What Seventh-graders in California are Learning About Mohammad & Co.

What seventh-graders in California are learning about Mohammad & co.
by Rod Dreher
National Review Online
February 12, 2002 11:20 a.m.

Are California seventh-graders being proselytized by the state’s public schools on behalf of Islam? Yes, says Jennifer Schroeder, mother of a San Luis Obispo seventh-grader, who has filed an official complaint with local school authorities over Across the Centuries, the social-studies textbook used in all the state’s seventh-grade public classrooms.

“Our contention here is not that they’re teaching students about Islam, which is constitutional as long as it’s done in a non-biased manner. It’s that they have a real bias towards Islam,” says Brad Dacus, Schroeder’s attorney and president of the Pacific Justice Institute.

Dacus is helping angry parents throughout the state file similar complaints with local school authorities. Their case got a big boost on Monday from noted Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, whose New York Post column attacked the 55 8 age history textbook as an example of “the privileging of Islam in the United States.”

“Everything Islamic is praised; every problem with Islam is swept under the rug,” Pipes writes. He further complains that the textbook presents a rosier picture of Islam than facts warrant, that it promotes Islamic doctrines as objective fact, and instructs students to engage in homework assignments in which they pretend to be Muslims.

But Across the Centuries publisher Houghton Mifflin counters that Pipes only has half the story. California’s state-devised history-curriculum proceeds chronologically. Collin Earnst, a spokesman for the publisher, says that Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism are covered in the sixth-grade text, as mandates by state standards.

“The state of California decided what would be taught and when it would be taught,” says Earnst. “If you look at both these books as a unit, they’re fair representations of all these religions, and present them in a similar fashion.”

That is not the view of one award-winning seventh-grade history teacher from the Bay Area, who asked NRO to withhold her name, fearing reprisal. The teacher explained that in California schools, the role of Christianity in world civilization is studied primarily in grades seven and 10.

“At no point in either grade is the role of Christianity as cogently, thoroughly or engagingly described in the state history texts as Islam,” she says.

“Seventh-grade social studies covers 1,500 years of world history in nine months,” the teacher continues. “Teaching this curriculum is a delicate balancing act because this is the only time in 12 years that most California students study these civilizations. Islam is important in world history, and should be presented accurately and engagingly. That does not justify the virtual obliteration of the history of Christianity and Europe in the state [seventh-grade] text.”

That’s putting it perhaps too strongly, but it is hard to understand why, in an American textbook in which the birth and expansion of Islam gets 55 pages, the Middle Ages in Europe get merely seven, and the Byzantine Empire six. By way of contrast, the story of the Umayyad Muslims is told in seven pages, and even more peculiarly for students in a Western culture, a chapter about “Village Society in West Africa” takes up eight pages.

To be fair, Across the Centuries does have a lot of ground to cover to be faithful to California’s standards. Funny, though, how the textbook leaves out or greatly downplays state-mandated topics having to do with Christianity.

According to state teaching guidelines, the birth of Christianity is to be taught as the final topic in the sixth-grade school year, in a unit called “East Meets West: Rome.” Yet attorney Brad Dacus says his client claims her son was told the reason Christianity wasn’t taught in his San Luis Obispo history class was “they ran out of time.”

The transmission of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire, decrees the state, is to be taught in the “Fall of Rome” unit. But Across the Centuries makes no mention of Christianity here, not even when it discusses the Emperor Constantine, whose battlefield conversion to the Christian faith was one of the pivotal events of Western civilization.

State guidelines call for Christianity to be addressed again in a unit on medieval Europe: “Special attention should be paid to Christianity in the Middle Ages because the Church, more powerful than any feudal state, influenced every aspect of life in medieval Europe. The story of St. Francis of Assisi should be told, both for his embodiment of the Christian ideal and for the accessibility to students of his gentle beliefs.”

But in the seven pages devoted to the European Middle Ages, Christianity is presented not in terms of moral and theological belief, but almost entirely as a matter of power relations and social organization. How much space does Across the Centuries give to St. Francis of Assisi, a historical figure so important he merited special mention in the state guidelines? Ten sentences, plus three lines from one of his poems.

This bias against the religious content of Christianity extends into the unit on the Reformation, which gives short shrift to the theological ideas that inspired Protestantism, and focuses almost exclusively on the social and political fallout.

Critics of the textbook complain not only about what they consider its shortchanging of Christianity, but also about its uncritical assessment of Islamic history.

“The book talks about how Islam gave women rights, but nowhere does it teach that the Koran says a man is allowed to have seven wives. Kids should know that, because it’s relevant to the religion and the culture,” Dacus says. “They want to make Islam palatable to Americans.”

And, Pipes and Dacus claim wording in the Islam chapters presents theological beliefs as historical facts.

This isn’t entirely true. There are numerous passages that contain language like “Muhammad is believed by his followers to have….” But others are more ambiguous (“Muhammad was awakened one night by a thunderous voice [of God] that seemed to come from everywhere…”, and still others do in fact present theological belief as fact (“[T]he very first word the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad was ’Recite.’”.

Even if Christianity and Judaism are presented in the sixth-grade text in a like manner, says Pipes, that hardly solves the problem.

“That would mean that a social science textbook series was looking at every religion from within,” Pipes tells NRO. “That’s pretty dubious. Here it’s just plain boosterism.”

If the Islamic chapters seem like they could have been written by a Muslim activist group, that’s no accident. The California-based Council on Islamic Education, founded in 1988 to fight what the group believes is anti-Muslim bias in the classroom, works closely with textbook publishers to review and develop teaching material. The CIE, which didn’t return a message left on its answering machine, participated in the writing and editing of Across the Centuries.

“They’re very professional, very informed and they have at their heart the same thing we do, which is the desire for good, accurate information for the children,” Abigail Jungreis, who oversees Houghton Mifflin’s social-studies textbook division, told a Muslim web publication in a 1999 interview.

“We see our reviewers as playing a crucial role in enabling us to present accurate and complete information,” Jungreis continued. “In this day and age, there’s no way anybody can be an expert on all aspects of history or social studies subjects.”

Jungreis did not respond to NRO’s request for an interview. Instead, Houghton Mifflin spokesman Earnst replied, saying that members of other faiths were also consulted to review textbooks for fairness and balance.

The Bay Area social-studies teacher credits activism on the part of California Muslims for the way Islam is presented in the textbook. “The local Muslim community makes it a point to attend social-studies teachers’ conventions to share teaching aids, and they also offer free guest speakers for the classroom.”

The veteran educator says she sees these efforts paying off by the way her students, all non-Muslims, react to the Islamic faith in the classroom.

“They’re generally very enthused by Islam,” she says. “The prose [in Across the Centuries] is boring and disjointed in the sections about Western culture, but the book does a great job with Islam. And the Saudis have contributed well-written, lavishly illustrated free materials that are popular with students.”

The Pacific Justice Institute’s Dacus is not surprised to hear that kids come away from Across the Centuries thinking uncritically about Islam. Says Dacus: “That textbook would be a great recruitment tool for Islam for children, if that was the point of a 7th-grade education.”

Statement by Houghton Mifflin Regarding Its “Across the Centuries” Textbook

BOSTON, Mass., February 12, 2002 – Houghton Mifflin Company released the following statement in response to press inquires regarding its “Across the Centuries” textbook:

On February 11, the New York Post published an editorial by Daniel Pipes about Houghton Mifflin’s “Across the Centuries” social studies textbook. Although Mr. Pipes may have more than thirty years studying Islam, it is important to understand that his critique of “Across the Centuries” is not based upon reading the text, nor with the understanding of standards to which the book was written. It is very distressing that during a time in which cultural understanding is paramount, that Mr. Pipes would write such a politically and emotionally charged article based on misinformation.

Assumptions and accusations are made in Mr. Pipes’ editorial about omissions or interpretations of the text. Most of the accusations are based on his own bias and his choice to cite passages out-of-context. Mr. Pipes did not contact Houghton Mifflin to obtain correct information about “Across the Centuries.” Houghton Mifflin has always taken a neutral, fact-based approach to writing all of its educational publications, striving for a fair account of history. Furthermore, a multi-cultural and multi-faith panel of scholars reviewed and approved “Across the Centuries” before publication.

“Across the Centuries” is part of a two-book series developed for the state of California. State standards required that the Grade 6 text, “A Message of Ancient Days,” teach “the dawn of the major Western and non-Western ancient civilizations” including the origins of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The Grade 7 text was to teach “the social, cultural, and technological changes that occurred in Europe, Africa, and Asia in the years 500-1789 AD.”

The California Board of Education determined which topics were covered, and in which grade they are covered. Therefore, due to the chronology of history, and the standards determined by the State of California, Islam was not covered during the same school year as other religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, which are covered during the sixth grade school year.

The state also mandated which specific topics were to be taught during each unit. Houghton Mifflin was provided with an outline of topic areas to be covered and had to provide the detailed information about each historical event. As directed by the state of California, these books were to be written with “Historical Empathy.” Thus, the textbooks do not focus on accounts of violence, cruelty or hatred on the part of any religion. In accordance with California state standards, “Across the Centuries” focuses on how the beliefs of certain cultures help shape their motivation and their effect on history.

However, contrary to Mr. Pipes’ argument, the text does in fact mention instances of Muslim religious intolerance (chapter 4, page 81), just as it cites early missionary work and imperialism, as well as the Crusades and intolerance by the Christians.

Readers should also keep in mind that “Across the Centuries” covers material only up to 1789. Therefore, some of the issues regarding Muslim women’s rights as compared to women’s rights in other cultures are quite accurate. Again, because this text examines a certain period of time, ending in 1789, human rights issues of modern Muslim, Jewish, and Christian peoples are not included in the text. Information about modern history is covered in Houghton Mifflin’s other textbooks, namely “Modern World History? Patterns in Interaction,” which covers present day issues, and includes a special supplement about September 11th ? one of the first to be offered by any textbook publisher.

In this post-September 11 environment, no American needs to be reminded of the significance of religion domestically and in the global community. Part of understanding complex cultural issues requires religious empathy. Throughout the two-part series of textbooks, students are asked to complete writing exercises from the perspective of various historical figures. Mr. Pipes’ accusations about solely pro-Muslim creative writing assignments in “Across the Centuries” are based on misinformation. Throughout the two texts, students are asked to write from the perspective of Athenians, Spartans, Greeks, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, among others. These lessons ask students to take a look at history through the eyes of those who shaped it. Through activities such as these, students gain an understanding of how and why people acted as they did, and begin to think critically about how they might have acted similarly or differently. Nowhere in either textbook are students asked to engage in “mock-religious” activities, wear religious or cultural clothing, nor are they encouraged to exercise the beliefs of any particular religious group. They are simply asked to understand what people of each culture believed.

Mr. Pipes tells readers that Houghton Mifflin establishes events according to Islamic faith as fact. The writers of these textbooks were very careful to qualify their statements about religious “events” with statements like “Muhammad is believed by his followers to have had a vision from Gabriel?” “Muhammad’s followers believe that in another vision?” “The God he believed in?.” (chapter 3, page 58). Each of these accounts of the Islamic faith are qualified as fact only according to the believers of the Islamic religion. Mr. Pipes omitted those citations. It should also be noted that the same qualifiers are used when describing other religions’ historical events. Accounts of the life of Jesus are explained as “according to the New Testament?” (Chapter 10, page 318 of “A Message of Ancient Days” and accounts of Jewish faith are explained as “according to the Bible” (Chapter 10, page 309 of “A Message of Ancient Days”.

Regarding Mr. Pipes’ accusations of implied acceptance of Muhammad’s mission, the textbooks refer to several historical figures in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths as prophets. The term prophet was not used as an endorsement for any one religion but as a term to describe religious figures.

Houghton Mifflin takes great care in editing its books to accurately portray history from all angles. A panel comprised of scholars from every major cultural and religious group, who are members of the religious or cultural group they represent, review each book and screen for any bias or unfair representation of their group, or any other group. “Across the Centuries” and “A Message of Ancient Days” have both received approval from, among others, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars alike ? confirming that each religion is portrayed as its believers see it, not just as outsides may perceive it.

One of the recommendations of this panel was to clarify the meaning of the word “jihad.” Often misunderstood, this word means “to struggle or to do ones best to resist temptation and overcome evil.” The book also states “the Qur’an and Sunna allow for self-defense and participation in military conflict, but restrict it to the right to defend against aggression and persecution.” This definition was suggested by Islamic, Judaic and Christian scholars, among others, as the correct representation of the word “jihad.” Many Americans have come to see the word “jihad” as some Islamic fundamentalists use it, as a right or a mission to kill and destroy. However, the vast majority of Muslims do not share this view, and assert that a “jihad” is not necessarily an act of violence. It is the role of educators to dispel misconceptions and prejudices about religion and culture.

Lastly, Mr. Pipes asserts that religion, or at least Islam, should be approached “from the outside” and not as believers. In public schools, religion and culture should certainly not be learned as believers. However, learning about it must be based on information from believers. Houghton Mifflin’s goal is truth in education. Our efforts in “Across the Centuries” and all of our textbooks are to eliminate misconceptions and ignorance, and help our children develop the critical thinking skills and the cultural understanding to build a peaceful future.

Collin Earnst
Director, Media Relations
Houghton Mifflin Company

Articles are also available online at http://www.DanielPipes.org