[LETTERS to the editor]The awesome responsibility of teachersTeachers have the ability to shape students’ minds. That’s a tremendous responsibility, a powerful role. The textbooks that are provided for you or that you choose will be your lamp to light your way. Those textbooks, as well, have a tremendous importance in enlightening students. And, just like history shouldn’t be distorted, textbooks should not be biased. Our children’s minds need light that shines brilliant and direct. If the light is off, if it is filtered or if it’s dim, it will not illuminate our children’s path.
Without light, we cannot see. Likewise, if textbooks omit groups of people, we will not know their contribution or value. Women, in particular, are often omitted from books, or their experience is trivialized. Often, women’s contributions to scholarship, history and technology, in particular, are absent. We are left with textbooks that highlight only men’s contribution to civilization despite the fact that women have also participated and contributed. This creates an unbalanced viewpoint and makes women’s lives invisible. In China, there is an expression: Women hold up half the sky. However, in reality, in many of today’s countries, women’s work remains largely invisible and unacknowledged. Despite the fact that women do two-thirds of the world’s work, textbook discussions of labor often omit their contribution.
If the light is filtered, we will see only what we are directed to see. The most common form of bias is stereotyping. Stereotypes often portray men as active, assertive and curious. Women are dependable, silent and obedient. At their worst, stereotypes describe men as dominant and dangerous and women as pretty and brainless. The words murderer, gangster, terrorist or criminal most often refer to males. The words parent, secretary, or cook most often represent females. These stereotypical roles mask the reality of the human race. Women have, in fact, been bank robbers, spies, generals and knights. Conversely, men have been parents, nurses and librarians.
To constantly represent a gender in a given role is a disservice to students. Children are developing not only their minds but also their identities, including what it is to be male or female. To so narrowly define their roles limits their possibilities and their futures, which in turn, limits society. The stereotypes we provide are like expectations that, in time, become fulfilled. Are we dictating that women will not participate in society regardless, that their fate is intertwined with that of men? Will we not allow them to participate in making the laws that affect them as citizens? Will we hinder their role in protecting the environment while subjecting them to its detriments? Are we expecting men to be aggressive and to fill our prisons? Are we helping limit their fulfillment in raising a family?
When the light is dim, it is difficult to see clearly. Textbooks have a history of telling half a tale. Sometimes books provide only one interpretation of an issue or situation. For example, a textbook might state, “Women were given the right to vote.” This simplified language obscures the decades of work, sacrifice and physical and verbal abuse suffered by women to gain suffrage.
We should not underestimate the power and influence of teachers and textbooks. If we provide our children with light that is off, filtered, dim or otherwise distorted or colored, we will be harming the minds of future generations. In order to overcome bias, we must strive to include a fair and balanced representation of people. We must use gender-neutral language. We must acknowledge the value and contribution of all people. All students, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or any other characteristic, deserve nothing less than be treated with respect and fairly represented in textbooks. They need to view themselves as respectful and dignified if they are to grow into respectful and dignified adults. To sanction bias in any shape or form in education places us where we do not want to be: in the darkness of ignorance.
by Joan Dawson