Curriculum

Review Criticizes Textbooks’ Take on Middle East, Islam

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 04, 2008 3 min read

Middle and high school history textbooks generally paint a positive or benign picture of Islam that tends to clash with confrontational images students might see or read in the news, says a review by the American Textbook Council.

Nearly seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, highlighted the need for Americans to learn more about the Middle East and Islam, there is more content on the subject, but publishers continue to fail in giving key topics careful and complete treatment, the review concludes. In some cases, they distort or censor information, according to the review of the 10 most commonly used texts that were adopted for use in California and available to schools nationwide.

“I’m still disturbed,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director and founder of the New York City-based council and the author of the report, who issued a similar review in 2003, just before the United States went to war with Iraq. The council was founded in 1989 to promote better-quality history texts.

The latest review covers new ground, such as the texts’ coverage of terrorism and contemporary issues in Islam. It was financed by the Searle Freedom Foundation, the Achelis Foundation, and the Stuart Family Foundation.

Students are still unlikely to get a full understanding of those issues as well as the historical context of the religion from the textbooks, the review finds.

“Deficiencies about Islam in textbooks copyrighted before 2001 persist [in newly published texts] and in some cases have grown worse,” the report says. “Instead of making corrections or adjusting contested facts, publishers and editors defend misinformation and content evasions against the record. Biases persist. Silences are profound and intentional.”

The review criticizes the texts, for example, for describing jihad, generally translated as holy war, as a sacred struggle for justice. Coverage of the Crusades, it says, paints Christians solely as “violent attackers” and Muslims as victims. Moreover, it says, students don’t learn about modern aggression among Muslim groups, such as between Sunni and Shia sects in Iraq.

Religious Sensitivities

The review compares content in the secondary school texts with accounts by scholars in what it terms “authoritative histories” of Islam.

The earlier review created an uproar among commentators and conservative groups for what they saw as its documentation of a turn toward politically correct curricula. A backlash also erupted among advocacy groups and scholars of Islam, who charged that Mr. Sewall had presented a view of the religion that emphasized fundamentalism over the peaceful observance they said most Muslims adhere to.

Some experts say the report has value, but may unfairly single out Islam as a problem in textbooks.

“I think the atc serves a very important function to highlight the deficiencies of our textbooks, ... and in a way, this report underscores how difficult it is to get [the teaching of religion] right in textbooks,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Washington-based Freedom Forum.

Mr. Haynes, who has written a guide to teaching about religion in public schools, agrees that textbooks generally “airbrush the negative” out of teaching about Islam, but they do so in their treatment of other religions as well, he said.

“Overall, public school curricula and textbooks are unfailingly kind and positive regarding religion,” he said. “Part of it is an age-appropriateness problem, part of it is a lack of time, and part of it is a bending over backwards not to offend any religious group, big or small.”

Mr. Haynes takes issue, however, with the tone of the report, which he says suggests Islam is an inherently violent religion. He has worked with groups, such as the Council on Islamic Education, that try to counter the image of Islam as an extremist religion.

The review suggests that such groups have exerted too much influence on the textbook-adoption process, pressuring state review committees to incorporate “doctored” versions of history.

“All religious groups try to use the textbook process to their advantage, and publishers and editors are in the business of quieting groups of all kinds,” Mr. Sewall said. “But I argue that Islam-related bias stands out, and that textbooks are scrubbing the subject, ... and students are getting a false picture of threats to the U.S. and the world.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Review Criticizes Textbooks’ Take on Middle East, Islam

Events

School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Whitepaper
Educator Survey Results: Meeting the Demands of Hybrid Learning with eBooks
With COVID-19 altering nearly all aspects of daily life, including the way students learn, this survey sought insight from those on the f...
Content provided by OverDrive
Curriculum Opinion Introducing Primary Sources to Students
Five educators share strategies for introducing primary sources to students, including English-language learners.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Curriculum Opinion Eight Ways to Teach With Primary Sources
Four educators share ways they use primary sources with students, including a strategy called "Zoom."
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Curriculum The Dr. Seuss Controversy: What Educators Need to Know
The business that manages Dr. Seuss' work and legacy will cease publishing six books due to racist stereotypes and offensive content.
5 min read
A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair on March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would cease publication of several of the author's children's titles because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Steven Senne/AP