The portrayal of Westerners and others in Finnish school textbooks

Dr. Pia Mikander, University of Helsinki

My research focuses on the worldview constructed in Finnish and Swedish history, social studies and geography textbooks in Finland. I have approached the textbooks from a postcolonial perspective. This means a focus on the descriptions of global power relations, more explicitly the descriptions of “Westerners” and “others.”

Postcolonial scholars have shown that education has long been Eurocentric, particularly in school subjects such as history and geography. They have also pointed out that the outcomes of colonialism have both epistemological and material aspects. Learning about the world, as consisting of superior Westerners and inferior others, has gone hand in hand with aspiring for its domination. Today, the world no longer consists of colonial powers and colonies; however, researchers have suggested that globalization can be seen as ongoing colonialism. This has implications for education.

School textbooks reflect the dominant values of a society. Studying them is a way of clarifying how society constructs what is normal, suitable and ideal. The textbooks researched for this study include the history, social studies and geography textbooks (years 5-9) printed between 2005 and 2010 by all major Finnish textbook publishers. They were based on the 2004 curriculum, which states that the underlying values of basic education include human rights, equality and democracy.

Meanwhile, research shows that prejudiced and racist attitudes are prevalent and increasing among young people in schools in Finland. This suggests that there is a particular need to study the descriptions of Westerners and non-Westerners in the textbooks. The purpose of this research is to explore discourses in history, social studies and geography textbooks, particularly concerning the construction of the concept of the West and its relation to the rest of the world.

The research question is: How do the textbooks construct an understanding of the West and Western people as superior to others? Some relevant analytical concepts from Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory analysis have been used in the research. Based on these concepts, the textbook texts were organized in order to find central themes and to explore discourses. Laclau’s and Mouffe’s ontological assumptions, including the idea that what is considered objective can be seen as ideological, have also been important for the analysis.

The results of the research show how the hegemony of a superior West is depicted in different ways. This includes descriptions of historical events as well as current global relations. While most of the old stereotypes about non-Westerners have begun to vanish from the textbooks, there are other statements that work to strengthen the image of the West as superior to others. Western violence is hidden or justified in past as well as current conflicts. Values such as democracy and human rights are considered essentially Western.

The articles also show how hegemony can work to make ideological claims into common sense. This includes subtle descriptions of ideological choices presented as neutral, even though they involve assumptions that clash with the principles of human rights and democracy. Examples of phenomena that are portrayed as neutral include the control of non-Westerners’ migration, non-Western populations and a non-challenging attitude towards the structures of global inequality.