The state of California, a major player in the American textbook market, introduces its students to Islam in the seventh grade. For this purpose, the California State Board of Education has recommended the use of, among others, a world history textbook entitled History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond, issued by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute of Palo Alto. A review of the 2005 edition of this book (first published in 2004) provides a dismaying example of what has been, and in some states continues to be, wrong with public school teaching about Islam.
Not to put too fine a point on it, in these pages the history and beliefs of Islam receive special treatment accorded no other religion. This curious emphasis and flattery deserve scrutiny at a time when the three states that dominate the textbook market—California, Texas, and Florida—are officially in the process of reviewing learning standards and content for new textbooks, to be printed in 2011-13. California, however, has suspended its review process for lack of funds, which means that the standards used in producing this volume remain in force, and the textbook remains authorized for public schools. Today, given the challenge of radical Islam to the American system of liberties and the persistent conflicts involving Israel in the Middle East, what American youths are taught about Islam, and about relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, is of singular importance.
History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond has already elicited harsh comments from textbook critics. William J. Bennetta, editor of the Textbook Letter and president of the Textbook League, is an energetic monitor
of falsifications and distortions in authorized teaching materials. His work has been praised by education expert Diane Ravitch. Bennetta has called the volume under review “corrupt” and “pseudohistorical,” warning that it imparts a “vividly sectarian, vividly promotional” attitude toward Islam amounting to “illegal religious indoctrination.” A fresh and objective look at the book confirms Bennetta’s judgment of its content. But before proceeding to document that, we should note that the volume also exemplifies the current view of education and textbooks as “edutainment,” framed to compete with popular culture for the attention of students. Edutainment products are like movies: When their messages are not straightforward, the underlying biases, distortions, errors, and gaps must be understood by inference.
History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond covers world history from the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment. Quite properly, the book gives most space to Western history and culture as the principal source of American civilization. Fourteen of its 35 chapters address the legacy of Rome, European feudalism, the growth of towns, the Byzantine Empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the age of exploration, and the scientific revolution. Other units treat the culture and kingdoms of West Africa (4 chapters), imperial China (4 chapters), medieval Japan (3 chapters), and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas (5 chapters). What will detain us here, however, is the unit on “The Rise of Islam,” noteworthy because it provides several varieties of detail no other strand of world history receives. Its 5 chapters cover the geography of Arabia, the life of the religion’s founder, the teachings of Islam, the contributions of Muslims to world civilization, and the Crusades and the Spanish reconquest. Remarkably for a book of medieval history, these pages include seven photographs of Muslims engaged in religious observance today, strongly hinting at its real agenda: to depict Islam as unchanging over time, in line with the beliefs and aims of Islamist ideologues.
Although this textbook contains plenty of maps, the only portion of the globe whose geography is the subject of an entire chapter, intended for one week’s study, is the Arabian Peninsula. This establishes from the outset the Arabocentric focus of the textbook’s presentation of Islam. A preface to the unit on Islam entitled “Setting the Stage” concedes that “today Arabs are a small minority of Muslims worldwide.” Nevertheless, the text insistently depicts Arabia as the central reference point for Islam. Arab Christianity is absent, even though ancient Christian communities existed throughout the period under study and survive to this day in Arab lands including Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq. While the Persians and the Turks, the Indians and the Southeast Asians, receive passing mentions, none of these Islamic civilizations rates a chapter or even a subhead. All this reinforces the sense that Islam is “the Arab religion.”