Diversity in school textbooks – Finally, a draft law

by Marzia Camarda

The theme periodically returns to the fore: school textbooks still contain many stereotypes, both in terms of the language used and the exercises and models presented, in terms of general balance, and even in their iconographic representation.

Not only that: women’s contributions to various disciplines, to knowledge and progress, are still greatly under-represented; and too often, a figure who is difficult to ignore is highlighted in a special ‘box’, as one would do with an exceptional case, instead of being integrated into the general flow of the discussion. It is a well-intentioned gesture but the result achieves the opposite result. Consequently, it is not only the contributions of women of letters and philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, historians and artists who were women that is often ignored; above all, it perpetuates the idea that science, for example, is a man’s world and that women, generally speaking, cannot and should not contribute fully to advancing the arts and sciences.

Publishers are aware of this: so much so that over 20 years ago they drafted a document, the ‘Polite’, in which they committed themselves (in agreement with the state) to introducing gender equality into textbooks. And for several years, in fact, attempts have been made to apply them, but the results, as documented for example by the scholar Irene Biemmi’s studies, do not correspond to the effort made; so much so that, according to Biemmi, the books that adopted the ‘Polite’ and those that did not had exactly the same biases.

In spite of good will and commitment, therefore, and the passing of time, too little has changed. The reasons for this difficulty in achieving fair representation are not entirely attributable to publishers: in Italy 1.5 million pages are published every year, a number that is as necessary as it is exorbitant; and thousands of editors contribute to reviewing these pages, most of whom are not in-house and therefore do not have access to training: and it is evident that, on a topic like this – in which it is necessary to deconstruct certain models before adopting new ones – training is indispensable and one cannot simply refer generically to guidelines without specific training (which, moreover, also applies to teachers).

Some individual publishers in recent times have implemented a revision process for their textbooks, with meritorious results, but it is clear that relying on individual intentions is not enough and that, consequently, the solution must be to intervene at a systemic level to ensure that the canons are re-discussed and updated, by including not only gender equality, among other things, but all the diversities that are contained and described in Making textbook content inclusive: a focus on religion, gender and culture produced by UNESCO in 2017, a document to which this law makes explicit reference.

These stimuli from international institutions are not new: on several occasions, in recent decades, Italy has signed agreements in which it undertakes to change educational schemes that favour some categories over others and to remove the causes of these inequalities.

The draft bill presented in July of this year and signed by the honourable Fusacchia, Lattanzio, Muroni, Palazzotto, Quartapelle, Boldrini, Ciampi and Carbonaro has the objective of supporting publishers in concretely resolving the critical issues that prevent the application of fair criteria to all citizens. The law therefore provides for an observatory, in which reference guidelines will be drawn up, but above all it provides for training for editors and teachers: a transmission of skills which, by bringing together the actors involved in education, will certainly improve overall results.

A law like this, however, is not only useful for those who, today, are unfortunately still under-represented: it is a (potentially precocious) fundamental educational tool that helps all of us to measure ourselves against the multiplicity of realities that surround us. It is necessary and urgent to invest time, skills and energy into avoiding future situations in which we again find ourselves having to manage a world in which part of the population, due to preconceptions, is unable to make the most of their opportunities and skills, which would be useful to the whole community.

Moreover, the need to have more balanced textbooks in the sense stated above is also felt by teachers, who have organised themselves into associations (such as that of Indici paritari, which has collected over 2200 signatures from teachers who request that the canons of the disciplines be rebalanced); but there are many other associations and groups that ask that school texts and, more generally, schools, adapt to a society which – in reality – has already undergone profound change.

We cannot pretend that our sons’ and daughters’ future fulfilment, their ability to emerge into an increasingly uncertain world and their constructive contribution to society and progress do not pass through quality education and the harmonious realisation of the talents of each and every one of these children. 

We also have an enormous responsibility towards the generations to whom we are parents, teachers and educators in general, because it is clear that the health of a country depends on whether it can build opportunities and social equity.

Therefore it is necessary for the constitutional criteria to be applied that recognise every citizen’s ‘equal social dignity […] without distinctions regarding sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions.’ We cannot ignore that school is the first (and perhaps the only) true instrument of social mobility and, as Calamandrei argued, ‘the central organ of democracy […] because it alone can help create people worthy of being chosen, from all walks of life’ and, I would add, can represent a society to which everyone feels proud to belong.

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