March 7, 2009
By Lauren Green
Authors Warn That Many Textbooks Distort Religion
Jesus was a Palestinian? That's what one public school textbook says.
Although Jesus lived in a region known in his time as Palestine, the use of the term "Palestinian," with its modern connotations, is among the hundreds of textbook flaws cited in a recent five-year study of educational anti-Semitism detailed in the book "The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion."
Authors Gary Tobin and Dennis Ybarra of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research found some 500 imperfections and distortions concerning religion in 28 of the most widely used social studies and history textbooks in the United States.
Ybarra, a research associate at the institute, called the above example "shocking."
A "true or false" question on the origins of Christianity asserted that "Christianity was started by a young Palestinian named Jesus." The teacher's edition says this is "true."
But even though Jesus is the founder of Christianity, the question ignores the fact that he was Jewish. And Ybarra said, "The Christian scriptures say that he preached in Judea and Galilee, not Palestine," a term that was used at the time as a less specific description of the broader region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Ybarra says part of the problem is that publishers employ or contract with writers who are not experts in the subject, or they may use out-of-date information. Or they may bow to special interest groups.
"They're under pressure from all kinds of minority groups, religious groups, and they try to satisfy everyone and that results in content that is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator," he said. "And so, in that process, things can be missed. Errors can survive."
Ybarra also claims that the textbooks tend not to treat Christianity, Judaism and Islam equally.
"Islam has a privileged position," he said. "It's not critiqued or criticized or qualified, whereas Judaism and Christianity are."
One example is in the glossary of "World History: Continuity and Change." It calls the Ten Commandments "moral laws Moses claimed to have received from the Hebrew God," while the entry for the Koran contains no such qualifier in saying it is the "Holy Book of Islam containing revelations received by Muhammad from God."
But First Amendment scholar Dr. Charles Haynes, who has written extensively on the subject of public schools and religion, says he thinks sometimes the criticisms go a little too far.
"There's no conspiracy in the textbook industry to favor one religion over another. ... I think the group that bangs the pot the loudest gets the most attention," he said.
"Having said all that, I think the textbooks are working at trying to treat everybody the same way," he added. "They made mistakes. They've got to work on it."
Experts agree, though, that part of the problem rests in the fact that there are so few textbook publishers.
Seventy-five percent of public school books are published by just three companies: Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education. None responded to requests for comment for this story.
"It's a big problem right now that we have so few choices in our textbooks," Haynes said. "This is an industry. ... It's a marketplace. They're trying to sell their textbooks."
But Ybarra said it goes deeper than pure economics. He thinks the school books are being used as tools for propaganda, particularly to perpetuate negative attitudes towards Christianity, Israel and pro-Palestinian views concerning the Middle East.
"We fear that this is creating a generation of biased school children," he said. "Some of our projects in the higher education realm with some of these same subject matters, we find that students do show up at universities with these prejudices."
Ybarra maintains that, ultimately, parents and communities need to get involved and demand accountability from school boards, publishers and scholars on what goes into the materials being used to teach fresh, young minds.
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