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.

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.

The report

A 21-page report prepared by local residents James Freedman, Michael Hayutin and Linda Sax identifies 22 points in the textbook as problematic. For example, the report provides this comment on the “prophet” issue:

“The text should always maintain a historical, not devotional, perspective. For example the textbook does not refer to Moses as ‘prophet Moses’ or to Jesus Christ as ‘Lord Jesus Christ.’ However, in this unit Muhammad is frequently called the ‘Prophet Muhammad’ or ‘Muhammad, a prophet.’”

Regarding bias in test questions, the authors cite an on-line quiz on page 85 that includes this true-false question: “Muslims generally practiced religious tolerance in the lands they conquered.”

The correct on-line answer is “true,” but the report’s authors claim this is incorrect, for the following reason:

“There is no ‘True’ or ‘False’ answer to the question of Muslims practicing religious tolerance. There were some instances of ‘tolerance’ but to state ‘generally’ obfuscates the brutal and deadly intolerance going back to the origins and characterizing the spread of Islam throughout the world then and now.”

Another on-line quiz question on page 69 records as incorrect the statement: “Sharia is the law in Muslim countries today.”

Yet the report’s authors maintain that Sharia, or sacred Islamic law, is practiced today to some degree in many countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Indonesia, Sudan, Libya, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and others.

“This obvious error in the on-line answer is troubling,” the report states. “The most casual research would reveal the inaccuracy of the answer deemed correct on the quiz.”

State standards

California’s state standards for sixth and seventh grade history group “Grades Six Through Eight” together – an important point given the different grade configuration of local middle schools. The assumption is that middle school consists of three grades, not two.

In the Grade Six section, there are seven primary headings: Paleolithic era, Mesopotamia/Egypt/Kush, Ancient Hebrews, Ancient Greece, Early India, Early China, and Development of Rome.

The first mention of Christianity occurs in the last, seventh section, the Development of Rome. The sixth sub-heading of this section requires lessons on the origins of Christianity, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and the contribution of St. Paul to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs.

The seventh sub-heading of that section on Rome asks students to “describe the circumstances that led to the spread of Christianity in Europe and other Roman territories.”

In the seventh-grade standards, the study of Islam encompasses an entire section, titled: “Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages.”

This section includes six sub-headings all related to Islam: geography, origins, teachings, the Koran, expansion and conquest, trade routes, products and inventions, intellectual scholars, and contributions to science, technology, mathematics, literature, philosophy, art and medicine.

Christianity, when it relates to historical events, continues to be taught in seventh grade throughout the year-long curriculum. Topics include the spread of Christianity, the division between Catholics and Protestants, the Crusades, and the influence of theological thinkers and philosophers. Other religious beliefs and cultures world-wide are also taught.

The state’s content standards can be accessed through the Calif. Dept. of Education’s Web site at www.cde.ca.gov. [Click on “Curriculum & Instruction” at the top. Then click on “Content Standards (K-12)” and go to “History – Social Science.”]

Supplementing the curriculum

When similar complaints surfaced years ago at Torrey Pines High School, in the 10th-grade world history curriculum, San Dieguito associate superintendent Penny Cooper-Francisco, who has since retired, met with those who raised objections.

How the material is presented in the classroom was considered key. To offer balance, Cooper-Francisco included an informational presentation by the Anti-Defamation League as part of a teacher in-service training program to expand teachers’ knowledge of the subject.

As advocates for civil rights for all people, not just for Jews, the ADL was able to provide perspective on the issue that, all parties said at the time, was valuable for teachers and defused tension in the community.

This time around, the ADL could, once again, offer meaningful assistance to the district and to teachers who strive to educate their students with factual, unbiased information on the world’s great religions.

But Michael Hayutin, one of the report’s authors, wants more. He and his colleagues would like the district to supplement the textbook with the material they have prepared. Their 21-page report took nearly a year to write and is, he said, extensively researched, critically reviewed, and expansive in scope.

“I’m proposing very specifically the items presented in the text that are inaccurate,” Hayutin said, of the report.

He took issue with critics of the report who, he said, “attacked our sources.” He defended the report, saying, “It is impeccably accurate.”

Hayutin criticized the comment from San Dieguito associate superintendent Rick Schmitt who called the report “home-made curriculum.” Although Hayutin was appreciative of the time Schmitt gave to meet with him repeatedly about this issue last year, he said the comment was disrespectful of the effort and research devoted to creating the document.

Schmitt said textbooks are thoroughly scrutinized by the state Board of Education which then recommends them for districts to adopt. Hayutin considered taking his case to the state level, but he said that making changes of this magnitude would require political power that he and his group don’t have. He also noted that the state’s lack of money for education means that new textbooks are not likely to be adopted any time soon.

Since the majority of practicing Moslems abhor the hijacking of the teachings in the Koran to justify violence, Hayutin said several local reform-minded Moslems agree with his objections and want Islam portrayed accurately. To eradicate extremism, one must first acknowledge it exists.

Next steps for the report’s authors include a conversation next week with San Dieguito superintendent Ken Noah, who called Hayutin to arrange a meeting.

Town-hall meetings are also being considered. “I want to publicize this,” Hayutin said. “This is the best way to get the information to the parents.”

Hayutin acknowledged the seriousness of the controversy, saying, “I’m walking a fine line between telling the truth and intentionally trying to create problems. But we want accuracy and nothing else.”

Moslems, historians and other sticklers for the truth would doubtless agree. But accuracy in history, it turns out, is a moving target.

For an emailed copy of the 21-page report on this issue submitted to the San Dieguito school board this month, contact Marsha Sutton at: SuttComm@san.rr.com.



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