The rush to rewrite history
Textbook publishers and teachers scramble to add information about the Middle East and Islam to books, course outlines
NEW YORK — For more than 40 years, the Constitutional Rights Foundation has specialized in creating civic-education curriculum. But never before has the Los Angeles-based group had to jump the way it did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Within hours, like curriculum developers across the US, they were hastily culling information on the Middle East to help teachers shape new lessons.
Instructors were eager to lay their hands on the assembled material. "We saw a 500 to 600 percent increase in demand when the stuff went up on our website," says Marshall Croddy, director of program and materials development for the CRF.
In addition, the Koran, guides to Islam, and political science titles have been flying out of bookstores, with many Americans urgently filling in gaps in their own understanding. Textbook publishers have scrambled to pen inserts and update books just now going to press.
For educators, the rush for knowledge has been gratifying. But to some, it dramatically underscores the fact that an inward-looking America routinely fails to ground its citizens in the complexities of world history.
Most schools serve up little or no material related to the Middle East or a basic understanding of Islam. "Maybe there are courses about the Middle East in some of the more affluent school districts," says Bill Schechter, a history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass. "But in most schools there's just a bit about the crusades in world history, and then 30 minutes at some point during the school year to talk about the current crisis."
It's not just students who are operating in a vacuum. "A lot of adults don't know much about that part of the world, or what the relations are, or why there's incredible anger out there," says CRF's Mr. Croddy. "It's a time for all Americans to get educated."
Until he retired last year to serve in the state senate, Bill Corrow taught a history class on "Conflict in the 20th Century" at Williamstown (Vt.) High School. A former military man who spent 15 years working in counterterrorism abroad, Mr. Corrow made sure his students got comfortable with maps of the Middle East and Central Asia. He also devoted time to Islamic religion and culture.
Corrow says he knew his class was out of step with most public high school history classes. Since Sept. 11, however, he's had calls from several former students thanking him for giving them a context in which to understand the events of that day.
"Some of them said, 'I wondered at the time why you made us read some of that stuff, but now it all makes sense,' " he says.
Corrow is optimistic that more teachers will soon be following his lead. "Our kids are almost totally illiterate when it comes to geography, but I hope and I think teaching will improve now," he says. "Anybody really doing their job will make certain that it will be done."
Not everyone shares Corrow's optimism. "Who knows how much impact these events will have on the curriculum?" says Gilbert Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council.
Although he's seen evidence that textbook publishers are quickly rewriting history books to give the Middle East a higher profile, he wonders how many teachers will really be prepared to tackle topics as complex and controversial as Middle Eastern geopolitics and the imperatives of a fundamentalist Islamic world view. "How much does the typical seventh-grade teacher really know about Islam?" he asks.
Since 1995, Mr. Sewall says, the council has been urging textbook publishers and educators to improve classroom coverage of world history and religion.
"There's been a lot of talk about globalism and global education, but much of that curriculum remains very weak," he says.
Almost all state standards today require some instruction about comparative world religion. California requires three years of world history in its schools, compared with only one year in many other states.
But not all educators agree that such standards promote real understanding.
Massachusetts requires two years of world history, but Mr. Schechter says the guidelines force teachers to march students through century upon century of history without time for real thought.
"There's no analysis, no elaborated discussion," he laments. "Now there's a crisis and people say, 'Oh, are you doing anything on the Middle East?' "
He predicts that lessons quickly drummed up to meet the need of the moment - especially when teachers have so many other goals to worry about - will do little to build solid understanding.
The issue transcends the inability of students to distinguish between Israel and Iran on a world map. Overall, the quality of history instruction in schools is poor, says Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University. And US history, like Mideast studies, has gotten short shrift. "We have institutions and ideas and basic democratic traditions that make this nation different and special, and we have to teach that in order to understand and protect it."
For too many years, she says, "There's been a kind of cultural relativism loose in the land, and it has devalued what's special about the democratic tradition." As a result of the events of Sept. 11, "there may be more attention to civic education, and that would be a good thing."
Some new textbooks are likely to focus more on America's strong points, says Roger Rogalin, president of MacMillan/McGraw-Hill, a New York-based textbook publisher. "You will see more of the feeling of patriotism in general across the textbooks, reflecting the mood of the country."
Textbooks for 2002-03 go to press in the spring, Mr. Rogalin says, and many still in page proofs at the moment are speedily being amended to include material about the terrorist attacks.
One struggle has been to ensure that what is covered is age-appropriate and not too frightening for young children. "In the third grade, for instance," Rogalin says, "we'll talk more about the heroism of the firefighters and police. In the fifth grade, we'll talk more about the event."
There are other quandaries. The material is being compiled so soon after the attacks that it's difficult to gain perspective. It's tempting, for example, to describe the hijackings as events that significantly altered American life, yet it's hard to do so when even the immediate future remains unknown.
It's also a problem knowing where to pin blame. To fail to mention Osama bin Laden would seem a serious omission, yet prematurely labeling him as the mastermind could prove inaccurate. In addition, events of the next weeks and months will rapidly render obsolete any text assembled today.
Despite such concerns, Rogalin says, there's no avoiding the topic. "It's an event that changed the country," he says. "We want to make sure that it will be in there."
Many educators say students are hungry for a more global perspective. Corrow was impressed with the eagerness of his students to focus on world religions. "When the kids critiqued the course, they all wanted more of that," he recalls.
Such teaching has become imperative now, he adds: "We became so comfortable here in the US living in our own bubble. But that bubble burst on Sept. 11."
Some experts stress that there is excellent material readily available for teachers interested in introducing their students to Islam and the Arab world. Possible sources include:
America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc.: Educational tools such as a video introducing Arab culture through the eyes of Arab teens.
The Council on Islamic Education: Curriculum materials on Islam and speakers who visit classrooms to teach about the religion and its traditions.
The Arab World and Islamic Resources: Recommended reading.
Arab American Institute: Bibliographic and census information on Arab-Americans.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee: Resources covering such topics as "Anti-Arab Discrimination: What Teachers Can Do" and "The Life and Work of Khalil Gibran."
Here are a handful of books recommended for use in school by The Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services in Berkeley, Calif.
Sami and the Time of Troubles
Florence Perry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliard (Clarion Books)
Story about 10-year-old Sami, who lives in Beirut. Suggested for K-6
The Life of the Prophet Muhammed
Leila Azzam and Aisha Gouveneur
(Islamic Text Society)
Biography intertwined with passages from the Koran. Grades 6 and up
The Crusades through Arab Eyes
Amin Maalouf (Schocken Books)
History of the Crusades from an Arab viewpoint. Grades 7-12
The World of Islam Up to 1500
Fiona McDonald (HarperCollins)
History course written for the British school system. Grades 7-12
The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century
Ross E. Dunn (University of California Press)
The travels - illustrated with maps - of a Muslim contemporary of Marco Polo through the Middle East and Central Asia. Grades 7-12
Collected by Idries Shah (Octagon Press)
Collection of writings about Afghan history and culture. Grades 7-12