We Need a Hot Line Teachers Can Call About Islamic History Textbooks
One example of the difficulty we face in ensuring the academic quality of professional development for our K-12 teachers came out of a set of workshops on Islamic history and culture funded by the Massachusetts Department of Education in 2002. These workshops came to my attention when I reviewed copies of the proposed lesson plans prepared by the 20+ teachers who had just attended them. According to these lesson plans, the workshops taught teachers about “the Prophet Muhammad’s life events,” “when and where he received his first revelation,” and “some of the most important teachings in God’s revelation to Muhammad.” Historians would be puzzled for two reasons. Very little is actually known about Muhammad’s life. And his revelations—what he thought, or is reported as thinking, God told him—cannot be empirically corroborated or independently documented. They can be discussed in a public school only as matters of faith. Imagine the uproar if public school students were taught about Moses’s life events or reincarnation as historical fact.
Historians would also be surprised by the contents of the highly recommended set of materials that these teachers were given and that hundreds elsewhere have been exposed to since 1989, called The Arab World Studies Notebook, published jointly by the Middle East Policy Council and AWAIR (Arab World And Islamic Resources and School Services). Certainly, members of the Algonquin Nation were surprised. One article co-authored by the editor of the Notebook claims not only that Muslims from Europe were the first to sail across the Atlantic and land in the New World, but also that they reached Canada where they intermarried with the Iroquois and Algonquin nations so that, much later, English explorers met “Iroquois and Algonquin chiefs with names like Abdul-Rahim and Abdallah Ibn Malik." In November 2003, the Quebec-based Algonquin Nation Secretariat issued an “alert” requesting an apology for, and correction of, “such nonsense.” A spokesman for MEPC told a reporter in April 2004 that the article with this bogus history had just been pulled from the Notebook, but its editor left unanswered how the 1200 teachers who have received copies of it in the past decade would be notified.
Unfortunately, the flaws in this and other “professional development” workshops I have examined fly under the radar, far from public scrutiny, allowing unethical pedagogical practices as well as blatant errors in fact and judgment to make their way directly into classrooms. Teachers in the workshops on Islam were apparently encouraged to teach their students about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims by building classroom mosques, making prayer rugs, listening to tape recordings of the Koran being chanted, learning how to make a hajj, memorizing the Five Pillars of Islam, and dressing up as a Muslim from a country of one’s choice for a class presentation. No public school teacher would dare teach about Christianity or Judaism in this way, and parents would be startled by such activities if they only knew about them.
It is doubtful that university-based centers for Middle Eastern studies are helping to fill in the gaps in teachers’ knowledge about Islamic history and culture. They have already been sharply criticized for failing to base explanations of recent developments in that part of the world on facts. And in fact, the Massachusetts teachers had just listened to a weeklong series of lectures by eminent scholars of Islamic history and culture at workshops co-directed by two graduate students at Harvard, one the Outreach Coordinator at its Center for Middle Eastern Studies. To judge by the teachers’ lesson plans, they seemed to have absorbed nothing about some real and important phenomena in Islamic history, such as the role and status of women in Islamic societies, the1300 year-old trans-African slave trade to the Middle East, and the economic, military, and domestic functions served by slaves in Islamic societies.
Why do we need an independent “consumer hotline” on Islamic history (and on many other topics as well)? At present, there is no such resource. The National Council for the Social Studies has no mechanism for responding to complaints from its members about errors they find in the teaching materials they use, or for informing members of errors reported to it. And it seems that many Islamic sources themselves confuse matters of faith with matters of fact, abusing them both. Our teachers must have at the least an independent and authoritative resource to which they may report questionable material. Low quality professional development could cost us more than wasted tax dollars—our children’s education is at stake as well.
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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006
"Do public schools tiptoe around religion for legal reasons?"
They absolutely do. I've discussed the issue with students, and if they're to be believed, the mere mention of "God" in a public school classroom, even when relevant to a given subject, causes a frantic redirection of the conversation to a "less controversial" topic.
Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006
Stotsky is no doubt correct that "many Islamic sources themselves confuse matters of faith with fact," and that activists have a stealth agenda to promote a sanitized version of Islam in the public schools.
But I find myself at a loss to grasp the nature of the "problem" described in the fourth paragraph of her essay. We're told that teachers engaged in various interactive projects to supplement whatever they were teaching about Islam. Right--so what? None of those projects require that students believe the tenets of Islam. All they do is make Islamic beliefs tactile and concrete. What is this but an application of the obvious pedagogical principle that students remember best what they've experienced in a perceptual way? Maybe they'll actually remember the material after the semester ends.
"No public school teacher would dare teach Judaism and Christianity this way..." Even if that were true, all it would show is that public schools need to loosen up about Judaism and Christianity and teach it the way they're (according to Stotsky) teaching Islam. As an (atheist) professor of philosophy at a state school, I find myself genuinely embarrassed at the sheer religious ignorance of public school students trundling through Philosophy 101. Ask them about Masada, the Edict of Milan, the Council of Nicea, the Protestant Reformation etc. (forget about Islam) and you get the same blank stares and formulaic/amnesiac responses: "Well, religion to me is just about being a good person." "We didn't really talk about God in public school; it was taboo." "I don't really read the Bible." God save us from milquetoast religion.
So I end up teaching these poor innocents the Lord's Prayer, play them some Gregorian chant, and teach them the words to "We Remember Thee, Zion." Somebody's got to do it, right? If you want to call that "wasted tax dollars," or "religious proselytization on the public dime," be my guest. But maybe if public schools stopped pretending that religion doesn't exist, they'd actually try to educate students about what it is. God forbid that that should happen!
Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006
Re your questions, is "yes" an option?
Leon French Sherman - 8/12/2004
One can debate the pros and cons of presuming any consesus regarding topics like Islamic history. Meanwhile there is something that serves as an appropriate standard, provides outlines, bibliograpy, and discusses key teaching issues. An excellent and reliable tool for content and "attitudes" that can be purchased for as little as $8.50 second hand from Amazon. (I reviewed there also - have no interest requiring disclosure, but have taught Islamic history and studied Islam for over 40 years).
"Strategies and Structures for Presenting World History: With Islam and Muslim History As a Case Study" by Susan Douglas and others, published by Amama.
For secondary school check out a teacher's work on the WWW(with professor Ross Dunn's cooperation as biographer of Ibn Battuta) that has visuals, lively account of Muslim who travelled about three times as far as Marco Polo in roughly the same era. (I lose this thread if I track reference to interrupt here). Hodgson's reflections on world history and Islam in his book of essays also provides a firm grounding and perspective. (Glad to provide details upon inquiry.)
Leon French Sherman - 8/12/2004
Ignorance and brainwashing are not anyone's monopoly as is evident when college educated westerners get positively rabid about other religions and cultures. If history does nothing else it should teach profound skepticism for simple answers and some sense of what might be self serving propaganda. Consensus could only exist in an Orwellian dystopia but lets hope for some sense of reality at least.
Islam (a misnomer in a sense) led much of the world in woman's rights, public and private charity, and trade before the USA existed. For some of this time it led in science and intellectual pursuits with cities and libraries far larger than anything in Europe. For anyone claiming to be educated or an historian to generalize from the present is at the very least a grievous error. Generalizing from a few extremists at one small point in history is certain to be shallow and mislead.
To speak of “Islamic” history is often itself an indication of ignorance and simplification as though one could write the entire history of the west and the US as "Christian History". To do so one would have to remember not only the Inquisition, pogroms, expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain and such obvious things; but also how Hitler thought he was doing god's work and Stalin attended Seminary. And let's not forget Serbian use of political Orthodoxy and rabble rousing history to justify genocide. Then too the genocide in Rwanda was mostly by Christians and of Christians. Religion is important but usually explains very little by itself. Would one also then want to explain the new Jewish state and conquest, occupation, and the terrorists who founded that state (at least three Prime Ministers were terrorists) as totally explained by religion?
The radical Muslims who attacked on 9-11 did not want conquest or conversion or attack because they hated "our freedoms and way of life". Elections, bikinis, booze, had nothing to do with it and any awake historian might immediately suspect that this is a smokescreen and diversion for the real policy issues. Bin Laden has been clear and concise about grievances - many of which may be legitimate whatever one thinks about the attacks. (Being ‘politically correct’ cuts both ways and tough facing the issues serves us better.)
Until 2001 most terrorism against the US was not from the Middle East or Muslims but from Latin America - some of the grievances about unfair pricing effectively stealing assets like oil and the US support for tyrants are even very similar. Terrorism is not new: Jews and Christians as well as Muslims once used blades for assassination; later the kamikazes and Tamil Tigers used suicide missions; the founders of Israel used bombs, terrorizing villages, pirating planes. Terror, like guerilla warfare, has usually been the weapon of the weak. It is only rhetorical to say that those in uniform are never terrorists and what was months of threats of “shock and awe” if not terrorism? Certainly more innocent Afghanis and Iraqis are likely to have been killed and damage more widespread and greater in consequence for the people even though not televised over, and over.
The US effectively admitted to killing about 500,000 Iraqis in just six years (that is close to the 9-11 toll each week for years) by severe sanctions, purposely destroying clean water supplies, continued bombing after the close of the Gulf War, continued death by cluster bombs and depleted uranium dust. This toll does not count disabled and includes real innocents since it counts only children under age six. Could a Muslim possibly be angered at such injustice or do only American lives count?
mark safranski - 8/7/2004
You really haven't the vaguest idea of what the hell you are talking about.
First of all, I don't think students, particularly secondary students should be shielded from the nature of Islamist terrorism. Secondly I don't think anyone else here, from the author to the posters did either. Certainly Mr. Khawaja and I have been exceptionally critical of Islamist terrorism and " pro-American" in our past comments on HNN.
What we're discussing is the difficulty of getting school districts to even address the issue of religion, any religion in fact - a subject with an enormous impact on the history of the world - in a meaningful and historically accurate way. Teaching students *about* Islam does not make the teachers Muslims any more than having taught students *about* the Soviet Union made them communists.
Shannon Anaya - 8/7/2004
That you people are even trying to find a work around to teach Islamic studies to American children is nausiating. Would you teach American children that it was Militant Radical Muslim extremists who murdered 3,000 innocent people on September 11th? Would you teach our children that in Palestine, children are sent to brainwashing camps to hate Jews and Christians, and are taught how to blow themselves up in order to kill Jewish people and non-Islamics? Would you teach American children that radical Muslims have declared a jihad on non-Muslim Countries, especially America and Israel, and that their sole intent is to turn free Countries into Islamic theocracies? Would you explain to our children that radical Muslim Arab Militias are murdering Sudanese Christians, starving them, and chasing them out of their homes in order to spread Islam in the Sudan?
Shannon Anaya - 8/7/2004
Ms. Stotsky, I'm all for teaching our Children about the horrors of 911 and who our enemy is. Islamic Militant Arabs attacked this country on 911 Ms Stotsky, and I'm insensed that you would suggest trying to indoctrinate our children to Islam.
mark safranski - 8/6/2004
Public schools tip-toe around religion because the school administrators as a group are:
1) Ignorant regarding the case law.
2) Follow the premise that any topic that might cause a parental complaint to cross their desk or irritate the least intellectually responsible member of the school board is best left prohibited.
Case in point look at history textbooks. They are bland for a reason.
Jon Rudd - 8/5/2004
"Do public schools tiptoe around religion for legal reasons?"
They absolutely do.
I'm definitely going to follow your lead and check this out with some of my students this fall. If what they tell me confirms the impressions you're getting, then public school systems are in serious need of a reality check regarding the teaching of religion. Of course, they could use some reality checks in some other areas as well, history and biology to name only two.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/5/2004
It wasn't that long ago in this country that it was nearly unheard of for a Jewish child or Jewish parents to object to the singing of patently religious Christian music in school pageants. Forget being Buddhist (vegetarian food in a school cafeteria? Not likely.) or Muslim (time off for daily prayers? Halal food? Ramadan?).
There was a brief period when the multicultural impulse was one of sharing, not avoidance. In that interval cultures were added to the curriculum, and there were candle-lightings in school (not much for the actually important Jewish holidays, unless there was a Jewish parent willing to drop in with apples and honey, or a shofar, or some matzo), and teachers led meditations.
Fear of coercion brought that era to an end. Not just fear by Jewish, or atheist/agnostics, but also fear by Christians who, in spite of their overwhelming presence in this country, fear pollution, or alternatives, or something. Now only the barest hint of religious culture enters the classroom.
How long has Islam been taught widely in primary and secondary schools in this country? Three years. So we're replicating, in a very short span, the process of denaturing religion carried out over the last half-century, basically skipping right to the fear part.
This kind of ahistorical alarmist claptrap helps nobody. Teaching materials do not necessarily dictate classroom actvities, and most teachers know the difference between teaching about religion and teaching religion. Religious sources are necessary to teach religion, and it is entirely possible to teach and talk about and even experience other religions without it being coercive or distorted.
Jon Rudd - 8/4/2004
Somebody's got to do it for sure. I teach at a community college in the Washington area and most of my students are pretty much of a blank slate as far as any form of religion is concerned. It seems the only ones who have even the most elementary notions of Christian doctrine (the Trinity, for example) are the students with Catholic school backgrounds. Is it the schools, or is it Catholicism? Do public schools tiptoe around religion for legal reasons? Or do they simply fail to teach it for the same reasons that they fail to teach, say, the fact that there are two US Senators from each state (the US Constitution often being as much of a mystery as the Nicene Creed)? Since the public school system that feeds into my college has been officially rated the second-worst in the state, I could readily believe the second.
As for Islam, the same universal ignorance prevails, but at least among my students there's a surprising degree of openness towards the subject. The student body is more than 70% African-American, there are a number of Muslim students here, and there may also be a blue-state allergy to much of the nonsense spouted about Islam in the popular culture since 9-11. So there is a willingness to learn out there. The only cure for the abysmal lack of preparation is, of course, patience.