U.S. High School Textbooks: Perpetuating the Idea of Overpopulation

Author(s): Anne Hendrixson
Date Published: July 15, 2006
Source: Political Environments #8, Spring 2001

Ingrained into the U.S. popular imagination is the idea that the world is overpopulated. Americans talk not so much about "population" as "overpopulation," in the belief that the planet is burdened with too many people. Often, Americans think of this glut of people as flowing from Mexico, India or Africa where birth rates are perceived as out-of-control and rising. Many view "overpopulation" as the main cause of environmental degradation, urban sprawl, hunger, poverty, political instability and even war. However, although many Americans believe and repeat the dire forecast of overpopulation, few know basic facts about demographic dynamics. For instance, few realize that recent UN data indicate that population growth rates are declining worldwide faster than anticipated.

The idea of overpopulation promotes the simple assumption that there are a finite amount of global resources spread among too many people. The reality, however, is far more complex. Inequitable production, consumption and distribution patterns often have far more to do with generating poverty and environmental degradation than the impact of population growth. According to UN figures, the richest fifth of the world's people who live in the developed countries consume 66 times as much as the poorest fifth. The richest fifth consume 45% of all meat and fish, 58% of total energy, and 84% of all paper. In addition, they own 87% of the world's vehicle fleet, a major source of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor is growing as a result of the globalization process.

Why do Americans have such a narrow view of population issues? One reason is the presentation of population in social studies textbooks. A survey undertaken by CWPE and the Hampshire College Population and Development Program found that many mainstream U.S. high school textbooks teach "overpopulation," rather than giving students the conceptual tools to understand population issues in their full complexity. Lessons on basic demography are missing from the pages of most texts, substituted, instead, with glancing references to population, using terms like "population bomb." The National Standards for World History guidelines for textbook writers suggest that lessons teaching population should include, "analyzing causes of the world's accelerating population growth rate, and explaining why population growth has hindered economic and social development in many countries." These guidelines are thus based on the incorrect premise that the world's population growth rate is still accelerating, and assume that population growth necessarily leads to "hindered" development.

Most of the textbooks surveyed do the same. Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts asserts that, "the human population of the world as a whole has grown explosively over the past two centuries and especially during the twentieth century…Will this cycle [of growth] go on indefinitely?" The authors answer the question ominously with, "It had better not." Does this statement inform the student about population issues, or instill a fear of population growth and its repercussions?

Too often references to population are full of stereotypes of the "poor South" versus the "affluent North." World Cultures: A Global Mosaic is laden with judgments about the differing levels of development in the North and South. The authors use words like "failure" and "condemn" to describe Southern levels of development. "Rapid population growth and the failure to modernize have widened the gap between developing and developed nations. In the poor countries, crop failures brought on by drought or other natural disasters condemn millions to hunger." There is little discussion of how unequal economic relationships between North and South contribute to the persistence of poverty.

Accompanying these perspectives on the South and North are negative racial stereotypes that can engender misunderstanding and dislike. For instance, the author of World Geography and Cultures promotes the stereotype of Africans as sexually promiscuous. She charges that the out-of-control population growth rate in Africa is causing the spread of the desert in Africa, and that the African people have to take responsibility for their actions (i.e. use birth control) for the process of desertification to slow. She writes, "the values of the culture may have to change before desertification can be slowed down." Recent research on Africa challenges these stereotypes, giving a far more detailed historical perspective of the dynamics of environmental degradation, including the role of national and international development agencies.

The texts hold women as largely responsible for population growth because of their role as child bearers. The majority of the texts present government enforced population control, rather than user-controlled family planning methods, as reasonable measures to curb population growth, without critical discussion of the effect of population control methods on women. Geography: Regions, Realms and Concepts creates a picture of post-colonial India doomed to failure by its own people, then advocates for population control as the solution to the problem. "Vigorous propaganda campaigns, federal and State support for family planning campaigns, and even compulsory sterilization tactics have been implemented," the authors note with apparent approval. However, to the authors these extreme measures of population control are not effective enough. The paragraph ends with the portentous phrase, "change is coming perilously slow."

A second survey of U.K. textbooks found that, in contrast to their U.S. counterparts, these books teach lessons in basic demography, recognize the presence of a debate in population theory, and complicate the study by introducing other concepts into the picture, such as power inequalities and colonialism. This knowledge provides students with the tools to critically understand population issues and to develop a broader worldview. U.S. textbook authors could learn from the presentation of population in U.K. texts.

Given the simplistic, incomplete picture of population created by most U.S. high school social studies textbooks, it is not surprising that most Americans know little about population except for a general understanding of the pessimistic idea of overpopulation. It is important to complicate this picture and textbooks are a place to begin. Teaching students incomplete and misleading lessons in population perpetuates misunderstanding. It passes damaging stereotypes of people and cultures from one generation to the next and presents a distorted picture of the world, narrowing students' perceptions rather than enriching them. These impressions can last a lifetime.

Anne Hendrixson is a freelance writer and activist. She is a core member of CWPE.

United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1998. New York: Oxford University Press.
"National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to Present," in National Center for History in the Schools; Los Angeles: National Center for the History in the Schools (1994), p. 274.
H.J. De Blij and Peter O. Miller, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts. 7th edition. NewYork: John Wiley & Sons (1994), p. 462.
Iftikhar Ahmad, Herbert Brodsky, Marylee Crofts and Elisabeth Ellis, World Cultures: A Global Mosaic. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall (1998), p. 580.
Robin E. Kelly, Fearon's World Geography and Cultures. Paramus, NY: Globe Fearon Educational Publishers, (1994), p. 163.
H.J. De Blij and Peter O. Miller, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts. 7th edition. NewYork: John Wiley & Sons (1994), p 487.