Texts and Religion: History as It Wasn’t

By Susan Walton — May 02, 1984 6 min read

The role of religion, described as one of the most fundamental and pervasive influences on American society, is “neglected and distorted” in many major American history textbooks, a new analysis contends.

“Religion is taken to be negligible in American history,” the study says. “To the extent that it has had any influence, that influence is negative.”

Not only are the textbooks surveyed incomplete in their description of the role of religion, but they include errors of fact and treat historical problems with “anachronism, discontinuity, and oversimplification,” the report contends.

Robert Bryan, a writer who holds a Ph.D. in ecclesiastical history from the University of London, wrote the report, “History, Pseudo-History, Anti-History: How Public-School Textbooks Treat Religion” at the request of Learn Inc., a Washington-based private research foundation specializing in education policy.

“If I were an atheist, which I am not, I would want my kids to learn about precisely the things [this] study shows they are not learning, because an educated man knows how his ancestors were different from himself,” said Lawrence Uzzell, president of Learn Inc. and a former assistant to a previous director of the National Institute of Education.

“I think religion is today is what sex was in Victorian times: It’s the great unmentionable,” Mr. Uzzell added. “It’s just not brought up in polite company, and that means that a major dimension of reality is just being ignored.”

The report is the latest of a number of analyses that have criticized history textbooks on various counts. Frances FitzGerald’s analysis, America Revised, found that history textbooks poorly reflected the actual substance of history. A study issued last year by the Hudson Institute, a New York think tank, contended that the social-studies books presented students with a distorted view of the probable future.

And an analysis conducted by the sociologist Nathan Glazer argued that textbook authors, in their efforts to correct past treatment of mi-nority groups in books, now describe them in overly positive terms. (See Education Week, May 18, 1983.)

Mr. Bryan bases his analysis on his reading of 20 American history textbooks approved for use in the Montgomery County, Md., public schools. The author chose that district because it “stands high in reputation” nationally and hence is likely to provide its students with the best textbooks available.

But if the definition of “best” includes an accurate portrayal of the part religion and religious thought have played in American history,xtbooks show serious inadequacies, the author argues.

“I obviously did not find many striking examples of out and out prejudicial treatment,” said Mr. Bryan in an interview, adding that he did not approach the project with any particular expectations since it had been many years since he’d read a high-school history textbook.

What he did find, though, was “a whole lot of omission and a whole lot of superficiality.”

“I think in many ways they encourage students to be slack and superficial,” he said of the textbooks. “They sort of shut rooms in peoples’ minds. They don’t allow you to think about things. You don’t realize how much students say, ‘Well, if it’s in the book, it must be right.”’

The textbooks surveyed offer “extensive discussion” of religion during only the Colonial era, Mr. Bryan says. “There is a remarkable consensus to the effect that after 1700, Christianity has no historical presence in America,” he writes.

Even within that time period, the textbooks have some “astonishing gaps,” he says.

“Some of them discuss Quakerism in Pennsylvania, but only one goes beyond the barest mention of the Roman Catholic Church’s activities in Spain’s American possessions,” he writes. “None discusses the role of Anglican Christianity in the middle and southern English colonies.” One book notes the existence of Jewish colonists, “but it is as if Christian religious influences stopped at the border between Connecticut and New York.”

Important Information Omitted

Even when the books do discuss religion’s role in the shaping of society, they omit critical explanations that leave students with little or no context in which to place the information, according to Mr. Bryan.

For example, the author notes, the texts name religious freedom as one central reason immigrants came to America. But they fail to provide a “coherent account” of what Puritanism was and do not explain that colonization was “a specifically Christian enterprise and that one of the stated purposes of colonization in every charter granted by the Crown was the propagation of the Gospel.”

Anachronism, Mr. Bryan writes, “appears most clearly in the description of the attitudes and beliefs of the past.” For example, one textbook describes the government of Massachusetts as being “in the hands of the elite.” Mr. Bryan acknowledges that this was indeed the case, but points out that the term “elite” has a specific meaning in French--elect of God--that is quite different from the modern English use of the word. “The authors give no indication that they are using a foreign word in its original sense; and there is no reason why they should; and there is no reason, apart from charity, to believe that they do.”


Discontinuity is another major flaw in the books, Mr. Bryan writes. ''It is demonstrated by their repeated references to ‘the Puritans’ without any attempt at explaining who these people were, where they came from, and, most important, where they have gone.” The churches founded by the Puritans still exist, he points out, often in the buildings the early settlers built for them.

“Both anachronism and disconti-nuity foster a snide that-was-then-this-is-now attitude toward the past that is unbecoming, to say the least, and extremely damaging to a true understanding and appreciation of the past,” Mr. Bryan writes.

The books also exhibit “gross oversimplification,” the author contends, by “departing so little from vague generalities that it is impossible even to dig out something specific to criticize.” The old “names and dates” approach, he argues, was superior, providing students with data, if not interpretation.

Mr. Bryan also notes examples of American history in which religion played a significant role. But the texts treat the events as if there was no religious influence involved.

For example, the abolitionist movement was headed largely by Quaker and Protestant leaders, acting out of religious conviction. And during the same era, the Know-Nothing movement “was agitating against the first great wave of Catholic immigration.” That movement, Mr. Bryan says, strongly influenced the successful movement for a “monopolistic public-school system.”

And after the Civil War, the same forces mobilized behind the issues of women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. “But you would never guess that from any of these textbooks,” Mr. Bryan writes.

“The student who reads these books, marks them, learns them, and inwardly digests them, will leave with no heightened understanding of his heritage, but instead a complacent contempt for it,” Mr. Bryan writes.

He argues, too, that it is entirely realistic to ask textbook authors to present an accurate picture of the material in question.

“I don’t know how realistic it would be to expect an ordinary high-school teacher, who may be excellent as a teacher but with no particular training as a scholar, to include it, but I’m not asking the teacher to do it,” he said. “I do think it’s realistic to ask publishers to do it. I do think it’s realistic to ask people who put their names on [the books] to do it. I think it’s wrong to abuse and omit facts.”

The study is available for $3 from Learn Inc., 655 15th St. N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20005.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1984 edition of Education Week as Texts and Religion: History as It Wasn’t