Polish communist textbooks present anti-Western orientation or indoctrination? What about anti- Americanism? As the author states, ‘The world as presented in geography textbooks was thus bipolar, black and white. It was an arena of battle between capitalism and socialism’ (p. 78), and there is no doubt that ridiculous comparisons between the USA and the USSR were present: ‘What monstrous amounts of pollution New York, Chicago and Los Angeles must produce each year!’ versus ‘On the wide and clean streets of Moscow there is much traffic at all hours of the day’ (p. 76). And this leads us to a contemporary question regarding current East-West cultural tensions. Was the Communist ideology in the textbooks intentionally anti-Western? If it was, has it contributed to the tensions that can be observed between current Western and Eastern Europe? Joanna Wojdon’s book is a very valuable contribution to general and international textbook research, reaching well beyond the Polish experience. In fact, she gives us a clear list of typology of the specific means of ideological indoctrination: Marxism, socialism, enemies of the system, presentist interpretations, politechnization, etc. (These are Joanna Wojdon’s expressions from pages 109-110.) I would be curious to know if these are common Eastern European patterns? There are surely subtle similarities that strongly offer themselves for international comparative textbook research. There is evidently much to offer for Eastern European readers, especially for those who are engaged in comparative analysis of history textbooks. Giving just one example: On the level of phraseology, for instance, in Poland the abbreviations ‘Before Christ’ and ‘Anno Domini’ were replaced with ‘before our era’ and ‘of our era’. The same kind of de-Christianized terminology in communist Czechoslovakia used ‘before’ and ‘after our time’. Joanna Wojdon’s typology is surely a useful ‘toolbox’ for coming-soon textbook researchers. Clearly the author is well aware of less of those textbooks research involving Tatyana Tsyrlina-Spady & Alan Stoskopf (2017), Milan Olejník (2017), Karina Korostelina (2009), Ibolya Nagy Szamborovszkyné (2013a, 2013b) and others, who have produced very valuable books and papers on textbook propaganda in the Soviet Union and its political orbit.
Joanna Wojdon’s book ends with a short and poignant Conclusion (p. 140-148) in which she raises one of the most neglected section of textbook research, i.e. ‘the question of the effectiveness of textbook propaganda is most problematic’ (p. 145). For many pupils textbooks are ‘boring’; formal schooling is not omnipotent; and education has never been only limited to schools. What’s more, we know that quite a lot of contemporary teachers did refuse to follow senseless ‘ideological rules’ (p. 147), and this kind of disobedience has had a rather strong impact on many pupils – as it is shown in some rare interview based research materials. If one considers the deep and general social apathy in Soviet bloc countries in the 1970s and 1980s (p. 145) (definitively in Czechoslovakia and Hungary), the failure of overwhelming indoctrination at schools seems to be quite clear.
There might be no doubt that the communist school textbook system, with its no-choice and competition-free textbook regime, all around Eastern Europe, was an integral part of a carefully designed social engineering system. Similar propaganda content and similar patterns ‘can be observed in other countries of the Soviet Bloc’ (p.
143) which leads us to a very contemporary problem: How should we consider those European countries where the state is the major (sometimes exclusive) sponsor of school textbooks; where there is a limited (if not entirely closed) textbook market; and where the teachers’ choice is limited to the one and only available textbook? And I think Joanna Wojdon knows this exactly. For in places she winks at us when she writes that ‘school history is notorious for being used as a tool of indoctrination, not only in Poland and not only under Communism’ (p. 108).
At least one extremely illuminating message of Joanna Wojdon’s book is clear: Democratic school systems have to maintain the power of schools (in fact, teachers) to choose their textbooks because this is the only real and significant professional force in and around schools that can compensate for any ideological push that may occur from time to time.
Korostelina, K. (2009) ‘Defining National Identities – The Role of History Education in Russia and Ukraine’, Lecture at Woodrow Wilson Institute, Washington, D.C., 9.02.2009.
Olejník, M. (2017) Establishment of communist regime in Czechoslovakia and an impact upon its education system, Košice: Centrum spoločenských a psychologických vied SAV, Spoočenskovedný ústav Košice.
Szamborovszkyné Nagy, I. (2013a) Oktatáspoitika és történelemtanítás a Szovjetunióban és Ukrajnában. I. rész, Szovjetunió 1945-1991 [Education policy and history teaching in the Soviet Union and Ukraine. Part 1., The Soviet Union 1945-1991], Ungvár: Líra Poligráfcentrum.
Szamborovszkyné, Nagy, I. (2013b) Oktatáspoitika és történelemtanítás a Szovjetunióban és Ukrajnában. II. rész, Ukrajna 1990-2010 [Education policy and history teaching in the Soviet Union and Ukraine. Part 2, Ukraine 1990-2010], Ungvár: Líra Poligráfcentrum.
Tsyrlina-Spady, T. & Stoskopf, A. (2017) ‘Russian History Textbooks in the Putin Era: Heroic Leaders Demand Loyal Citizens’, in: J. Zajda, T. Tsyrlina- Spady & M. Lovornet (eds) Globalisation and Historiography of National Leaders: Globalisation, Comparative Education and Policy Research, Dordrecht: Springer, 15-33.