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Yesterday and Today

On-line version ISSN 2309-9003
Print version ISSN 2223-0386

Y&T  n.14 Vanderbijlpark Dec. 2015 



South African history textbook research - A review of the scholarly literature



Carol BertramI; Johan WassermannII

ISchool of Education University of KwaZulu-Natal.
IISchool of Education University of KwaZulu-Natal.




School history textbooks are seen to embody ideological messages about whose history is important, as they aim both to develop an 'ideal' citizen and teach the subject of history. Since the 1940s, when the first study was done, there have been studies of South African history textbooks that have analysed different aspects of textbooks. These studies often happen at a time of political change (for example, after South Africa became a republic in 1961 or post-apartheid) which often coincides with a time of curriculum change. This article provides an overview of all the studies of South African history textbooks since the 1940s. We compiled a data base of all studies conducted on history textbooks, including post graduate dissertations, published journal articles, books and book chapters. This article firstly provides a broad overview of all the peer-reviewed studies, noting in particular how the number of studies has increased since 2000. The second section then engages in a more detailed analysis of the studies that did content analysis of textbooks. We compare how each study has engaged with the following issues: the object of study, the methodological approach, the sample of textbooks and the theoretical or philosophical orientation. The aim is to provide a broad picture of the state of textbook analysis studies over the past 75 years, and to build up a database of these studies so as to provide an overview of the nature of history textbook research in South Africa.

Keywords: History textbooks; School history; South Africa; Scholarly literature



Background and introduction

The production of textbooks, from conception to distribution to use, is a politically and educationally contentious activity. In light of the above, "the politics of the textbook" is never far removed from the public sphere as three cameos from the South African context will reveal: The Inkatha Freedom Party publically burned copies of an Oxford Grade 12 History textbook arguing that their leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was portrayed in an unfavourable light (Wassermann, 2009); in his 2011 state of the nation address President Jacob Zuma emphasized the key role of textbooks when he foregrounded them amongst the three Ts (teachers, textbooks, and time) needed to be prioritised in uplifting the education system (SA News, 2011); the so-called "Limpopo textbook scandal" whereby some schools in the province did not receive textbooks caused a public outcry and the angry public response that followed forced the government to act, not only in Limpopo, but also in the Eastern Cape (Chisholm, 2013).

In the context of the above, textbook research in general, and History textbook research specifically, is understandably not a recent phenomenon. In fact, since the First World War (1914-1919), History textbooks have been studied as powerful sources of educational media with the ability to shape the views and consciousness of generations of learners. Research in this regard was not only conducted by individual authors but also driven by international organisations such as the League of Nations and UNESCO. Most of the subsequent research into History textbooks has been centred in Europe and North America but pockets of investigation can also be found in the Far East, Australasia and South Africa. As South African academics involved in textbook research, and the supervisors of post-graduate students studying the genre, we have read much of the local literature as well as that emanating from other parts of the world. We began asking a range of questions about the growing field of History textbook research in South Africa, including: What research has been done in this regard? Who has been doing the research? When was it done? What was the focus of the research? Which methodologies were employed? These questions were the catalyst and motivation, both on a professional and a scholarly level, for us to do three things in this article.

Firstly, we conducted a search of the literature in order to map the completed scholarly research into History textbooks in South Africa in a database. In the process we hoped that the "big picture" of scholarly work done on History textbooks in South Africa would emerge. We deemed a literature search to be a necessary initial step since, to our knowledge, no study exists that provides an overview of the studies already done on History textbooks. The database was then to be subjected, for the purpose of this article, to two levels of analysis. To begin with we answered the following broad questions - who did what (author), when (time), where (location), about what (focus), how did they do it (methodology) and why did they do it (motivation)? Secondly, based on the trends and patterns that emerged from the broad overview, we extracted the studies which had engaged with analysis of History textbooks and drilled deeply into these works by examining the sample size, object of study, the methodologies and the theoretical/philosophical approach. Thirdly, the review yielded a further outcome, namely a database of research conducted on History textbooks in South Africa. We have included this database as Appendix A at the end of this article to allow other researchers access to what we deem to be a workable database which they can challenge, alter, use and expand.

In what follows we will unpack the research methodology employed in doing this study, the quantitative "big picture" analysis and the qualitative deep drilling into articles that actually analysed History textbooks. The article will then be concluded with a discussion of the findings and the database contained in Appendix A.


The research methodology of reviewing the literature on completed studies on South Africa History textbooks

According to Boote and Beile (2005), a literature review transcends the simple search for information as it is a consideration of scholarly works relating to a specific study - in the case of this article, to completed scholarly research on South African History textbooks. The extensive literature search we conducted was thus a means of building on previous knowledge by using existing knowledge (Creswell, 2009) and in so doing reaching an understanding of what came before. What we did, therefore was a "scholarship review" (Mouton, 2001:87) starting as far back in time as we could go.

We started the literature search by drawing on the professional knowledge we had on scholarly work already completed on South African History textbooks. This we tabulated under the following headings: author; year published; title of publication; place of publication and nature of publication. We then employed a student assistant to do a thorough desktop search of all databases subscribed to by the University of KwaZulu-Natal library system as well as a general Internet search. The key words used for the search were "history textbooks" and "South Africa". However, in cases of uncertainty where it was felt that the key words were not serving us well, literature was skim read to ascertain its appropriateness to the study. In a cross-checking exercise we also searched the available databases ourselves. This served for example, to capture theses and dissertations written in Afrikaans that were previously overlooked. Additionally, being aware of the vagaries of desktop searching, we approached Rob Siebörger, Katalin Morgan and Elize van Eeden, all fellow academics involved in some way or another in History textbook research, to scrutinise our evolving database. Their critique of and additions to the database proved invaluable.

We grappled with the questions of what to include and what to exclude and how to justify such choices. After some debate we settled on the principle that literature reviews are about peer reviewed scholarly work - that is works vetted by fellow academics for their suitability and adherence to the expected standards of the discipline. This principle was married to our key search terms "history textbooks" and "South Africa".

Using the criteria of peer reviewed scholarly works on South African History textbooks meant certain publications were excluded. These included newspapers, popular and professional articles1, conference presentations and conference proceedings and Honours projects.2. This was based on the fact that the Department of Higher Education and Training views Masters and Doctorates but not Honours projects as research publications. Conference proceedings were excluded quite simply because it proved difficult to ascertain which ones were truly peer reviewed and thus of scholarly standing and which were not.3 Furthermore, since we have focussed somewhat pedantically on research which contained the terms "history textbooks" and "South Africa", scholarly works which did not directly use these keywords were also not included as we regarded them as peripheral to our focus.4 The data base thus comprised postgraduate scholarship in the form of dissertations and theses, journal articles, books and book chapters. These three genres were used to organise our database in a chronological manner starting with the earliest works. In the process the database kept on evolving as we became aware, sometimes by chance, of other scholarly works on South African History textbooks. Within these parameters Appendix A - "Database of Studies on South African School History Textbooks" was developed.

The next methodological step was the quantitative analysis of the literature as captured in the database. This was done by engaging with who did what, when, where, about what, how did they do it and why did they do it? The when was done by tracking the dates of publication/completion of a scholarly work included in Appendix A. This was supported by the what (genre of research) which tied in with the time (when) and spatial (where) frames. This was followed by engaging with who undertook the research. As part of this first level of analysis we tried to theorise why research on South African History textbooks as part of the "big picture" happened. For the most part the answers to the above research questions are presented graphically, statistically and discursively in a blended manner.

The second level of analysis consisted of extracting the South African History textbook studies from Appendix A which had engaged with content analysis of History textbooks. We then examined the object of study, sample size, the methodologies and the philosophical/ theoretical orientations of these studies. The abstracts/summaries of the whole book, dissertation/theses or journal article were analysed. These were usually excellent units of analysis although we did come to accept that this method had its flaws as some abstracts/summaries were flimsy and revealed little. The results of the second level of analysis are presented analytically in a narrative style.


The BIG picture of South African History Textbook research - 1944-2015

According to our literature search a total of 65 peer-reviewed academic research works on South African School History textbooks have been completed thus far (Appendix A). Of these 25 were postgraduate degrees leading to higher academic qualifications; 19 were Masters and six Doctoral degrees. A further 10 were books or book chapters and 30 were peer-reviewed academic articles aimed exclusively at enhancing the existing knowledge base. However, for a more nuanced understanding beyond the mere figures it is necessary to view the 65 academic research works in a temporal context as outlined in Tables 1 and 2 below.







Scholarly research into History textbooks in South Africa started in the 1940s with a Masters dissertation which was the first ever such research endeavour in 1944. This was followed by an article and two postgraduate studies in the 1960s one of which, The power of prejudice in South African education: an enquiry into history textbooks and syllabuses in the Transvaal high schools of South Africa, by FE Auerbach, was published as a book in the same decade. This sudden mini-boom in History textbook research in the early 1960s coincided with South Africa becoming a Republic outside of the British Empire and the subsequent stronger emphasis of an Afrikaner Nationalist historiography in school history. After this, the field of History textbook research returned to its static state and during the 1970s and 1980s, only one dissertation, two books and three academic articles saw the light of day. Thus, during the oppressive heyday of Apartheid, in which History textbooks were dominated by an Afrikaner Nationalist historiography, little reason seemed to exist to engage in scholarly research in History textbooks. This was so because the Afrikaner Nationalist agenda allowed little critique or critical engagement with the texts that learners studied and teachers used to teach.

The dawning of democracy in the 1990s also left its mark on History textbook research and the greater openness birthed ten studies - one less than was completed during the previous five decades. The end of Apartheid created a belief and optimism that school History could be reimagined and remade (Siebörger, 1994, 1995; Bam & Visser, 1997). There was a growing realisation of the power of History textbooks as educational media that could profoundly influence society. The research momentum into History textbooks continued into the 2000s as can be gleaned from Tables 1 and 2. During this decade (2000-2009), 19 studies, two less than the combined efforts of the previous 60 years, were completed. These 19 studies also serve to mirror the strengthening grip that the knowledge economy was starting to exercise on academics, for nine of the 19 studies were now peer reviewed academic articles - almost twice as many as during the previous six decades. The growth trend in School History textbook research continued into the 2010s, a decade that is but six years old. During these six years, 25 peer reviewed scholarly works, 14 of them academic articles, were published. Particularly noticeable in this time period (see Table 1) is the escalation in the production of academic articles to the detriment of books and book chapters. This escalation, alongside that in postgraduate work with ten Masters Degrees being awarded for studies on History textbooks since 2010, is indicative of what is expected from academics in the current context - greater research and supervision outputs.

What is particularly noticeable since 2000 is the decline of books on History textbooks in South Africa with the last book addressing the topic appearing in 2011 which is Nishino's reworked 2006 Ph.D. being published. This tendency is to a certain extent a fall-out of the growing neo-liberal knowledge economy in South African higher education whereby financial incentives and rewards in terms of subsidies for books are similar to those for accredited journal articles. One possible result of this post-1994 was an upward turn in the output of academic articles in South African History textbooks as the dominant research genre in this field. In short the post-Apartheid societal change heralded an increase in the research into History textbooks with academic articles predominating. However, what must be pointed out is that a substantial number of the academic articles that appear during this time, probably as many as twelve out of the 30 published articles (40%) having roots in dissertations and theses. This is not only indicative of the requirement for academics to publish journal articles but also the relatively strong relationship between published journal articles and postgraduate studies.

The 30 academic articles referred to above, bar two, by Carpentier (2000) and Lieven (2000), were authored by South African-based academics. The journals that attracted the largest number of these articles (five) were the South African Historical Journal, a publication that specialises in History followed by Yesterday & Today, a History Education journal, with four articles. Overall, the 30 articles on History textbooks generated since 1962 appeared in 17 different journals of which eight are international in origin and nine South African. These journals covered fields ranging from Education and History to Archaeology and Qualitative Research. The above provides a sense of inter-disciplinarity in South African History textbook research.

English dominated as the language of publication with only two articles appearing in other languages - an Afrikaans article by De Wet (2001) and one in French by Carpentier (2000). All books and book chapters were also published in English. The dominance of English as a research language was also mirrored in the completed dissertations and theses with only three authors, Raubenheimer (1944), Du Plooy (1965) and Schutte (1990) completing their studies in a language other than English, namely through Afrikaans.

It would, however, be myopic to attribute the change in research patterns into History textbooks to socio-political forces only as individual researchers also played a significant role in increasing the research post-1994. In this regard the work of two scholars stands out, namely Siebörger (1994, 1995, and 2006) and Morgan (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014). The former had contributed to three books or book chapters and two accredited articles and the latter a Ph.D. (2011) and nine accredited articles. Thus between them they have had an intellectual hand in 15 or (23%) of the studies contained in Appendix A. The remaining books, book chapters and accredited journal articles were shared amongst a total of 28 authors all of which, except for Dean, Hartman, Katzen (1983), Carpentier (2000) and Lieven (2000) and Nishino (2006, 2011) are South African based. Thus the scholarship on South African History textbooks is generally dominated by South Africans, except for books and book chapters.

In terms of the institutional affiliation of those who had completed dissertations and theses on South African History textbooks, no clear patterns emerged from our analysis of the compiled database. In total the postgraduate scholars came from nine different South African universities and the University of Western Australia. However, eight postgraduates completed their studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal since 2009, which points to an emerging institutional leadership in scholarship on History textbooks. This was brought about by several factors including an interest in textbooks spurred on by engagement with the Georg Eckert Institute for textbook research in Braunschweig, Germany and increasing administrative demands around securing ethical clearance for research involving human subjects.

An overview of the literature data base shows that there has been an increase in scholarly publications in the last fifteen years. From the 1940s up to 1999, there were 21 publications on history textbooks, which increased to 44 publications between 2000 and 2015. We attribute this to the postapartheid social and political shifts, as well as to a growing neo-liberal hold on universities which emphasises academics' measurable accountability in terms of publications and student graduations.


Detailed analysis of studies which analyse history textbooks

The next section of the article presents a more detailed analysis of the studies that analysed textbooks, and does not include publications which describe the role of the textbook in schools, or the making, selection and distribution of textbooks, or theoretical and methodological issues (these publications are shaded in the database in Appendix A). The table below shows the number of publications analysed for each section of this article.


The object of study

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