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The New Asia and American Education

by John Robbins - 1961

In today's world, every citizen of the United States needs a background of information on the world. The better educated our voters are on the problems of Asia, the more ration¬ally they can be expected to vote on is¬sues pertaining to Asia. The greater the background of our soldiers on world af¬fairs, the greater will be their interest in defending our rights.

Surely there are few Americans today who would argue with the proposition that our high school students should learn more than they have in the past about Asia. Laymen and teachers can agree that Asia is a great big important part of the world, newly freed from colonialism, ripe for change, and loaded with signifi­cance for every American boy and girl. Just how this popular proposition might be implemented—whether by add­ing more courses to the curriculum or by cutting down on driving lessons and classes in marriage adjustment—is not my present subject. I happen to be neither a teacher nor a student of the problems of education. I am a sometime foreign corre­spondent and a writer on the problems of Asia—problems in which I have a deep and abiding interest. I recently set out to satisfy my curiosity as to what those stu­dent who do study about Asia learn about Asia. Granted that far too small a propor­tion of our junior high school and high school students are exposed to courses on world history and economic geography, of those who do receive such an expo­sure, what does the Asian portion consist of? Do they learn—as I did in the only geography course I ever took which in­cluded Asia—that the Chinese eat rice and that the Japanese fly kites, or, in his­tory courses, that Dewey won the battle of Manila Bay? Or are they exposed to the realities of the new Asia and, if so, to what degree?

As a simple way to satisfy my curios­ity, I consulted the textbooks. I chose four textbooks—two geographies (2, 4) and two histories (1, 3)—of a junior high or high school level, recommended by a librarian, and I made a fairly comprehen­sive study of their treatment of Asia as a subject.

Surely no one, on the basis of such a limited sample, would pretend to arrive at scientific results. I have formed, how­ever, on the basis of my reading, certain broad subjective conclusions which may have some general significance for Amer­ican education as it pertains to Asia. My impressions are these three:

1. The proportion of space in these books devoted to considerations of Asia seems adequate. Any geography or history-student who pays a reasonable amount of attention to what goes on in his text­book and his classroom gets consider­able emphasis on Asia.

2. The books tend to deal lightly with or to gloss over the problems which seem to me to be central to any study of Asia—poverty, hunger, political insta­bility, economic weakness, vulnerabil­ity to Communism, and—related to all of these and perhaps most important of all—the dangers inherent in the pop­ulation explosion in Asia.

3. The net effect of the books' discussions of Asia is to give an impression of a hopeful future, in which, as though impelled by a categorical imperative, Asians will inevitably forge their way to progress, prosperity, and democ­racy.

The Asian Region

Technically, Asia extends from the Dardanelles to the Bering Strait. Two sec­tions of the continent, however—Siberia and the Middle East—have their own special problems, deserving and requiring special consideration. It is the remainder of Asia to which I wish to restrict my dis­cussion: the broad belt running from Afghanistan on the west through Paki­stan and India, dipping down into South­east Asia, and on through China and Japan. This belt stretches five thousand miles from end to end. It contains about one-sixth of the world's land, on which live slightly more than half of the world's nearly three billion inhabitants. The area includes such a wide diversity of lands (hot and cold, jungle and desert, moun­tain and archipelago) and peoples (light-skinned and dark; Aryan, Malay, and Mongol; Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian) that it may seem highly il­logical to classify it as one region, a unified or homogeneous whole.

In economic affairs, however, there is a remarkable sameness throughout the area. Country after country follows the same economic pattern. Except for in­dustrial Japan, the economy of the re­gion is based overwhelmingly on the land. More than seven out of every ten persons owe their livelihood to some form of farming. Again with the excep­tion of Japan, each of the countries falls into the classification of "underdevel­oped." Third, each of the countries is densely populated in relation to its arable land and its resources. In other words, throughout the area the vast majority of the people are desperately poor.

Because these three factors give a basis for comparing conditions, the United Nations groups the countries of the whole area together for economic affairs. The study of the economy of the region is the responsibility of one U.N. agency, the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East. ecafe does not apply itself to the problems of Siberia and the Mid­dle East. It is with the ecafe region, and with American education in relation to the ecafe region, that I have concerned myself. For the sake of simplicity, I shall refer to the region by the shorthand term, "Asia."

Space in the Texts

Whether by coincidence or by design, each of the four textbooks which I "studied" devotes somewhere around nine or ten per cent of its space to Asia. A page count of the two history books comes up with an exact ten per cent fig­ure. One of the geographies (2) is slightly-over, with eleven per cent. The other (4) is somewhat less, with seven per cent.

A confirmed Asiophile may insist that ten per cent is too small a share of a his­tory or geography course to cover the subject of half the world's people and one-sixth of the world's land. I myself believe it would be an oversimplification to equate population or space ratios di­rectly with space in a book or with time in a course of studies.

In the case of both geography and his­tory, there is good reason to devote a high proportion of time and effort to those phases of the subject which have some direct meaning to a student. To an American high school student, the land around him is what he sees, what he visits, what he reads about, and what he needs to learn most about. It is in an American environment that he will live and earn his living. The strange and for­eign is important and is of some interest because it is strange and foreign, but few Americans have a need in the course of their lives for a detailed knowledge of Asian geography. By the same token, to an American student American history, the story of events in Europe, and the whole stream of development of the Judaeo-Hellenistic culture have more relevance than the history of Asia, how­ever interestingly it is portrayed. His own ancestors marched with Grant and Washington, stood with Henry V at Agincourt, or did battle with Scipio against the African elephants. Viewed objectively, the ideal of Indian unity symbolized by Asoka may have an im­portance in the world today equal to that of the ideal of European unity sym­bolized by Charlemagne. But few young Americans can identify themselves with Asoka's charioteers in the way they can with Roland and Oliver.

Exotic though Asia is, its history and its geography are hard to present in in­teresting terms. In Europe, a description of the 300 miles of the Rhine Valley can carry a student from the Alps past the hop fields of Alsace, the Black Forest, the vineyard country and the castellated hills, to the industrial cities of the Ruhr and finally to the lowlands, reclaimed from the sea. The Ganges Valley is one long succession of rice fields. Once a writer has discussed one rice field, he has for practical purposes discussed them all. The sameness of rice paddies, of jungles, and of barren mountains and deserts limits the space which a writer on the geography of Asia can usefully employ. Asian history, too, is difficult to present in a meaningful fashion. Some of the great Asian empires, such as that of the Khmers around Angkor, withered and died, and from the point of view of the stream of history, lost all meaning. There are no Magna Chartas in Asian history, no running conflicts between emperors and popes with a modern relevance to a student. Asian history is cyclical. How many experts on Asia can themselves dis­tinguish clearly among the dozen Chinese dynasties? There certainly is no thread of progress to trace through the centuries. In many epochs, there isn't even a no­ticeable change to report.

For all these reasons, it seems to me that the writers of the four textbooks devoted a fair share of their space to Asia. This is especially so when one takes into account that some space in each book had to be assigned, not to any one given area, but to the world as a whole. The ten per cent seems to me an ade­quate proportion.

And within the space they chose to devote to Asian affairs, the authors, it must be said, maintain a praiseworthy ac­curacy. Asia and its history are not so well known to most Americans as the nearer continents are, and writers on this unfamiliar subject have a regrettable tendency to commit bloopers. Such er­rors are pardonable, but in these four books there are no notable factual mis­takes to pardon. The closest that a major inaccuracy came to the borders of the ecafe region was a statement by Pack­ard, Overton, and Wood (4, p. 417), crediting the British government as one of the main sources of financial support for the Saudi Arabian government. The statement has the appearance not of hav­ing been written in error, but of having lasted through more than a decade of fresh editions without being edited.

As to actual fact, then, it is difficult to fault the writers of these four textbooks. My criticism of their products lies in the field of emphasis. I don't argue with what they have said, but rather with what they have chosen not to say.

Poverty Omitted

I might note in passing as one failure of each of the four books an almost com­plete absence of recognition of the cul­tural and aesthetic traditions of Asia. I must, however, admit to doubts as to whether the normal American high school student would be impressed by the subtleties of Hinayanistic Buddhism, the beauty of Japanese calligraphy, or even the classical perfection of the Taj Mahal, one of the few man-made sights in the world which surpasses the most extravagant advance billing. If I were writing a textbook about Asian history or geography, I, too, would probably soft pedal the aesthetics. It would be markedly unfair of me, therefore, to complain of this lack in the books in question.

The real element which I found seriously missing was the sense of grinding poverty that pervades Asia. True, the word "poverty" crops up frequently. The authors occasionally stipulate that Asians are poor. But except in rare in­stances, it seems to me, a young reader would have difficulty in appreciating just what "poor" means in Asia. We have poor Americans, too, and the fathers of many of the high school students taking these history or geography courses prob­ably talk at home about how poor the family is: They can't afford a new car this year. In Asia, poverty means back-breaking labor and biting hunger, even starvation. Millions of Asians subsist on a nutrition level roughly equal to what Hitler offered the inmates of his concen­tration camps. The dirt, the disease, and the ignorance to be found universally in Asia, in the cities as well as in the vil­lages, are incredible to a well fed Ameri­can. Why should we hide the existence of this state of affairs from our young? Yet read this description of Calcutta, from Kolevzon and Heine:

Calcutta, with a population of more than 2,550,000 (1951), is in the richest and most thickly populated part of north­ern India. The city is on the delta of the Ganges River. One-third of India's for­eign trade passes through Calcutta's mod­ern harbor. Three railroads join it with other parts of India. It is the world's larg­est jute manufacturing center. (2).

The richest part of northern India! What sort of picture does this connote of Bengal, a state perennially only a mon­soon's width away from famine? Or what sort of picture of filthy Calcutta, jam-packed with humanity, its sidewalks crowded at night with the charpoys of homeless men, forced to sleep in the streets? Reading of "the world's largest jute manufacturing center," would an American student suspect that those an­cient mills along the banks of theHooghly are as dark, as dreary, and as dangerous as factories out of Dickens?

This is not merely an isolated example of a collection of words that might tend to create a false impression in a student's mind of the facts of life in Asia. After paying lip service to the existence of poverty, each of the writers goes on to use descriptive phrases which indicate that Asia is a colorful, exotic part of the world, where the soil is fertile and the natives are content with their lot.

"The Riches of the East," Kolevzon and Heine entitle one of their sections. "Why was Columbus so interested in finding a new route to the Far East? It was because Europeans of his time wanted the silks, spices, and jewels which came from this region. Today the world still depends on the Far East for these commodities."

Is this what we want our young people to think of Asia—a great exporter of luxury goods for our use? Actually, the three items which the writers cite are representative of three important reasons why Asia has been growing steadily poorer instead of richer since World War II. The world demand for Asian silk has been seriously cut by the emer­gence of new synthetic fabrics, princi­pally nylon. Turbulent conditions in such spice-growing areas as Java have opened world markets to new competi­tive sources. And Asian producers of emeralds, sapphires, and rubies have not only begun to face the competition of synthetic jewels (particularly in indus­trial uses) but have also come face to face with the prospect of a dried-up source of supply, as in the case of the ruby mines of Mogok in central Burma.

Even more than the other writers, Packard, Overton, and Wood (4) tend to portray Asia as a peaceful, rural haven, where the peasants produce enough from the fertile soil to satisfy their elemental needs. For example:

This grain (rice) yields enormous re­turns in this warm, moist climate on the level flood plains and river deltas, which are admirably suited to its growth. India and Burma in past years exported together more rice than any other country . . .

Recently the only countries reported as producing more wheat than India were Soviet Russia, the United States, Canada, and China. Wheat of India first found markets in Great Britain and other Euro­pean countries soon after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Karachi in Paki­stan is the leading port of the wheat-growing region.1

Since time immemorial the Chinese have been a farming people, lovers of "the good earth". . . . Rice is the staple food of southern and central China where the warm, moist climate favors its growth. . . . On the farms are also raised large flocks of poultry which produce so many eggs that China has been the greatest ex­porter of frozen and powdered eggs in the world. ... So much food is produced on China's farms that in spite of its great population, except when floods destroy the crops, it is almost able to feed its own people. . . . Pork, eggs, chickens, and fish supply the proteins and fats needed in the people's diet, and they consume enormous quantities with their rice.

Ah, happy, happy land!

The Question of Progress

The two history books give much more recognition to the poverty of Asia than do the geographies. In fact, both books deserve credit for a realistic pres­entation of the facts as they existed at the end of World War II. A student reading either text (1,3) should have a fair idea of developments up to the end of the co­lonial era: the effects of European influ­ence on India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan; the anti-European tension; the economic backwardness, and the desire for material progress. It is in their dis­cussions of the most recent period of his­tory that, in my opinion, their emphasis goes astray.

"India is progressing toward a higher standard of living," reads a chapter head­ing in Boak's volume. And, among the geographies, Kolevzon and Heine lead off a discussion of the future with this sentence: "The peoples of the Far East have made rapid progress in the last few years."

It's true that all the writers go on to cite problems which lie ahead. But their emphasis is on the progress that has been made and that is being made. It strikes me that the American student is being deluded by the emphasis on the progress rather than the problems.

There is serious question whether Asia has been or is making progress, either material, or, if you will, political. Japan, yes. Japan today, despite the widely publicized discontent that boiled over into the Tokyo riots this last sum­mer, is more prosperous than ever be­fore. But India? It's really too soon to say. One can hope, but one can't be sure. The First Five Year Plan scored some solid successes in food production and especially in industrial production. The Second Five Year Plan has gone astray for lack of capital to finance the am­bitious projects. If there is progress in India, it is slow, and every step of the way is a bitter battle. No American youngster should be taught that progress in India is inevitable. One year without the monsoon rains can set India back by a larger step than its planners can hope to move it forward in two of the best of years.

Pakistan? What was once a food ex­porting area now depends on imports for its very life. Pakistan's effort to at­tain a quick and easy democracy failed, and an authoritarian government has taken over. Is this progress? In Indonesia, the expulsion of the Dutch has once again thrown the economy into turmoil. Politi­cally, Sukarno has just banned the two leading democratic political parties and given a boost to the Communists and their allies. Is this progress? In the rest of Southeast Asia, we can discern hope­ful signs in Malaya and Burma, but they are offset by disturbances in Laos, Cam­bodia, and South Vietnam. Thailand, Ceylon, and the Philippines barely hold their own. As for China, who wishes to label the radical developments in that massive nation as "progress"?

In short, to use the word "progress" when teaching the facts about Asia is to misinform and mislead the student. Surely, Asians are hoping for progress, and the rest of the Free World shares their hope. But Asians, like people in the Red Queen's land behind the looking glass, must run as hard as they can merely to stay in the same place. During the past fifty years, while Westerners have been making steady economic prog­ress, Asians have been standing still. Few Asians today are enjoying a higher stand­ard of living than were their grandpar­ents when the century was new. Many of them have been reduced to an even lower standard of living than that of their forefathers. Almost universally in Asia the living standard is a miserable, barely marginal existence which shows no signs of improving.

The problems that face Asia are le­gion—ignorance, lack of capital, disease, low standards of nutrition, low levels of energy, lack of natural resources, low levels of honesty in public service, poor communications, shortages of teachers, shortages of skills, and a host of others. But two problems above all seem to be central to the future of Asia, and they receive relatively short shrift in these textbooks. One is the threat of Commu­nism. The other is the population explo­sion.

Population Pressures

All four of the books mention the growth of population in Asia as a factor to be considered. One (1) even includes an excellent chart by R. M. Chapin, Jr., the Time cartographer, showing the rapid growth of the world's population in re­cent years. But each textbook seems to skirt the problem of population as pe­ripheral rather than central to the future of Asia.

I must admit to prejudice. Demog­raphy is a personal interest of mine. Population growth is my own King Charles's head. If I were writing a text­book about Asian history or geography, the fascinating story of population changes would be the central theme around which I would build every other subject—the cycles of the pre-colonial years, the impact of the Western world, the centuries of peace and prosperity, the coming of Western hygiene and sanitation, the new crops and industries, the crowding of the land, the growing discontent as a factor in the new na­tionalism, all leading up to the turmoil that exists today and the disintegration that seems to face us tomorrow. I can't demand that other writers approach his­tory or geography from the same view­point as mine. I do believe that any writer of a textbook on Asia owes it to his students to present the facts of the population explosion explicitly and thor­oughly, and to relate population growth to the other events he discusses.

Why is there so little progress toward a higher standard of living? Becauseevery time the Asian land is made to pro­duce an extra grain of rice, an additional empty mouth stands ready to consume it. The population of Asia is growing stead­ily at a rate estimated to be around 1.7 per cent a year. This growth is no faster than the current world-wide rate, nor than the rate in the United States itself. But in Asia, each additional human being is added to an already seriously over­crowded land. There is little industry in Asia, and Asians must depend on the soil. Yet if all the arable land in Asia were divided, each Asian would receive as his share slightly under one acre! And most of the land that could possibly be farmed in Asia is already being farmed. There are few reserves for expansion.

Mazour and Peoples, (3), discussing the work of the specialized un agencies in India, tell of the clearing of a tract of new land by the fao, the reduction of the malaria rate in the area by the who, and the establishment of a mother-and-child health program by unicef. "A whole new region had been rendered produc­tive," they conclude, "and so a step has been taken to lower the starvation rate of India." They neglect to point out that within a few years, inexorably, the popu­lation subsisting on this newly won land will grow to a point at which it, too, will be faced with the threat of starva­tion. Every health program has its hope­ful side, but it carries with it a backlash of tremendous potential effect.

American students, I believe, deserve to know the facts about this frightening development in Asia. By the time to­day's 15-year-old is ready to vote, Asia will have increased in population by some 150,000,000—an increase of about the total size of the United States in 1950, when he was five years old. By the time the student is 30—still eligible for military service—the population of Asia will pass the two billion mark. According to the latest un estimates, if present rates of growth continue until the end of the century, when today's student is 55 years old, in the prime of life, Asia will contain some 3.7 billion human be­ings, two-and-a-half times as many as it does today. Surely this population growth half way around the world is bound to have a substantial effect on the life of every American student, an effect about which he should be thoroughly warned today.

It is granted that, from a practical standpoint, no textbook writer for junior high school boys and girls is at liberty to include a detailed, point-by-point discus­sion of the impact of the idea of contra­ception on post-war Japan or an analysis of the Indian acceptance of birth control as a necessary adjunct of all public health campaigns. The inclusion of such mate­rial would cost him that sizable share of the textbook market represented by Catholic schools. Nonetheless, such mat­ters are facts of our times—facts of his­tory, facts of economic geography, facts of social science. If there is a truly hope­ful sign on the horizon in Asia, it is the development of a favorable attitude to­ward family planning in scattered parts of the continent. Should our young peo­ple be kept ignorant of one of the few developments in the world that gives us cause for hope?

Communism in Asia

Perhaps the omission of serious discus­sions of the Communist threat to free Asia is a technical matter. None of the writers is in any sense "soft" on Com­munism. Three of the books clearly rec­ognize that the threat exists. If they fail to cite the disintegration of freedom during the past ten years in Indo-China, in Tibet, and in Indonesia, it is probably because neither a historian nor an economic geographer dares to bring a work too closely up to date in a rapidly chang­ing situation. Mazour and Peoples (3), writing in 1959, do a respectable job of analyzing the Communist take-over in China and the internal Communist threat to India. At the opposite end of the scale, Packard, Overton, and Wood (4), al­though their text was apparently reissued in 1956, hardly seem aware that a Com­munist mechanism exists in Asia. Pub­lished seven years after the triumph of Mao Tse-tung, the book still treats the Chinese as a nation of happy peasants. It even credits the growth of industry in China to "Western investment." Such anachronisms suggest a distressingly ab­dicated responsibility.

The hard fact is that we of the free world face a rocky future in Asia. The poverty of the people, the failure of the national economies to forge ahead, and the inexorable increase of overcrowding of the land make Asia a breeding ground for Communism. We score some victor­ies, yes. The Chinese handling of Tibet taught India a lesson about the nature of its neighbor across the Himalayas. The Philippines and Malaya have, at least for the moment, overcome their Communist insurgents. However, this is a battle which promises to continue not just for years, but for decades. We in the United States are in a particularly difficult sit­uation. We stand to lose much if Asia falls, yet we cannot intervene directly in more than a few isolated spots to help Asians protect themselves. This is a sit­uation with which our citizens should familiarize themselves. In five years, to­day's high school students will be voting, and even before that, the young men will be called up for military service. Some will be sent to Asia. The magni­tude of the Communist threat, the diffi­culty which freedom-loving Asians face and which we face with them, should be a part of the warp and the woof of their knowledge.

A Dimension of Ease?

We hear a great deal in this day and age of how our American schools are "too easy"—not enough math, not enough physics, not enough chemistry. Is it possible that the glossing over of the problems of Asia in courses on his­tory and geography is another sort of "easiness"? Perhaps, in fact, this sort of "easiness" is more dangerous to our so­ciety than the omission of the calculus from the general course of high school studies. No matter how highly it is touted, the calculus is caviar to the gen­eral. Only a small fraction of our high school students are going to use their courses on science. But in today's world, every citizen of the United States needs a background of information on the world. The better educated our voters are on the problems of Asia, the more ration­ally they can be expected to vote on is­sues pertaining to Asia. The greater the background of our soldiers on world af­fairs, the greater will be their interest in defending our rights.

It is very easy to teach a student that Asia is "progressing." No more pigtails. No more bound feet. Nationalism has triumphed. Asians are free. There may be many problems ahead of these poor people, but progress is inevitable.

This isn't enough. It is fortunately true that the material in these four textbooks is a great improvement over the omissions of the pre-war years and over the sty­lized discussions of kite-flying and tiger shoots. It is true that the space they de­vote to Asia is adequate, and the facts they relate are accurate. But if we ex­pect our country to maintain its power, its prestige, its leadership, and its free­dom, we must place still tougher fare than this before our students, and we must insure their digesting it. They should know that the population explo­sion in Asia is a threat to the globe. They should know that Communist pressure in Asia is a threat to the free world. They are old enough to face the facts. They are beyond the age for pap.


1 This paragraph must have been written be­fore the partition of India and Pakistan, since India is no longer a major producer of wheat. In any case, its implication that the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent is a net exporter of food grains is grossly misleading, and would have been misleading as long ago as 1921, when un­divided India became a net importer of wheat and rice.


1. Boak, A. E. R., Slosson, P. W., Anderson, H. R., & Bartlett, H. The history of our world. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

2. Kolevzon, E. R., & Heine, J. A. Our world and its peoples. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1959.

3. Mazour, A. G., & Peoples, J. M. Men and nations. Yonkers, N. Y.: World Book, 1959.

4. Packard, L. O., Overton, B., & Wood, B. D. Geography of the world. New York: Mac­millan, 1956.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 62 Number 5, 1961, p. 339-347
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3211, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 1:19:41 AM

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