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Islam in the Classroom: What the Textbooks Tell Us: Part One of Five

/authors/id./author_detail.aspGilbert T. Sewall May 12, 2008



AT THE END OF 2005 a major publishing event occurred in California. After a lengthy process the state adopted newly developed - not merely revised - world history textbooks. California has unique power to shape the content of textbooks across the country, and publishers make every effort to join its state-approved list of books for grades kindergarten through eight. Publishers Prentice Hall (Pearson), Glencoe (McGraw-Hill), Holt Rinehart (then an imprint of Reed Elsevier, now of Houghton Mifflin), McDougal Littell (Houghton Mifflin), and Teachers' Curriculum Institute all received approval. The next year, local school districts across the state, selecting from this list, bought and put new social studies books into classrooms.

Not everybody was happy with the new books. Parents in Lodi, California, complained to school officials about the brightly titled volume History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond that had been purchased for seventh-grade classrooms. This book is produced by the Teachers' Curriculum Institute - despite its name, an aggressive privately held California-based educational publisher - noteworthy for its rapidly expanding popularity among textbook buyers. (The company claims that its books are adopted in one-third of California's almost one thousand school districts.) For TCI "diversity" is the sell, and it is a good one. Curriculum supervisors at the district level rarely apply any other criterion in textbook selection. In recasting world history TCI pushes the boundaries of multiculturalism to a degree the larger publishers do not.

The Lodi parents were not objecting to a word or two that they took out of context but to a textbook long on chapters filled with adulatory lessons on Islam. In a passage meant to explain Jihad, they encountered this: "Muslims should fulfill jihad with the heart, tongue, and hand. Muslims use the heart in their struggle to resist evil. The tongue may convince others to take up worthy causes, such as funding medical research. Hands may perform good works and correct wrongs." There was puffery and misinformation. Muhammad "taught equality," said one chapter summary. "He told followers to share their wealth and to care for the less fortunate in society."

In Lodi some of the parents objected on religious grounds, motivated by their awareness that educators and courts have minimized the story of Christianity in the curriculum. Others had different reasons. One thoughtful parent was disturbed by the "unrestrained admiration" that the textbook lavished on Islam in contrast to a sketchy and unsympathetic view of Europe and Western civilization. By late 2007 a heated community controversy had developed, fanned by an Associated Press report and Fox News national television feature on the uproar.

This was not the first time TCI had encountered local resistance and parental objections. In the academic year 2004-2005, History Alive! had been piloted in Scottsdale, Arizona, before the high-stakes California adoption. When parents complained about coverage of Islam - six months before California approved the textbook - Scottsdale officials pulled the book from local schools. They did not do so willingly. In Arizona, as in California, district administrators had selected the textbook for piloting and classroom use. The curriculum specialists who made the textbook selections had known little about Islam, but they were committed to "diversity education" and had bought TCI's promises that it delivered a better curriculum.

It is not surprising that Arizona and California administrators would resist criticism of the books that they had selected. Long before the textbooks had arrived in Lodi classrooms, layer after layer of the local education bureaucracy had invested in History Alive! The Lodi Unified School District had formed a local selection committee, urged by the San Joaquin County Department of Education to use a "rubric" of "content assessment, differentiation for special populations, and peripheral materials." (Peripheral materials are the CDs and lesson supplements that accompany student textbooks and teachers' editions.)

This committee sent a recommendation to the local social studies "articulation committee," made up of secondary school social studies teachers, and to secondary school principals. Then a curriculum council of teachers, site administrators, district administrators, and selected parents gave their approval to the choice. Finally, the local board of education approved it. According to parents who complained about the textbook, each group pointed to the other as the deciding agent, and one principal thanked the unhappy parents for their support. School districts receive all kinds of complaints about textbooks, of course, some of them "fringy" along those of merit. So in Lodi and Scottsdale official indifference and hostility to parental complaints prevailed. Parents claim the school districts brushed them off or labeled them as racists.

In Lodi some unhappy parents sought relief by bringing their complaints to the attention of national television news reporters; others were just trying to get local educators to recognize there was a problem. While some parent protests were ill informed or self-promotional, by no means all of them were. The complaints were not confined to Lodi. "I am concerned at the subtle hostility being directed my way now from officials at the school and school district, and am also afraid that it is creating an adversarial situation that will negatively impact my own child," said a parent in Marin County, California, who objected to the content of lessons on Islam in the seventh-grade Houghton Mifflin volume.

To what extent were these parents justified in their concerns, not about one book but several? To answer this question it is necessary to review a new generation of textbooks purchased by junior and senior high schools since 2003, asking these questions:

  • How do today's history textbooks characterize Islam's foundations and creeds?

  • What changes have occurred in textbook material written before 2001? What additions have been made?

  • What do the textbooks say about terrorism? What do they say about the September 11 air attack on the United States? About weapons of mass destruction? Do textbooks highlight Islamic challenges to global security? Do they describe and explain looming dangers to the United States and world?

There is surely no more perplexing an aspect of the history curriculum than Islam. For good reason. Views and definitions clash as in no other textbook subject. The propositions that inform the work of John Esposito, Albert Hourani, Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, and Edward Said, some of the most prominent Middle East historians and experts of our age - constitute an oeuvre of stunning, often hostile, polarities. Crafting accurate and meaningful lessons for teenagers and their teachers in a few words is a daunting task for editors, especially when political differences run high. California's guidelines for evaluating instructional materials for social content forbid "adverse reflection" on religion as well as many other aspects of human life. Whatever "adverse reflection" is, such a mandate may be conceptually at odds with historical and geopolitical actuality.

Textbook editors try to avoid any subject that could turn into a political grenade. Willingly, they adjust the definition of Jihad and sharia or remove these words from lessons to avoid inconvenient truths that the editors fear activists will contest. Explicit facts that non-Muslims might find disturbing are varnished or deleted. Textbooks pare to a minimum such touchy subjects as Israel and oil as agents of change in the Middle East since 1945. Terrorism and Islam are uncoupled and the ultimate dangers of Islamic militancy hidden from view.

None of this is accidental. Islamic organizations, willing to sow misinformation, are active in curriculum politics. These activists are eager to expunge any critical thought about Islam from textbooks and all public discourse. They are succeeding, assisted by partisan scholars and associations. It is not remarkable that Islamic organizations would try to use ready-made American political movements such as multiculturalism to adjust the history curriculum to their advantage. It is alarming that so many individuals with the power to shape the curriculum are willfully blind to or openly sympathetic with these efforts.

These distortions and biases about Islam in history textbooks could not prevail were it not for the all-important bridge between Islamist activists and multicultural organizations on and off campus. Both are eager to restrict what textbooks say about Islam. Multiculturalists are determined that social studies curricula do not transmit "Eurocentric" or "triumphalist" presuppositions about Western history and society. Middle East centers on campuses promote an uncritical view of Islam, often with a caustic anti-Western spin. Historians actively interested in taking world history curricula in this direction are prominent in textbook authorship. Encouraged to do so by reputable authorities, textbook publishers court the Council on Islamic Education and other Muslim organizations - or at least try to appease them. This legitimacy is bestowed in spite of longstanding questions about sources of funding and degree of control over publishers.

* * *

There are differences among the textbooks reviewed. Among the five mass-market seventh-grade world histories adopted by California and examined here, the Prentice Hall volume is easily the best designed and most visually coherent. That does not mean its content on Islam is somehow superior. To describe medieval Spain, in a glaring and anachronistic modern construct, the book labels Islamic Andalusia a "multicultural society." The Glencoe volume's comic book-like graphics and abbreviated content make it a substandard text overall, but its relatively neutral treatment of Islam does not fall into the fawning excesses of the Teachers' Curriculum Institute's History Alive! 

On terrorism and U.S. foreign policy, American history textbooks for high school students exhibit less variation than world history texts. All the texts reviewed cover September 11 and U.S. policy in the Middle East more sharply than world history textbooks do. When it comes to high school world history textbooks, McGraw-Hill's Modern Times - the California version of the flagship high school world history text, World History - is better organized than Pearson Prentice Hall's The Modern World, which itself is a spin-off of World History: Connections to Today, the dominant world history textbook for high school students nationwide. Each textbook covers terrorism and Middle Eastern conflict. Major variations of quality are apparent in both texts, and general appraisal is impossible: some passages are solid and others unacceptable.

Even under the best circumstances, compressing and simplifying complicated content for students and their instructors in world history courses is a challenge. The results are often a disaster. The Modern World, for example, describes the Wahhabi sect in one word, "strict." Take the complexities that lie at the center of the Sunni and Shiite schism. Textbooks cannot convey the subject in a sentence or two, and even if they could, the student audience does not have the background or maturity to grasp the significance of the split.

But even when all this is taken into account, the misinformation surrounding Islam in textbooks is disturbing, more so because much of it is intentional. Although publishers have developed new world and U.S. history textbooks at three different grade levels since 2003, they did not use the intervening five years to correct factual information or right the imbalances. They have allowed the errors to remain or have removed controversial material. Instead of making changes, they have sustained errors or, in deliberate acts of self-censorship, have removed controversial material. Deficiencies are more evident at the seventh-grade level than at the high school level. Why?

The next part in this series will cover Islam's foundations and past.

# # Contributing Editor Gilbert T. Sewall is Director of the American Textbook Council, a former history instructor at Phillips Academy and an education editor at Newsweek. The American Textbook Council is an independent New York-based research organization established in 1989. The Council reviews history textbooks and other educational materials. It is dedicated to improving the social studies curriculum and civic education in the nation's elementary and high schools.

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Note -- The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of The Family Security Foundation, Inc.

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