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The problems with U.S. Textbooks in their religious instruction, report on a study by Peter Menkin

Author: Peter Menkin

In a reliable and even remarkable study, The Institute for Jewish & Community Research, located in San Francisco, published a work on religion in American textbooks. These textbooks, used in the United States’ schools, make many errors of religious fact—surprising and even egregious errors.

  The book is titled, “The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion,” published by Lexington Books, a division of Rowman and Littlefield, Publishers.^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0739130935   The effort of five years by the late researcher Gary Tobin, PhD (former President of the Institute), and Dennis Ybarra, MBA, was discussed both by email and webcam.   Part One: The interview begins  Dennis Ybarra says via email:   How many textbooks are in the study? I’ve a copy of the Executive Summary, found on your website :   I reviewed 28 textbooks. Up until now, I declined to segregate the 28 into subsets of pass or failing overall because the content in each of them is so “all over the map.” Meaning that in the four areas we analyzed: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Israel, many are very good in one area and terrible in another.   Why do you say some are “…good in one area and terrible in another?”   This is because the sections in one of these areas may be exemplary while others are egregious.     Part Two: What Jewish and Community Research says of themselves, an introduction The introduction to the Executive Summary boldly notes for the book:   “The Trouble with Textbooks sounds the alarm about how textbooks disparage some groups and teach historical distortions. Our schools are supposed to instill young people with American values and provide students with the knowledge necessary for good citizenship. Instead, textbooks are filled with mistakes and misrepresentations.”   The research was conducted under the funding by and auspices of The Institute for Jewish and Community Research, whose tri-fold purposes are as “…an independent think tank devoted to creating a safe, secure, and growing Jewish community. We provide research to the Jewish community and the general society, utilize our information to design and develop innovative initiatives, and educate the general public and opinion leaders.”   They explain:   (1) “The Institute conducts survey research about religious prejudice.”   (2) “The Institute engages in research about megagifts in American philanthropy, giving to higher education, and philosophies of giving. We also specialize in research about Jewish philanthropy, including foundations and motivations for giving to Jewish causes.”   (3) “We study the demography of the Jewish people, looking at how Jewish identity is defined and expressed. We examine issues relating to inter-marriage, conversion and the racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish people.”   Regarding their study on textbooks, the Executive Summary explains that people of religious faith will find the errors obvious, once they look at the textbooks. The Institute’s Dennis Ybarra urges parents to read their child’s textbook, and says the Executive Summary is readable and useful to school boards in San Francisco’s Bay Area, and in the United States.   Part three: The interview again… then the chart   • The name “Palestine” is used liberally and innacurately. Prior to the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolts and the Romans’ renaming of the land as a punishment for the revolts, the land was not known as Palestine. • “Palestine” is referred to as the location of Jesus’ ministry even though the word is unknown in Christian sources. • Christianity is described a having been founded “by a young Palestinian named Jesus.”   To the religious, whether Christian or Jew, some substantive facts are important. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus lived in Israell, or the Hebrew area of the world which was Judah and Israel. Jesus is without qualification considered the Messiah by Christians, and it is Biblical that he rose from the dead, not only a tradition or belief. As a central part of the faith, that is vital, for Easter is the most important Christian Holiday of the year.   These, as I say, are important points: even very significant. A substantive religious instruction for Jews and Christians is that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. This is not a vague or questionable teaching. It is clearly visible and part of a believers set of understandings, let alone a general reader of the Bible.   That there are many concerns relevant to today’s Jewish tradition, for I did note many quotes from the Jerusalem Post to get to the “moral” side of the article using the words of the researchers. These are Jewish faith moral concerns, and valid. Jews have a valid and highly regarded moral sense, so I think and is popularly believed. Christians, too, will find these same concerns with their moral dimension, for afterall the two faiths share various areas of teaching for the Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible. Christians and scholars, as well as parents and those whose lessons these are will find the issues and their controversies of moral as well as historic and factual concern of accuracy alone.   The textbooks fail to meet the devotional practices as they are in fact practiced. Here is a chart from the work:  

  • Islamic teachings are treated as historical truth while Judaism and Christianity are presented with a skeptical tone.
  • Textbook publishers pass on material that proselytizes for Islam rather than more properly teaches about Islam.

In looking through this comparison chart that notes the language used for Beliefs of the three major religions in the selected textbooks, the chart shows starting on the right: The textbook name and publisher; the religion (as Judiasm, Christianity, Islam). Read carefully for wording, for the differences are subtle, even in nuance. The implication though slight here begins to show a pattern, making the affect of approach to each weighted in a different manner: “story”/”revealed”; “claimed”/”revelation received”; “claimed”/received revelation from Allah”, and so on.


  Table 5.1: Comparison of Language Used for Beliefs of the Three Major Religions in Selected Textbooks   Textbook Judaism Christianity Islam The World (Pearson/Scott Foresman) Caption to a picture of a seder plate: “Foods on the seder plate are symbolic of an ancient Hebrew story.”   “The pilgrimage, or hajj (haj), to Mecca is an essential part of Islam, the religion revealed to Muhammad . . . .” World History: Continuity and Change (Holt) Glossary entry: “Ten Commandments Moral laws Moses claimed to have received from the Hebrew God Yahweh on Mount Sinai.”   Glossary entry: “Qur’an Holy Book of Islam containing revelations received by Muhammad from God.”   World Civilizations: The Global Experience (Pearson)   Glossary entry: “Jesus of Nazareth” reads in part, “prophet and teacher among the Jews; believed by Christians to be the Messiah . . . .” Glossary entry: “Muhammad Prophet of Islam . . .; received revelations from Allah in 610 C.E. and thereafter . . . .”  Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction. (McDougal Littell)   “According to the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth was born around 6 to 4 B.C.” “According to Jesus’ followers, he rose from the dead. . . .” “Muhammad’s teachings, which are the revealed word of God . . . , are found in the holy book called the Qur’an.” World Cultures and Geography – Eastern Hemisphere (McDougal Littell) Teacher’s Planning Guide: “[Section] Overview: Key Ideas Birthplace of Three Religions . . . Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share common traits.” “Judaism is a story of exile.” “Christians believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah.” “The Qur’an is the collection of God’s revelations to Muhammad”   Glencoe World History (McGraw-Hill) “Then, because of drought, the Israelites migrated to Egypt, where they were enslaved until Moses led them out of Egypt. . . . Some interpretations of recent archaeological evidence contradict details of the biblical account.”      


      Further in its introduction, the study says:   Some supplemental materials are inflammatory. They posit that Israeli Jews are white European colonialists in the same unsavory category as the imperialist European countries.   • The Arab nations never attacked Israel. Arab-Israeli wars “just broke out,” or Israel started them. • Arabs nations want peace but Israel does not. • Israel expelled all Palestinian refugees. • Israel put the Palestinians in refugee camps in Arab lands, not Arab governments.    Questions we asked of Dennis Ybarra, again, regarding the study. What was your methodology? We selected the 28 textbooks that include all major publishers and a smaller one that we thought would cover all the most widely used in U.S. public schools. Once we purchased those, we did a survey of at least two school districts in each “non-adoption” state. (California adopts K-8 on a statewide basis.) For adoption states we had the list of approved textbooks. By this we confirmed that we had included all the most widely used textbooks.   Please tell us more? I analyzed thousands of pages of textbooks. We also looked at related supplemental materials and professional development teacher trainings. The textbooks we examined included teacher, student, and advanced placement editions.   We performed a detailed content analysis of student materials, including student textbooks, websites, and handouts, and of teacher materials, including teacher’s editions of textbooks, curricula, lesson plans, teacher training materials, websites, and more. The content analysis of the textbooks focused on four subject areas:   • Jewish history, theology, and religion • The relationship between Judaism and Christianity • The relationship between Judaism and Islam • The history, geography, and politics of the Middle East   What about San Francisco’s Bay Area schools and textbooks? I did take a look at what books were in use in the San Francisco Unified School District.   In general, getting information on what books are used in the myriad primary, middle, and secondary districts in the region is very time consuming if the information is not posted on a website.    One must determine the proper contact person at the district who handles curriculum, call the person and hope he or she is in the office. Once you reach the person, you must hope they are cooperative (even though as a public agency they must be transparent).   For high school, San Francisco Unified does use McDougal Littell’s Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction, Traditions & Encounters by McCraw Hill, and World Civilizations: The Global Experience by Pearson, all of which we reviewed.     Were there other errors of note you want to mention in the textbooks? These may be from any of the textbooks, not just those used in San Francisco’s Bay Area.   “Excepting the Old Testament’s poetry, the Jews produced very little of note in any of the art forms. . . . There is no record of any important [early] Jewish contributions to the sciences.” (World Civilizations, Thomson Wadsworth)   We found that, in many of the 28 textbooks, the following:   1. Negative stereotypes of Jews appear in textbooks. 2. Textbooks misrepresent the close relationship between Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. 3. Textbook material from Muslim advocacy groups glorifying Islam over Judaism and Christianity is placed in textbooks verbatim by compliant publishers.   The moral question of fairness, of the impartiality and objective nature of textbook quality is not dealt with very much in this article. News media have offered the story in a context of fairness, the moral condition of attitude and fact regarding religious content. As a note, this writer wants to add that researcher Dennis Ybarra believes textbook publishers may not be “purposefully creating errors,” but they are responding to what they are handed, many times without much review and as it was handed to them.   The researcher says, “We did not speak to publishers as part of the research. Our purpose was to identify the problems. During my research I noticed that the textbook publishing world was amazingly closed.   “No one from the major industry players was willing to publicly criticize the way textbooks are written, the textbook adoption process and its less than desirable results, or textbook content. The one or two exceptions from published sources were from people who had left the industry.”     What has the press said about the book, so far?   Since the publication of The Trouble with Textbooks and all the interviews I’ve done, the only comment or reaction I’ve seen from the publishers is in a USA Today article by Greg Toppo December 1, 2008.   Their trade association spokesperson asserted therein that publishers thoroughly vetted their material on religion and their products were fair to all religions. Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green clearly stated in her March 7, 2009 report about bias in textbooks about Islam (in which I appeared) that the publishers all declined her offer of the opportunity to comment on the issues we raised. In fact Fox posted the phone numbers of the major publishers recommending their viewers contact them and complain. I later heard through the grapevine that, in response, the publishers shut down those numbers and that no member of the public was subsequently able to get any live person on the line.   I’m sure it’s because the publishers feel trapped in a no win situation, being buffeted by pressure from all sides. Among our most important findings is that “in putting out flawed books the publishers have not been malicious, but unable to successfully navigate the economic, political, and cultural pressures brought to bear on the content of their books.” [p. 154]     Part Four: What others say, including quotes from this study’s researchers as published elsewhere  In a particularly pointed article both researchers are interviewed. The Jerusalem Post of September 25, 2008 says in its headline, “U.S. textbooks misrepresent Jews and Israel.”   These are quotes from that Jerusalem Post article written by HAVIV RETTIG GUR
These quotes highlight words said by the researchers published in the newspaper and include those of the late Gary Tobin:   In their treatment of Judaism, too, the textbooks showed a negative bias, according to the study. They often expressed a view that “Jews and Judaism are legalistic,” and that “Jews care only about the letter of the law and ignore its spirit,” the study found. The Jewish God is presented as “stern and warlike,” and not compassionate, as is highlighted in other religions. In some instances, Jews are charged with deicide in the killing of Jesus.   The study also found that 18 textbooks used “unscholarly and disparaging ‘Old Testament’ terminology for the Jewish scriptures when discussing the origins of Judaism.”   The study compared language used in describing Jewish and Christian belief with that describing Muslim belief. “The textbooks tend to be critical of Jews and Israel, disrespectful about Christianity, and rather than represent Islam in an objective way, tend to glorify it,” says Ybarra.   “Textbook publishers often defer completely to Muslim groups for their content [on Islam] because they want to be sensitive to Muslim concerns,” he explained. “So they write that Mohammed is a prophet of God, without the qualifier you should have in a public school that shows you’re teaching about religion, rather than teaching religion.”   One example among the many cited in the study is in World History: Continuity and Change, in which a glossary entry on the Ten Commandments describes them as “Moral laws Moses claimed to have received from the Hebrew God Yahweh on Mount Sinai.”   The same glossary describes the Koran as a “Holy Book of Islam containing revelations received by Muhammad from God” – without a conditional qualifier.   “Islam is treated with a devotional tone in some textbooks, less detached and analytical than it ought to be,” the study finds. “Muslim beliefs are described in several instances as fact, without any clear qualifier such as ‘Muslims believe… .’   “No religion should be presented in history textbooks as absolute truth, either on its own or compared to any other, or they all should be.”     What some others think of the work is offered on the book jacket, and one quote goes this way (an endorsement): “The Trouble with Textbooks is a very important book not only for Jews but for the entire Christian community. This volume is an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in balanced information that is fair and reliable concerning Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” Rev. John J. Keane, SA, general council member and ecumenical officer, Franciscan Friars of the Atonement       All quotations “excerpted from Executive Summary, Trouble with Textbooks,”  

Images: (1) Trouble with Textbooks; (2) Dennis Ybarra; (3) The Late Gary Tobin. All photos courtesy of Institute of Jewish and Community Research, San Francisco



The textbooks of the study listed here:

1. Arreola, Daniel. D., Marci Smith Deal, James F. Peterson, and Rickie Sanders. World Geography. California teacher’s ed. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2006. 2. Beck, Roger B., Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka. Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction. Teacher’s ed. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2005. 3. Beck, Roger B., Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka. Ancient World History: Patterns of Interaction. Teacher’s ed. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2005. 4. Beck, Roger B., Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Student ed. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2003. 5. Bednarz, Sarah W., Ines M. Miyares, Mark C. Schug, and Charles S. White. World Cultures and Geography: Eastern Hemisphere and Europe. Teacher’s ed. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2005. 6. Berson, Michael J., ed. World History. (Harcourt Horizons). Teacher’s ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.     7. Boehm, Richard G., Claudia Hoone, Thomas M. McGowan, Mabel C. McKinney-Browning, Ofelia B. Miramontes, and Priscilla H. Porter. Ancient Civilizations. (Harcourt Brace Social Studies). Teacher’s ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 2002. 8. Bulliet, Richard W., Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Steven W. Hirsch, Lyman L. Johnson, and David Northrup. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History. Advanced placement ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. 9. Carrington, Laurel, Mattie P. Collins, Kira Iriye, Rudy J. Martinez, and Peter N. Stearns, eds. World History: The Human Journey. Student ed. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2003. 10. Carrington, Laurel, Mattie P. Collins, Kira Iriye, Rudy J. Martinez, and Peter N. Stearns, eds. World History: The Human Journey, Modern World. Teacher’s ed. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2005. 11. Hanes, William T. III, ed. World History: Continuity & Change. Annotated teacher’s ed. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1999. 12. Harcourt Horizons, ed., The World. (Harcourt Horizons). Teacher’s ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 2003. 13. Helgren, David M., Robert J. Sager, and Alison S. Brooks. People, Places, and Change. Teacher’s ed. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2005. 14. Sager, Robert J., and David M. Helgren. World Geography Today. Teacher’s ed. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2005.   15. Bentley, Jerry H. and Herbert F. Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. Boston: McGraw- Hill, 2006.   25. Jacob, Heidi H., and Michal L. LeVasseur. The Ancient World. (World Studies). Teacher’s ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005. 26. Stearns, Peter N., Michael Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Marc Jason Gilbert. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. 4th ed., Advanced placement ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006.   27. Adler, Philip J., and Randall L. Pouwels. World Civilizations. 4th ed., Instructor’s ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2006. 28. Upshur, Jiu-Hwa L., Janice J. Terry, James P. Holoka, Richard D. Goff, and George H. Cassar. World History Since 1500: The Age of Global Integration. vol. 2. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. 16. Boehm, Richard G., David G. Armstrong, Francis P. Hunkins, Dennis Reinhartz, and Merry Lobrecht. The World and Its People. Teacher’s ed. New York, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, 2005. 17. Farah, Mounir A., and Andrea Berens Karls. World History: The Human Experience. Student ed. New York: McGraw- Hill/Glencoe, 2001. 18. Greenblatt, Miriam and Peter S. Lemmo. Human Heritage: A World History. Teacher’s ed. New York: McGraw- Hill/Glencoe, 2006. 19. Lamm, Robert C. The Humanities in Western Culture. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1996. 20. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Glencoe World History. Teacher’s ed. New York: McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, 2005.   21. Ahmad, Iftikhar, Herbert Brodsky, Marylee Susan Crofts, and Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis. World Cultures: A Global Mosaic. Teacher’s ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004. 22. Boyd, Candy D., Geneva Gay, Rita Geiger, James B. Kracht, Valerie O. Pang, C. Frederick Risinger, Sara M. Sanchez. The World. (Scott Foresman Social Studies). Teacher’s ed. Glenview, IL: Pearson/Scott Foresman, 2005. 23. Ellis, Elisabeth G., and Anthony Esler. World History: Connections to Today. Student ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 24. Jacob, Heidi H., and Michal L. LeVasseur. Medieval Times to Today. (World Studies). Teacher’s ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005. 25. Jacob, Heidi H., and Michal L. LeVasseur. The Ancient World. (World Studies). Teacher’s ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005. 26. Stearns, Peter N., Michael Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Marc Jason Gilbert. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. 4th ed., Advanced placement ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006.   27. Adler, Philip J., and Randall L. Pouwels. World Civilizations. 4th ed., Instructor’s ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2006. 28. Upshur, Jiu-Hwa L., Janice J. Terry, James P. Holoka, Richard D. Goff, and George H. Cassar. World History Since 1500: The Age of Global Integration. vol. 2. Belmont, C  

The Jewish and Community Institute, San Francisco emphasizes that one of their important purposes is to bring to public understanding, both in their own community and that of the larger communities, that Jewish people are comprised of many kinds of colors, races, peoples. It is a diverse people, explains Dennis Ybarra in a webcam background interview with this writer. This YouTube is a Jewish prayer, chosen because the institute engages in a business of research into subjects as diverse as the Madoff philanthropy scandal, this study on textbooks, and areas of Jewish identity, including its wide ranging composition of faith by many nationalities.


Final part: Notes on the article by the writer of the interview about and review of “Trouble with Textbooks” 
This article’s Writer’s notes: This writer wants readers to recognize that the controversies of this textbook study take into account Muslim influence on the factual reports, so the researchers say and in fairness this report offers.   It is important to know that the Muslim influence on textbook content is very high, and regarded by Christians and Jews as not the kind of representation of their religious views that expresses in a fair manner their beliefs. Of course, judge for yourself as either a parent, a teacher, or an academic. Clearly, teachers bring in supplemental materials on subjects, many times from their home or own research on behalf of a school. They do so with that supplied by their school. Are students endangered with ignorance to basic beliefs. Maybe not in a crisis sense, but this writer agrees with the researchers that they are being mised.   Certainly, Muslims are entitled to their way of looking at these things. One salient and important point, and though not until the end is it mentioned again as a moral issue regarding press motivations for covering this story, is that of fairness and accuracy of viewpoint, representation, and religious belief and fact as due to the individual faith. Your comments are invited as a reader of this article. –article by Peter Menkin, Mill Valley, CA USA

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About the Author

Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA (north of San Francisco).

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