Textbook tension: Islam in the classroom

By Marsha Sutton

The Islamic textbook controversy, reported in this newspaper two weeks ago, is not a new issue. The debate over the content of history textbooks in the San Dieguito Union High School District surfaced at least twice before in past years, once for seventh grade and once for 10th grade. Some historical background might be useful.

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Marsha Sutton

A letter to the editor last week stated that more class time in seventh grade seems to be given to the study of Islam, over Christianity. This particular point was raised years ago, and three explanations emerged.

First, as the letter-writer noted, California’s content standards for world history dictate that the study of Judaism and Christianity takes place in sixth grade, while Islam should be taught in seventh grade.

The history curriculum in sixth grade covers world history through the time of Jesus, and the seventh-grade curriculum begins hundreds of years after his death. Teachers, as it was explained at the time, are sometimes unable to work their way through the entire textbook and curriculum, so the origins and rise of Christianity, taught at the end of the sixth-grade year, are often short-changed.

The seventh-grade curriculum begins where the sixth-grade textbook leaves off, skipping several hundred years and covering the years from around 500 to the late 1700s. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, lived around the year 600 C.E. (Common Era). Therefore, Islam is covered early in the seventh-grade year, when end-of-the-year crunch time is not an issue.

Second, as the letter mentioned, sixth-grade teachers – when in elementary schools, as they are in local districts – are usually teaching multiple subjects, while middle and high school teachers have single-subject specialties and can provide more in-depth focus on the subject matter.

This leads to the third point. California standards generally assume that middle school includes grades 6, 7 and 8. Most districts are organized that way. But in San Dieguito, middle school only includes grades 7 and 8. Sixth grade is part of local elementary districts. So there can be a disconnect between what’s taught in sixth and seventh grades.

Ideally, the two-part history curriculum spans the two grades seamlessly. In schools serving grades 6, 7 and 8, this is not the problem that it can be in middle schools that do not include sixth grade.

Districts that feed into San Dieguito have worked hard in the last five or six years to tie their curriculum to the high school district’s, but there may still be holes.

For many reasons, improved curriculum integration being only one, middle school should consist of grades 6, 7 and 8.

None of these points, however, addresses the more pertinent issue of how Islam is presented. Whether it’s a biased representation of Islam that understates the negatives, as alleged, depends upon who you ask. But at least some of the complaints appear to have some validity: asking subjective true-false test questions, labeling Muhammad as a prophet, and ignoring some of the Islamic zealotry that historically resulted in violence against conquered people.

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