School book knowledge…

School books can be gems… here’s a timeline of important events, apparently. Quite a particular perspective on the world, and a particular perspective on science and inventions, where the typical case is one person (usually a man) single-handedly achieved something.

Young World 4, Activity Book, © 2015 Klett und Balmer Verlag

Like “James Watt invented the steam engine.” James Watt shares the honour with Matthew Boulton on the £50 note. For inventing the steam engine? Nope, for making “revolutionary changes to the efficiency of the steam engine”, and Boulton to “market steam engines”.

Wikipedia knows of historical precedents from the first century AD, and Thomas Savery as the first to use a steam engine commercially.

Wikipedia

I recognize that school books need to simplify and leave out details, but we can also simplify in a way that doesn’t pretend that history is the act of “great men”. A language book is maybe not the place to nitpick about stuff like whether a railway line in 1845 that ended in Switzerland should be counted, rather than the first internal line in 1847 which is mentioned, or discuss that there are other ways to count the length of World War II.

But why is there Ferdinand Magellan all on his own, who didn’t actually complete the circumnavigation, and none of the 200+ staff (some of whom actually did sail around the world)?

Hopefully, I need not say much about “1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America.” But it struck me how Columbus is greatly under-credited in history: Not only did he “discover” America (never mind indigenous peoples, never mind Norse colonization), but he can obviously see into the future (I’ve never seen him credited for that…!): when he discovered those lands, he already knew that 15 years later two German cartographers would name those lands after Amerigo Vespucci and the name will stick. ⸮⸮⸮

OK, we’ll probably want to leave irony out of school books in primary school, but can we try harder? I’m all for simplification, but perhaps a less Eurocentric one where we don’t celebrate individuals and ignore everyone else who contributed…?!

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