South Africa could end up like Zimbabwe. Hans-Joachim Löwer

What Did You Learn in School Today?

As educational budgets are slashed, private corporations fill the void by providing free textbooks on climate change and sustainability.

As educational budgets are being slashed in many European countries, public schools feel the pressure at all levels. In some school districts, the situation is so dire that schools and school boards cannot afford to pay for new teaching materials. Topics like climate change, sustainable mobility, and information technologies aren’t always covered in older textbooks, or the information is outdated. Ideally, education departments would commission new versions of the textbooks or of supplementary materials to introduce school children to some of the most relevant topics of our time. Unfortunately, budgetary constraints often render this option impossible.

Yet someone is stepping in to fill the void: In Germany, energy providers, car manufacturers, and internet companies have begun to produce educational materials and distribute them to schools, often for free. Their sales pitch: Private businesses have amassed a unique pool of knowledge from research and development that can easily be converted into educational materials. Companies also benefit because they can show themselves to be responsible actors willing to invest their profits for the betterment and for the future of society.

Undisclosed special interests

Private companies pick up the baton where the state is failing: Relevant topics are quickly (and professionally) turned into books and brochures, which are tailored specifically to the demands and needs of students. The know-how of company researchers is combined with the experience of marketing departments and funded through corporate profits.

Yet it did not take long for critics to speak out. They fear that the providers of privately funded textbooks aren’t motivated by the desire to convey useful and exciting information, but will covertly seek to lull school children with their advertising. For example, car manufacturers are unlikely to discuss a possible future without cars but will instead focus on the joys and benefits of private transportation.

This concern – that authors and providers of educational materials don’t act altruistically but instead pursue their own special interests, possibly without disclosing them to readers – is entirely justified and should not be dismissed. But the question is this: Should schools thus refrain from using these materials and rely solely on books written by independent experts? And if budget constraints or the unavailability of suitable authors rule out the latter option, should schools simply make do without textbooks?

Explore the world through reason

To the contrary! One of the most important lessons that children can learn in schools is to critically reflect on available information. We are constantly challenged to put information into context, to assess its validity and possible biases, and it’s never too early to expose children to this information economy. Critics of the use of privately funded textbooks tend to forget that students aren’t simply locked in a room and left to their own devices – they are taught how to use the materials by their teachers. When textbooks enter the classroom environment, they cease to be simple tools (for example, corporate marketing tools) and transform into means to achieve the ends of education.

The era of the Enlightenment was dominated by the belief that the world could be critically assessed through reason. The idea of educational knowledge acquisition still embraces that tradition. Students won’t learn to exercise their reasonable judgment if they are only exposed to sanitized versions of the real world without special interests and without advertising. If we want the next generation to mature into critical thinkers, it is vital to teach students about the hidden layers of information. Behind the factual content of any textbook (and not only of textbooks that are funded by private corporations), students must learn to discover the authors’ concealed agenda.

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