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Education and national identity in Uzbekistan: An analysis of ‘Tarbiya’ textbooks through a post-structuralist lens

classroom in rural Uzbekistan

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Since 1991, Uzbekistan, a multi-ethnic Central Asian state where of the population is under 30, has prioritized its youth as a “” in nation-building efforts. With the aim to fill the void left by the Soviet-style socialist ideologies, the state has placed significant emphasis on constructing a new national identity that embodies its unique history, culture and society. In this process, educational institutions, particularly schools, have emerged as the primary platforms for instilling national values and fostering patriotism among young people. This blog presents the preliminary findings of my doctoral research, focusing on the analysis of two Uzbekistani school textbooks, Tarbiya (Upbringing), in grades 10 and 11. Through the analytical lens of post-structuralism, I explore the role of education in shaping Uzbekistani youth national identity, critically examining the various national markers embedded within the curriculum.

The is crucial for states, particularly in new states, such as those in post-colonial contexts, where state formation sometimes precedes nation formation. Distinct from a state, which is a political and legal entity with a clearly defined territory, a central government, citizens and sovereignty together, a nation does not have a physical or objective existence but exists upon collective consciousness that individuals are connected and share essential commonalities, such as language, ethnicity, religion, culture, history and aspirations to live together. Whilst a nation does not necessarily require a territory and hence can be stateless, it is a group of people who commonly aspire for territorial sovereignty and control over political institutions. Hence, a nation is an “”, socially and discursively constructed. However, since every state comprises of heterogeneous individuals who do not necessarily share commonalities or aspirations, the state is actively involved in pursuing nation-building agendas to ensure internal unity and constructing a singular national identity. Nevertheless, in the process of constructing an overarching homogenous national identity and under its rhetoric of internal unity, which is primarily drawn upon the national imageries of the dominant groups, internal plurality and inclusiveness are often overlooked, leading to power asymmetries and inequalities among different social groups.

The national education system and the state have an inextricable relationship as school education plays a significant role in unifying a state as a nation by and normalising the sense of national belonging among children and young people. , a state-endorsed institution, indeed instils not only knowledge and skills but also moral and cultural values and thus constructs national identities. Through state-controlled educational discourses, including curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and mundane daily practices, who perform their national identities to fit the “normativity”. Hence, whatever the political ideologies, whether democracy or dictatorship, education is widely utilised by states to construct a unifying national identity and “.” Therefore, it is essential to examine the structural dimensions of national identities, in which educational processes are significantly implicated, to understand the root causes of inequalities and tensions among different social groups.

School textbooks, serving as the primary source in crystalising “official knowledge” and thus shaping students’ perspectives of societies, have been the focus of extensive . Reflecting that school discourses primarily reflect dominant groups’ ideologies, show that despite recognition of efforts towards equity and inclusiveness, textbooks often present asymmetric discourses and build national imageries around dominant groups. Women and ethnic and religious minorities are often underrepresented in educational materials, producing and sustaining power imbalances. Moreover, considering identity as a social construct, which is fluid, relational and contingent in constant processes of production and performance through power relations, differentiation and classification, there exists no such “true-self”, and identity, therefore, requires “”, in other words, “otherness”. The on the school processes in shaping national identities indicates the active role of school textbooks in constructing not only “internal others” but also “external others”, forging the sense of “internal cohesion”.

In my doctoral research exploring the intersection of school education and youth national identities in Uzbekistan, I conducted an analysis of textual and visual discourses found in grades 10 and 11 Uzbekistani school textbooks, specifically Tarbiya (Upbringing). Through a lens of post-structuralist discourse analysis, I examined the educational discourses shaping national identity, uncovering both the overt and underlying structural meanings embedded within the curriculum. The analysis unveiled Uzbekistani national imageries rooted in notions of morality, spirituality, self-discipline, peace, harmony, and glory. These textbooks underscored a range of desired traits and morality presented as national values, emphasising the critical role of “right upbringing and spirituality”. Notably, despite Uzbekistan’s secular status, religion emerged as a significant theme, ranking as the sixth most mentioned word in the textbooks. Rather than focusing solely on piety, religion was portrayed as a cornerstone of spirituality and goodness, promoting values like peace, tolerance, kindness, and honesty. Moreover, the textbooks celebrated the country’s national history, glory and achievements across various fields, including science, literature, philosophy, sports, economy and politics, instilling a sense of pride and patriotism among youth. 

In examining the portrayal of “external others”, particularly in relation to religion, Uzbekistani textbooks often depicted foreign countries as unstable, contrasting with Uzbekistan’s own image of peace and stability. Threats were framed as external, with Islamic extremism and sects highlighted as primary causes of instability abroad, underscoring the importance of regional peace initiatives. Additionally, while some Western personalities were cited as models alongside Uzbekistani figures, the West was often portrayed as immoral, primarily through its cinematography and fashions. Despite the absence of explicit discourses on “internal others”, gender and ethnicity emerged as primary markers for us/them boundaries constructing “internal others”, namely women and non-Uzbek ethnic minorities. Gendered discourses attributed distinct values, roles, and rules to women and men, potentially reinforcing power hierarchies. Notably, visual representations of national pride and glory tended to favour men, who were predominantly depicted in positions of power, high-wage employment, and prestige. Similarly, although the textbooks emphasised inter-ethnic tolerance and diversity, national heroes and models essentially represented ethnic Uzbeks or those born within Uzbekistan’s current territory. Moreover, national values and spirituality were often linked to “our ancestors” and Islam, which may inadvertently exclude certain ethnic groups, particularly ethnic Russians, from the discourses of national identity.

The analysis demonstrates that school education primarily serves as a pivotal force in constructing and normalising discourses that convey social and cultural values, expectations and norms, thereby functioning as a powerful state-anchored process shaping national identities. Educational discourses are instrumental in constructing a unifying national identity through shared knowledge and values, particularly in a nation-building context. However, it is also equally important to note that such a singular enforcement of national identity leaves little space for diversity. This leads to the further marginalisation of those considered to “disobey” or “deviate” from the accepted norms and values. Furthermore, in the process of forming national imageries, these discourses simultaneously shape “external others” and “internal others”, potentially not only crystalising power relations and reproducing inequalities but also increasing tensions and marginalising certain social groups. Amidst global uncertainty and ongoing conflicts among diverse social groups, a critical understanding of education’s role in shaping national identities and mitigating structural inequalities and violence becomes essential. Moreover, fostering social cohesion through education is pivotal for promoting sustainable peace within societies.

Author

  • Vanessa Ozawa

    Vanessa Ozawa is a doctoral scholar at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. Her research focuses on the construction of youth national identities through school education in Uzbekistan through the intersectionality of gender, ethnicity and religion. She has worked as a research assistant with the GCRF-funded research network on the political economy of education (The PEER Network). She has an MA in Education and International Development from UCL Institute of Education, UK and an MA from Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France. She also worked as an education consultant for JICA-funded ODA projects on education in low-middle-income contexts, mainly in Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. Email: vanessa.ozawa@nu.edu.kz

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