More Controversy in Texas over Textbooks

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John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, religion, and politics. He holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin, where his major field was American intellectual history. Mr. Willingham can be reached at http://www.johnwillingham.net/.

Ignoring appeals from board moderates, the social conservative majority on the Texas State Board of Education approved on September 24 a resolution against “politically-correct whitewashes of Islamic culture and stigmas on Christian civilization,” which Randy Rives, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board earlier this year, alleged were present in some textbooks.

The board’s social conservatives were not concerned that their vote could add to the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.  They were concerned to limit not only the language in the textbooks but to put “Middle Easterners who buy into the U.S. public textbook oligopoly” on notice that efforts to put more “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias” into school books were under scrutiny.

The board’s actions targeting alleged “bias” were based on an unverified, harshly-worded, and polemical document, presented by a person with a clear bias of his own.  The action of the board’s majority in the current political climate, following so closely on the aborted plan of the Florida preacher to burn the Qur’an, is not only irresponsible but an affront to the purpose of education, an insult to Muslims—including one of the board’s members—and an embarrassment to the state of Texas.

The resolution attacked alleged “sanitized definitions of ‘jihad’ that exclude religious intolerance or military aggression against non-Muslims.”  This sanitization, the resolution says, “undergirds worldwide Muslim terrorism.” 

Most of the “evidence” of alleged bias is simply a statistical summary of the number of times Christianity was mentioned and the number of times Islam appeared in sections of textbooks.  For example, the resolution states that one textbook section expended “139 student text lines on Christian beliefs, practices, and holy writings, but 176 on those of Islam.”  The same paragraph of the resolution shows alarm about a section lauding “the Muslim concern for cleanliness” while disparaging the Swedes of Russia, who were “the filthiest of God’s creatures.”

Hygiene aside, the board’s social conservatives did not pause to reflect that education exists for the purpose of imparting knowledge that the student does not already possess.  But the reasoning of the board’s majority seems to be that the more we know of something, such as Christianity, the more we need to be taught about it; and the less we know of something, like Islam, the less we should be taught about it.

Lawrence Allen, an African American and vice-chair of the board, is Muslim.  He pointed out that he is “inundated with Christianity every week,” illustrating its pervasiveness in the culture.  As for the resolution, he said, “It will never speak for me.”

During a break period, Bob Craig (who defeated Randy Rives’s primary challenge) asked several textbook publishers present if their corporate finances were under the control or influence of “Middle Eastern” investors, and they said no.  And, he said, the publishers “listed various inaccuracies in the resolution.”

“If we are going to have a resolution calling for accuracy,” he said, “then our resolution needs to be accurate.”

Board member Patricia Hardy pointed out that even if the sections cited in the resolution do not have as many lines devoted to Christianity as they do to Islam, the fact is that many other periods under study, notably the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, feature much more about Christianity.

The resolution had not been submitted for outside, objective evaluation.  Proponents said moderates had had time to check it themselves.  Hardy replied that individual, random checks by board members are not sufficient when historical assessments are involved.

It is not surprising that moderates sought to eliminate most of Rives’ language related to his “evidence.”  The 7-6 vote came with two members absent.  One had spoken against the resolution only a couple of hours before the vote occurred.

Moderate members argued against the resolution’s focus on pitting Islam against Christianity in particular, rather than arguing for fair and objective treatment of all major religions covered in textbooks.  Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism are all also studied; the resolution did not address any of these, either separately or, as was the case with Islam, directly, as a challenge to Christianity.

Two board members sharply criticized the motive for the resolution, coming as it did from a losing candidate with a record of pushing an overtly Christian curriculum when he was on the school board in Odessa, Texas.

The six members against the resolution agreed that a resolution calling only for fair and accurate presentations of the major religions would be appropriate, and repeatedly tried to reach a compromise on language.  But the social conservatives stayed with the original, largely unverified version.

Mavis Knight, another African American, said that more evaluation was necessary to “keep us from being a poor example.  We ought to model factual and accurate information” so students will understand the value of a measured, rational approach.

Member Rick Agosto, who sometimes votes with the social conservatives, said that on this issue the board was “grandstanding.  This makes the board look like cuckoos, which we are,” he said.  “This is crazy.”

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More Comments:

John Willingham - 10/2/2010

Hello, Mr. Hughes. It's been awhile.
As for Mr. Allen, I suspect he would be content to be left alone.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/2/2010

Mr. Allen has chosen to live in a predominently Christian state in a predominently Christian nation. If he wants to find more Islam around him he should live in an Islamic country.

John Willingham - 9/27/2010

Mr. Todd, thank you for your comment.

That the board's resolution would cite as an example of anti-Christian bias a textbook's description of Swedes in Russia as being filthy, while portraying Muslims as being clean, is striking. The transformation of such a bit of ephemera into a threat to the Christian beliefs of schoolchildren in Texas indicates not a strong faith in one's beliefs but a deep fear that even the most trivial thing is a challenge to those beliefs.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/27/2010

The business about Swedish Viking filth comes, of course, from the tenth-century Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan, who also describes human sacrifice in a Viking funeral, and the Vikings gang-raping the girl who was to be sacrificed. Those facts which are amenable to corroboration by archaeological methods have been corroborated. I suppose the textbook account the Texans were complaining about must have been bowdlerized in the first place.


Of course, it can be justly pointed out that Christianity did not reach large portions of Scandinavia until at least the eleventh century, that the Vikings in question were pagan, and that Christianity was purely nominal for a considerable period thereafter. See, for example, the account of the Christian missionary and the berserker in the Njalsaga, which was written down in the thirteenth century.