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


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



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.


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.


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



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.


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."


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.


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

the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment.



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