Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Get Your Mitts Off My Textbooks!

So, I'm still poking around the Internet on the issues about academic freedom -- I know I've made several posts on it lately, but as the song goes "It's my weblog, and I'll rant if I want to."

I came across a list of various articles about bias in history teaching, and lo and behold, several of them refer to Houghton Mifflen's *Across the Centuries*, which is a seventh-grade history text used in California -- and which I'm familiar with and taught out of several times.

The first thing I thought of is that they're a little late in their complaints. The Houghton Mifflen series was approved nearly a decade ago, and in school districts around here, it's in the process of being replaced with a new one. My second thought was to dwell on the irony -- when the series was approved, it was very controversial with several ethnic and religious minorites claiming they got short shrift. There was a very big discussion back then about how these textbooks are put together.

The big complaint of these articles is that Islam is portrayed in a generally positive light. One of these articles even suggested that the offending pages be ripped out. Other articles complain that jihad is being falsely portrayed as an inner struggle ("struggle" is actually what the word means), and that homework assignments force students to pretend to be Muslim.

First of all, it isn't just Islam -- *all* religions in the series are generally portrayed in a positive light. Given the odds that you might run into a student that adheres to one of them, you virtually have to. Would these people want a critical presentation of Christianity? I doubt it very much. Actually, my biggest complaint is that most teachers, especially in the sixth grade, when kids are supposed to learn about Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, simply skip these chapters altogether. They either don't want to deal with the potential controversy, or don't have the time.

(As an aside, the biggest problem of both of these textbooks is that there is so much material in them that a teacher is either forced to whiz through it whether the kids get it or not, or skip major sections. In sixth grade, if teachers follow the book -- as they mostly do -- they'll spend the first semester covering things like how to read maps, and don't even start on the more interesting material on ancient civilizations until Thanksgiving, or even Christmas. The chapters on Ancient Israel, China, and India are almost invariably skipped, and Rome gets cut off at the end of the year.)

The second thing here is that we are talking about 12-year-olds. The textbook is covering the basics of each religion, and in the case of Islam, the civilization that grew out of it. Controversies and disputes within or about any of these religions are not introduced. As far as the offending "homework exercises" in which kids are supposed to pretend they are Muslim traders, or a pilgrim to Mecca -- yes, they occur in the book, but I've never seen a teacher use any of them. There's little enough time just to get the kids learning the basic concepts and vocabulary without assigning imaginative essays. When I was a student teacher, I did have the kids write their own story about Gilgamesh and Eridu -- but I suppose some of these people would be mad about that, too.

What these critics appear to want is for their own biases against Islam to be taught in the classroom -- to which I say "Screw you. I wouldn't do that even if it *was* in the textbook." However, the good news for them is that, as widespread as bias against Islam is, I'm sure some middle school teachers either skip these chapters, or introduce their own criticisms.

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