Reason, Liberty, & Culture

Distorted History Lessons in Textbooks

by Robert Holland

Modern textbooks shy away from presenting a positive picture of Christianity and Judaism as important influences in molding the United States of America.[1]

Thanks to multicultural activism, that caution does not hold for the way many K-12 history textbooks now present non-Western religions, particularly Islam.

For instance, History Alive: the Medieval World and Beyond, a middle-school text adopted by California[2] for statewide use, offers a decidedly unbalanced characterization of jihad, a concept that may be benign in individual uses but that is invoked by radical Islamists as a rationale for warring against Americans.

"Jihad represents the human struggle to overcome difficulties and to do things that would be pleasing to God," the textbook asserts. "Muslims strive to respond positively to personal difficulties as well as worldly challenges. For instance, they might work to become better people, reform society, or correct injustice."

That is no isolated sugarcoating of reality. The American Textbook Council,[3] an independent organization that has studied social studies textbooks since 1989, recently found many political and religious groups seek to gain favorable treatment in textbooks but the deficiencies in Islam-related lessons are "uniquely disturbing."

The ATC has had its eye particularly on California. But what happens there (particularly with textbooks) doesn't stay there. Because California and Texas are such huge markets, their book adoptions heavily influence what textbooks publishers sell to other states.

In late 2005, California put its stamp of approval on all the major publishers' textbooks as well as those of a relative newcomer - the unabashedly multicultural Teachers Curriculum Institute, publisher of History Alive. The TCI Web site shows that Illinois and Michigan are among states that already use History Alive materials as part of their social studies standards.

After a painstaking study of 10 widely adopted history texts, ATC Director Gilbert T. Sewall reported recently that they "present an incomplete and confected view of Islam that misrepresents its foundations and challenges to international security."

The study found a stunning contrast between the portrayals of Islam as a model of interfaith "multicultural" tolerance and Christianity as the aggressor in many wars of religion down through the centuries.

Mr. Sewall, an author of histories and former Newsweek education writer, concluded acerbically: "At a time when intolerance marks Islamic cultures worldwide and multiculturalism is a ruling idea in U.S. schools, these 'wonderland-of-tolerance' tropes constitute a major content distortion."

It is practically inconceivable that any publisher would produce, or public school district adopt, textbooks that gave lengthy praise to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the symbols and good works of Christianity. How, then, does one explain the adulation of Islam?

History Alive devotes five chapters, 62 pages, to putative accomplishments of Islam, complete with an entire chapter on such teachings as the Five Pillars of Faith, lavishly illustrated.

The ATC report notes that Islamic activists, notably the Council on Islamic Education, have lobbied textbook publishers for favorable treatment. Of course, any interest group is free to mount such a campaign, and many have done so across the political spectrum.

What opens the door wide to Islamic activism in particular is the ideology of multiculturalism. Its most ardent proponents in academe depict the European-rooted common culture as evil and oppressive and Third World cultures as universally heroic.

A few months after the infamous Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, the National Association for Multicultural Education adopted a resolution that offered not one line of criticism of the terrorists but instead called for "intercultural, interfaith, and international dialogue."

In that vein, here is the entire discussion of Sept. 11 in Prentice Hall's textbook, The Modern World:

"On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, teams of terrorists hijacked four airplanes on the East Coast. Passengers challenged the hijackers on one flight, which they crashed on the way to its target. But one plane plunged into the Pentagon in Virginia, and two others slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. More than 2,500 people were killed in the attacks."

That sanitized account tells nothing about the background of the terrorists, or their motives; nothing about the brand of jihad that threatens U.S. security.

History classes should teach about all the major religions without either bashing or preaching. But do Americans want their children's public schools to teach history that glorifies their zealous foes and denigrates traditional American values? That might be a good topic for the presidential debates this fall.





Robert Holland is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. This article was published June 12, 2008 in the Washington Times

Archive on Islamic Terror and Politics