A Glaring Omission in History Texts

HISTORY tells us the Plymouth Colony was settled by Puritans, Rhode Island by Baptists, Maryland by Roman Catholics, Virginia by Episcopalians, and Pennsylvania by Quakers - all for religious reasons. Yet some two centuries after these events we struggle with the question of whether religion should be mentioned at all in the study of history. Behind such reticence lies the concern of the educational establishment that presenting religious motifs could lead to indoctrination by teachers, thus prejudicing public school students' views. This fear has left the American student a loser. To attempt the study of history without understanding the religious motivations that shaped many of its great events is like attempting to teach physics while omitting the mathematical formulas.

Imagine an overview of the human heritage without religion and its effects on art, literature, and politics; without knowledge of the church as the repository of knowledge during the so-called Dark Ages, or the effects of religious traditions on events as diverse as the Roman Empire, the British Empire, New World colonization, and the Third Reich.

And what of the events of the Middle East or Asia? What of Jesus and Constantine, of Muhammad, Buddha, Luther, Hirohito, and Khomeini; of Aristotle, Milton, Galileo, and Jefferson; of the religious bases for constitutions, treaties, and civil rights?

As a scientist, I can appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of the sciences. No one science lives in isolation from the others. The same is true of history. While no competent biology teacher would ignore the chemical basis of life processes and no competent chemistry teacher would ignore the physical basis of chemical reactions, we are attempting to teach history and the social sciences while ignoring pivotal religious factors.

Dr. William Nord, director of the program in Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina, conducted a study of nine history textbooks used in that state and discovered that they devote more space to cowboys and cattle drives than to all religion. To present the Pilgrims as merely folks who wanted to sail to a new land and establish their own government without presenting their intense religious devotion as a motivating factor does no more justice to history than for a science teacher to talk about the effects of acid rain without explaining the pH scale.

Educators across the nation are expressing concern about the absence of religion, particularly in history books. Recently a coalition of leaders from business, government, and education agreed to develop a model curriculum on religious liberty with support from the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, a nonprofit group concerned with religion in public life. The coalition, led by Ernest Boyer, chairman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, will develop a course for 5th, 8th, and 11th grades.

Courts have ruled that schools may teach about religion, but cannot promote religion. Understanding this distinction is crucial to development of enlightened citizens. Such enlightenment must be based on carefully planned curriculum and trained teachers who do not ignore religious beliefs that shaped our heritage, and who recognize the difference between information and indoctrination.

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