Recently, The Mirror, a state-run newspaper in Burma, ran the following headline about a discussion of education policy in Parliament: “Starting with the 2014-2015 school year, primary, middle, and high school textbooks will be printed on (white/smooth) foreign-made papers, and will have covers made of (super-smooth) foreign-made papers.”

This headline might mystify someone who has never seen Burmese textbooks. But for those of us who have held them in our hands and read them, the Ministry of Education’s decision is understandable, even as it illuminates the superficiality of the first steps toward reform of a school system that has been neglected for decades.

What’s wrong with the textbooks now? One complaint is the ash-colored newsprint of which they are made. At government printing houses, these pages are stapled or glued into booklets with an only slightly thicker sheet of newsprint for the cover [as below].

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The green type on the front, a familiar sight at book stalls around the country, is the only color included in most texts. Some readers for younger grades include red in the pictures to cheer things up, but as seen here below], the inexpert application of color can strain the eyes.

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The printing is hit and miss; the type is so faded in places that it’s impossible to read.

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In sum, poor materials and weak quality control mean that these flimsy booklets don’t quite deserve the moniker textbook, if that word calls to mind a weighty tome a student could drag around all year and then pass on to the incoming class.

Until the 2011, when the government began subsidizing the cost of primary school textbooks, students had to pay the equivalent of a few US dollars for a set each year–a hardship for poor families. Imagine the difficulties a seven-year-old might encounter in protecting these precious booklets for an entire school year. When the books get wet, as they are likely to inside a student’s shoulder bag in rainy season, the pages tear like tissue paper. The binding detaches so easily from the pages that many students reinforce the covers by sewing, gluing, and stapling on sturdier paper .

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After scraping together the fee for these books, without which students could not attend school, families were then responsible for a year of upkeep and repair on what amounted to a collection of stapled-together newspapers.

The irony of the textbooks’ shoddy construction is that the pages bear a heavy ideological weight. One of the objectives announced in the preface to social studies textbooks is “to inspire patriotism, union spirit, and the spirit to protect independence.” Since colonial times, the curriculum in Burma has been immensely controversial and fraught with political imperatives. I and other scholars have criticized the history curriculum for exacerbating ethnic tensions, and under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), ethnic minority-led organizations such as the Shan Herald Agency for News reported that students in their areas were made to recite tales of Burman domination or face punishment. Meanwhile, the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army-South created history curricula that in some ways mirrored the discourse of the SPDC while switching out the villains: Burmans were the oppressors, while their own ethnic groups were innocent. Partly because of this battle for students’ hearts and minds, the government came to consider the content of its textbooks so sacred that it is illegal to bring any other books inside school walls. Here lies the central conundrum of the Burmese education system: it is intended to bind together the citizens and protect the union from disintegration, yet it has been so poorly funded that the paper on which these lofty messages are inscribed threaten to fall apart in one’s hand.

In this sense, the Ministry of Education’s (MOE’s) decision to improve the quality of the paper is apt. Yet prioritizing the most superficial problem with the education system leaves more substantive concerns unresolved. To its credit, the government’s own Comprehensive Education Sector Review’s (CESR’s) 2013 report identified larger problems including an outdated curriculum, limited teaching methods, and regional inequalities in access to education. In fact, a Myanmar Times article late last year announced that the content and activities in textbooks will also be upgraded in 2014 to encourage kids to “think for themselves.” Yet these changes are unlikely to win over the government’s critics. The National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a coalition including opposition political parties, teachers’ unions, and non-governmental organizations, has criticized the Ministry of Education’s 2014 reform proposals as “propaganda of the government” created without enough input from the public; in particular, the MOE’s insistence that students should be taught “the right idea based on Myanmar national characteristics” raised concerns about political indoctrination and ethnic identity. Last month, the University Teachers’ Association boycotted discussions of the Ministry of Education’s draft of a new higher education law on the grounds that their views had not been incorporated in good faith.

In other words, it is not necessarily what the Ministry of Education is doing (or not doing) that is controversial, but rather how they are doing it and how they publicize it that offends their critics. As a scholar of curriculum studies and an anthropologist of education, it seems to me that there is a tension between objectives such as teaching students the “right idea based on Myanmar national characteristics” and asking them to “think for themselves.” This apparent contradiction raises several possibilities: first, all parties within the MOE do not agree on their goals; second, those goals are not coherent; or third, the way that their efforts have been publicized is misleading.

Whatever the case may be, improving the material quality of textbooks, while it might make some primary schoolers’ lives easier, is likely to meet with criticism. Indeed, the Ministry of Education exposes itself to parody with this announcement. To refer back to the headline quoted above, does the Ministry of Education really want to remind readers that high-quality paper must be “foreign-made”? How can patriotism be drummed up in an environment where “foreignness” is code for both “better-than-Myanmar-quality” and (at least until recently) for “external destructive elements”? Is “foreign-made” paper the best advertisement for educational reform in a country that has recently been flooded with foreign NGOs, foreign capital, and foreign “expertise”? CESR itself, funded by international organizations and governments including AusAID and the Asian Development Bank, has been criticized by the NNER on the grounds that it does not accurately represent the views of rank and file Burmese teachers and students. In the 1920s, schools were a wellspring of anti-colonial sentiment, and the suspicion of foreigners is fomented in history textbooks to this day. The irony of nationalist messages printed on foreign-made paper illuminates the tension between longed-for modernity and carefully-guarded tradition, between schools as sites of 1984-esque indoctrination or 21st-century empowerment.

To a cynic, the decision to upgrade the paper could be seen as a portent for the state’s process of educational reform as a whole: appearance is given priority over substance, not out of malice, but because the deeper problems are just much harder to fix. The results of the curricular changes that the MOE has promised are yet to be seen. But it is clear that those inside the MOE with good intentions and strong skills will have to grapple with their own public relations problem, in addition to the many other difficulties in the education system.

Generations of students had to treat textbooks with kid gloves, venerating these objects that performed their intended function so poorly. In that sense, textbooks could be seen as a metaphor for the government itself. The changes announced in The Mirror’s headline allows less-than-optimistic readers to extend this parallel: new paper, same story.

Rosalie Metro is a teacher, independent researcher, and curriculum designer based in the US. She holds a Ph.D. in Learning, Teaching, and Social Policy from Cornell University. She can be reached at [email protected].