Bias in the Supplementary Materials Used by History Teachers

Roundup: Talking About History

From the new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation study, "The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America's History Teachers," written by Sandra Stotsky:

In the past three decades, scholars and parents have criticized K-12 history textbooks for their inadequate coverage of important topics as well as for being error-laden and poorly written. They came under additional fire with the publication in 2003 of The Language Police by Diane Ravitch. Anxious not to distress anyone, Ravitch found, textbook publishers do not allow their books to address potentially "offensive" topics that might generate controversy at the time of state adoption hearings. Nor do they allow their books to point out features of other cultures that might lead students to infer that life in America or the West is superior in some way. Indeed, it is only America that can be shown as having an unending history of social strife, political repression, and political inequalities among racial or ethnic groups. As a result, students learning from these textbooks may get both a bland and biased history education.

As troubling as most current history textbooks are, however, they are less troubling than many of the supplemental resources available to teachers of history at all educational levels.[1] These resources include consultant services, curriculum units, lesson plans, supplementary information, and other materials. They may be provided by education collaboratives, professional organizations, foundations, large and small educational publishers, independent centers, unions, schools of education, university research centers, cultural sites, museums, historical societies, public agencies such as the courts, and freelance consultants.

History textbooks themselves are relatively few in number, highly visible, and readily if not frequently examined by concerned school board members, state officials, or parents. They are also more easily reviewable by individual scholars like Frances FitzGerald, Paul Gagnon (for the American Federation of Teachers), Gilbert Sewall (for the American Textbook Council), Diane Ravitch, and the various scholars who contribute reviews to William Bennetta's excellent Textbook Letter. Supplemental materials, on the other hand, are far less visible and seldom get reviewed. Occasionally a scholar has reported on the strengths and limitations of materials addressing a specific topic, as did the late Holocaust expert, Lucy Dawidowicz, after examining 25 Holocaust curricula used in the schools.[2] But K-12 supplemental materials usually fly under the radar of historians and other experts with sensitive political antennae.

The source of the problem with many of the supplemental resources used for history or social studies is the ideological mission of the organizations that create them. Their ostensible goal is to combat intolerance, expand students' knowledge of other cultures, give them other "points of view" on commonly studied historical phenomena, and/or promote "critical thinking." But their real goal, to judge by an analysis of their materials and the effects they have on teachers, is to influence how children come to understand and think about current social and political issues by bending historical content to those ends. They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them. And they tend to facilitate acceptance of their materials by appealing to teachers' sense of fairness and their presumed obligation to promote "social justice" and withhold negative moral judgments about people or cultures deemed victims of white racism.

In the guise of providing teachers with ideas for a more engaging pedagogy and deeper understanding of a historical phenomenon, frequently one involving instances of prejudice, they recruit unwitting teachers as their agents in cultivating hostility toward America as a country, toward Western culture, and toward Americans of European descent. The poisonous effects of these supplemental resources on teachers' thinking and pedagogical practices can spread throughout the entire school curriculum in the moral and civic vacuum created by neutered textbooks and a host of competing "multiple perspectives."...

Parental complaints are again mounting about some supplemental materials and lessons. In the 1970s and 1980s, many parents worried that the "peace" curricula introduced into their children's elementary schools, ostensibly to teach about the horrors of nuclear "holocausts," served chiefly to frighten them. More recently, alert parents and other citizens have become concerned about the information teachers are giving their students, and activities they are asking students to participate in, as part of an effort to increase youngsters' knowledge of Islam. Most of these materials have been prepared and/or funded by Islamic sources here and abroad, and are distributed or sold directly to schools or individual teachers, thereby bypassing public scrutiny. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Saudi government sent thousands of U.S. schools a package containing a Public Broadcasting System tape, Islam: Empire of Faith, and Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (the revised and updated edition published in 2002). This book attributes the failure of the Muslim world to modernize to Western "colonization" rather than to self-imposed intellectual isolation from the revolutionary political, religious, social, economic, and scientific ideas arising in Europe from the 1500s on.

Many supplemental curricular resources for history and social studies teachers are touted as addressing civic education, moral education, or character education. Because civic education is a major goal of the study of U.S. history in the schools and is by definition a matter of public policy, the public should be informed about the extent to which these curricula are ideological rather than academic. The public also must know whether educators are using materials that undermine the value that the polity places on our political principles, public institutions, and American citizenship itself....

Possibly the most malevolent of the organizations professing to address citizenship education is Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), which provides materials and services to over 16,000 teachers, ostensibly to help them address racism, anti-Semitism, and violence....

The central problem with this organization's activities stems not from its efforts to provide students with scrupulously accurate information about the Holocaust but from its goal of teaching contemporary civic lessons for American students. To do so, it makes false analogies to a catastrophic historical event, thus trivializing the catastrophe and setting up a moral equivalence between Nazis and white Americans. The purpose of FHAO's first major resource book, titled Holocaust and Human Behavior and published in 1982, was to encourage students to practice "moral decision-making" by speaking up about the dangers of a nuclear "holocaust" and to see the Moral Majority as a danger to freedom of speech.[5] Once those dangers seemed to have receded from the political radar screen, study of the Holocaust was linked to a domestic issue with more staying power. The purpose of the 1994 resource book, bearing the same title as the 1982 manual but with a new conceptual framework, is to make sure that students see the task of confronting white racism in America as the chief reason for studying the Holocaust.[6] It makes explicit and frequent comparisons not only between twentieth-century America and twentieth-century Germany but also between nineteenth-century America and nineteenth-century Germany. In essence, it uses the Holocaust to portray America's blacks as Europe's Jews, thereby reducing genocide to an act of bigotry and equating white Americans to Nazis.

The purpose of the supplementary resource book FHAO published in 2002, titled Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement (RMAH), is even more poisonous.[7] FHAO wants teachers and students to infer a causal connection between the American eugenics movement and the Holocaust; that is, to infer that Americans and American science, however indirectly, were responsible for Nazi Germany's extermination policies and the Holocaust. RMAH makes it clear that few American scientists subscribed to the eugenics movement by World War II. Nevertheless, the chapters on "The Nazi Connection" so cleverly connect Hitler's use of the ideas of German scientists on racial "eugenics" to an acknowledgment of the leadership of American scientists, educators, and policy makers in the eugenics movement that Americans appear almost directly responsible for the Final Solution.[8] The net effect is the discrediting of American society.

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Jeremy Greene - 4/15/2004

Having attended the Muslim content institute mendtioned in the article and after reading several Fordham Foundation reports I have a few responses to the report by Sandra Stotsky:

1) Does the Fordham Foundation favor content knowledge as they claim in "Where Did the Social Studies Go Wrong?" or do they have to wait for evidence as reported in this report - by the way, the content institutes are graduate level courses.

2) Stotsky is complaining about an Islamic content institute which had guest lectures by Roy Mottahedeh, author of _The Mantle of the Prophet_,Thomas Glick, and several professors from Harvard U.
Isn't this about as good as its going to get for a course on Islam?

3) Stotsky states that teachers failed to address big questions in the curriculum materials developed like: why do many Islamic countries hate us?
I find this unbelievable, because for my curriculum unit on the modern Middle East the culminating essay question was: Why do they hate us?

4) Stotsky misrepresents the one-sided delivery of the institute on Islam. In the institute I attended participants were given a perspective of the many different Islams in the world. For instance, though Islam practiced in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States will have basic similarities each will posess practices rooted in the home country and culture. Participants were also presented with the different historiographical approaches taken by Bernard Lewis and Edward Said among others.

5) The most dissapointing view implicit in the report is that teachers are dullards who adopt supplementary materials wholesale without adapting them to the unique requirements and consideration of their state, town, classes, and individual students.

6) We were one of the first schools to offer Facing History and Ourselves (and the first to offer it with almost no Jewish population to speak of)and it is offered as a content first and foremost. The biggest complaint of students who take the elective is how much reading and writing it requires. Citizenship and character education though present, are secondary.

7)Lastly, I have been accepted into the Landmark Institute being held at Plimoth Plantation this summer. One wonders what Stosky will write about how inadequate a job Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Alfred Crosby do explaining colonial America!

Jeremy Greene
U.S. and World History Teacher
Chelmsford High School