Education

Textbooks Shun Religious Themes, Study Charges

By James Hertling — October 02, 1985 6 min read
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Washington--Most public-school textbooks ignore religion in American history and society, partially because of authors’ “deep-seated fear of any form of active, contemporary Christianity,” a federally financed study has concluded.

The study, supported by the National Institute of Education, the Education Department’s research arm, also charged that elementary- and secondary-school history and social-studies textbooks fail to promote “family values” and demonstrate a “strong liberal” political bias.

The conclusions are contained in “Religion and Traditional Values in Public-School Textbooks: An Empirical Study,” by Paul C. Vitz, a New York University professor of psychology. Mr. Vitz conducted the study as part of a $73,445 nie project he directed on values in textbooks.

The project is said by those familiar with research on textbook content to represent one of the most systematic efforts to study values in textbooks.

The nie has not yet cleared the study for official release, but Mr. Vitz made the empirical portion available to Education Week. It was initiated in 1982 by the former nie director, Robert W. Sweet Jr.

‘Superficial Treatment’ Seen

The nie report comes at a time when textbook publishers are under growing pressure to make changes in both the readability levels and the content of their major book lines. The California Board of Education last month rejected all 7th- and 8th-grade science texts proposed for adoption on the grounds that they provided inadequate discussions of evolution, human reproduction, and “ethical issues.” (See Education4Week, Sept. 25, 1985.)

Mr. Vitz’s study cited history and social-studies texts’ “universal superficial treatment of all topics.”

The director of a national textbook-reform project said last week that she agreed with Mr. Vitz’s characterization of textbooks as superficial but disagreed with his conclusion that political bias is the main cause.

“The books represent the consensus that we have in this society, whether you like it or not,” commented Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, director of the textbook-reform project for the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education. She called the result of such consensus “a sterile compromise” and a ''valueless, dull factual parade” that does in fact ignore religion.

But she contended that “active Protestant Christians who are complaining about the lack of values in textbooks have a lot to answer for,” asserting that they have pressured boards of education to adopt their viewpoint on many issues.

‘Bum Rap’

Donald A. Eklund, vice president of the schools division of the Association of American Publishers, said textbook publishers get a “bum rap” when they are blamed for major shortcomings in textbooks. He suggested the problem lies with the state and local boards of education that buy books.

Because the entire textbook market is composed of state and local government agencies, he said, “no industry is as regulated as ours.”

Details of Study

Mr. Vitz divided his study into seven categories: religion in social-studies texts for grades 1-4; religion8in introductory American-history texts for grade 5; religion in world-history or world-culture texts for grade 6; family values in social-studies texts for grades 1-4; general observations on social-studies texts for grades 1-4; U.S. history texts for grades 11 and 12; and religion and other values in readers for grades 3-6.

He examined the numbers and types of references to religion and values found in textbooks that had been approved for use in California and Texas--the two biggest textbook purchasers--and other states that have adoption lists. In analyzing high-school history texts, for which there are no nationally representative adoption lists, Mr. Vitz selected at random eight books from the adoption lists of 14 states.

His findings were reviewed and confirmed by an independent group, Educational Products Information Exchange.

‘Secular Censorship’ Seen

In the books he analyzes, Mr. Vitz criticizes what he calls “secular censorship” and sometimes “offensive” treatment of religion, particularly Protestantism.

“Those responsible for these books appear to have a deep-seated fear of any form of active, contemporary Christianity, especially serious, committed Protestantism,” he writes. “This fear has led authors to deny and repress the importance of this kind of religion in American life. That is, for those responsible for these books active Protestantism is threatening and hence taboo.”

Discussing social-studies texts for grades 1-4, he writes, “The most striking thing about these texts is the total absence of any primary religious text about typical contemporary American religious life. In particular, there is not one text reference to characteristic AmericanProtestant religious life in these books.”

Mr. Vitz, in his analysis of introductory American history texts for grade 5, decries their failure to mention the “positive contribution of Christianity to the [American] Indians” in colonial times and of the religious impetus for the anti-slavery movement.

Of grade 6 world-history texts, he writes, “To appreciate the neglect of the life of Jesus, it is only necessary to compare it with some books’ coverage of the life of Mohammed.” He cited one book, which treated Mohammed in 104 lines, while covering the life of Jesus in 36 lines.

‘Political Bias’

The researcher also criticizes elementary-school social-studies texts’ failure to include prominent contemporary religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham among the individuals featured as “Famous People” or “People Who Made a Difference.”

Mr. Vitz asserts that there is “political bias” in the selection of historical “role models.” Among typical examples featured in the texts, he writes, are Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, a Democrat; Senator Nancy L. Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas; Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court; and the late anthropologist Margaret Mead. He laments the omission of former Senator Robert A. Taft, Senator Jesse Helms, former United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and Irving Kristol, a professor at nyu and well-known “neo-conservative” writer.

“You would think there weren’t any male Republicans in the country, much less any active conservatives, male or female in the last 20 years,” Mr. Vitz writes. “In short, taxpayers’ money has been used to provide promotion of active liberal politicians.”

Most books give the subject of family values “superficial” treatment, Mr. Vitz says. He notes that texts designed for grades 1-4 emphasize women in occupational roles, not family roles.

In elementary-school social-studies texts, he criticizes the absence of such words as “husband,” “wife,” marriage,” and “wedding,” noting that one book’s definition of a family is “a group of people.”

“It is clear that marriage is not seen as central to the definition of family--a clear example of ideological bias,” he writes.

Findings To Be Used

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has not yet received the results of the new research, according to an aide. When he does, he will reportedly use the material in speeches and other public statements.

Mr. Bennett has earmarked grants from his discretionary account for projects to improve textbooks.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1985 edition of Education Week as Textbooks Shun Religious Themes, Study Charges

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