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Textbooks Are Still Troubled

By Dennis R. Ybarra
December 2009

IJCR's The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion (TwT) has shed light on failures within the textbook industry to insulate itself from politicized scholarship and historical revisionism. Teaching about the three major monotheistic religions is fraught with inaccuracies and double standards that reflect the results of intense lobbying efforts on the part of interest groups. Muslim advocacy groups have been particularly successful at exploiting the textbook publishing process, promoting an Islam and Arab friendly narrative that too often results in a disparaging view of Christianity and Judaism. American textbooks present Muslim beliefs as historical fact while subjecting Judaism and Christianity to unique qualifications and skepticism. This all too overlooked area of American education is at a crossroads and demands the attention of the American public.

The textbook publishing industry suffers from systemic ills. There are only three major publishers, making it easier for multiple product lines to reflect inaccuracies. In about half of the fifty states, textbooks are adopted on a statewide basis. In these states, a committee of education professionals, not teachers or districts, selects a list of adopted books from which districts may choose after they receive public comments. Statewide adoptions offer effective points of entry for special interest groups seeking to influence textbook content. Muslim groups have been especially effective.

Because many of the biggest states such as California, Texas, and Florida use the adoption process, their adoption decisions drive the content of textbooks for the entire nation. Publishers sanitize their products so they will not meet any foreseeable objections raised in the adoption process, and to save cost they use the same content in editions marketed in non-adoption states. In 2009 California’s financial crisis caused it to suspend the adoption process until the 2012-13 school year, throwing the whole publishing process into a state of uncertainty.

Stephen Schwartz compares the ongoing revision of textbook standards on Islam, radical Islam, and terrorism in the major textbook adoption states of Texas, Florida and California. He finds that results of the revisions in Texas and Florida are “encouraging” while California’s process is “stuck in a pre-9/11 mindset” that “promotes a blinkered view of Islam.” Schwartz attributes the difference to California being the “state most susceptible to Islamist interference in education.”

Evidence shows that the disproportionate influence of Muslim groups in America’s schools extends well beyond the textbook arena. Parent Karen Healy of Orland Park, Illinois, found favoritism toward Muslim students but a denigration of Christianity in her child’s public school (video clip). At Lantern Road Elementary School in Fishers, Indiana, a holiday program with the goal of inclusivity was modified after complaints that second grade children were required to sing “Allah is God” from the morning Muslim prayer. Meanwhile, the Christmas portion was scrubbed of references to Jesus. Micah Clark of the American Family Association summarized the problem in this way: “[This show] affirmed Islam and negated Christianity. I wouldn’t have had a problem if it had been equal to all faiths.” Shariq Siddiqui, executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, reacted to the school’s change in the program by calling it “the result of Islamophobic feelings.”

IJCR strives to educate important decision makers to address these problems. Initiative Director Kenneth Marcus and Trouble with Textbooks co-author Dennis Ybarra attended a presentation focused on the unequal treatment of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam due to the influence of Muslim pressure groups at the Profamily Legislators Conference in Dallas on November 7. They presented TwT’s findings to the participants who were very interested in the topic, a longstanding area of concern for them. Mr. Marcus unveiled his COOL School Reform initiative to require country-of-origin labeling on supplemental materials that teachers bring into the classroom to augment textbooks. Supplemental materials generally do not require the same conformity with state and district standards as textbooks do.

Even students in elementary school can detect bias in their textbooks. At the beginning of the academic year in September, Nathan, a 6th grade student who attends a Jewish day school in southern California, noticed anti-Israel bias in his social studies textbook. In a book about ancient civilizations, he detected an inconsistency in the book’s attempt to draw connections to modern times when discussing various ancient cultures.

Recently, Nathan sent a letter of protest to the publisher. He wrote: “My book is called Discovering Our Past, Ancient Civilizations, a part of the Glencoe California Series, 2006 Edition... I was very interested in my new history book this year so I decided to read ahead and look through it. That is when I saw a picture of Israel that did not make sense to me. I was looking through the section linking the past and present and found a picture that I think does not belong in the book.

“For the Greek and Romans they put the ancient Olympics and the new Olympics of today and for China and India they put the Great Wall of China and the modern dams in China today, then for Mesopotamia and Israel they put a painting of people fighting from a long time ago, we don’t know where or when and a modern photograph of three Israeli military jeeps in an Arab area, with what looks like Arabs running away from the jeeps. The title said, ‘Fighting today between Israelis and Palestinians.’ I don’t understand why all the pictures of other places were positive and the one about Israel was negative. It only makes sense to also make the one about Mesopotamia and Israel about something positive too, like some of the great modern things that Israel has contributed to the world (there are many)...

“I went through the book page by page to see if your authors had included other examples of modern conflicts. I spent several hours of my free time, going through the book page by page looking for other photos of modern conflicts but I did not find any except this one. That is not fair. On the same page they described the modern picture like this: ‘Today one of the fiercest and longest conflicts has been between the Palestinian Arabs and Israelis.’ I have researched this and found that this is factually wrong because the Palestinians are not related to the ancient enemies of Israel and this conflict is 100 years old at most, which makes it one of the newest and most modern national conflicts going on today. I feel strongly that this page needs to be changed because it is not fair to only show this modern conflict and not the 70 other conflicts (see http://www.crisisgroup.org/library/documents/crisiswatch/cw_2009/cw75.pdf) going on in the world today, which are much fiercer and longer than this one. This book is called Discovering Our Past, Ancient Civilizations and a modern conflict does not have anything to do with ancient times.”

For the full text of Nathan’s letter to the publisher, click here. While this particular textbook was not one of the 28 reviewed in TwT, IJCR detected similar problems in a sister edition of Ancient Civilizations called Glencoe World History, also published by McGraw Hill/Glencoe.

Bias in textbooks arises from a complicated set of causes that have their roots in the textbook publishing process. Agendas, hidden or otherwise, make their way into the books used in America’s classrooms. It is shocking that the textbooks that we rely on to represent historical truth are so flawed by poor scholarship. The work has only begun, and it will take considerable time, energy, and financial resources to fix all that we have documented and prevent future problems. At the most basic level, the trouble with textbooks, given the critical role that they play as molders of civic values and conveyors of truth, should be the concern of all citizens, of any group—ethnic, racial, religious, or political.