New Arab-Israeli battleground: textbooks

SAN DIEGO—This is an exhaustive, well researched study of a problem that is given too little attention in critiques of the American educational system – named, the prevalence of biases in the textbooks that students in all grades rely on for their views on key issues. The authors have pored through 28 history, geography and religion textbooks in minute detail, and have found more than 500 “specific and notable problematic entries.”

Their case study dealt with Jews, Judaism and Israel, but – as they themselves point out – the problem involves far more than these specific subjects, and can in fact be applied to most academic topics, and especially in history and the other social sciences. As such, it must be taken very seriously, for it can result in deeply flawed viewpoints, which will persist as students grow into adulthood. However, as one reads through this book – and it is quite readable – two disturbing issues arise, one stemming directly from the book’s material, the other dealing more generally with the role of textbooks.

The book’s primary thrust deals with the way Muslim and pro-Muslim institutions and organizations have managed to have their views infiltrate supposedly impartial, unbiased texts. Much of this is done subtly, through the use of words and phrases that at first glance may seem neutral, but actually convey at least a degree of anti-Jewish or anti-Israel bias. An example: use of the name Palestine when referring to the land of Israel in biblical times. The name Palestine originated in the days of the Roman Empire, after its conquest of the area in 70 C.E. This would appear to give “Palestinians” (who did not exist then) rule over the land before arrival of the Israelites.

The reader gets the impression that the pro-Muslim groups – some with rather innocuous sounding names – are conducting a well-orchestrated campaign to inject the Muslim version of events into textbooks for all ages. So, the obvious question is, where were the major Jewish organizations amid all this?

Only in the last three pages of the book do the authors state that “the Jewish community is slowly becoming aware of the importance of these efforts” and describe some rather belated interest on the part of Jewish institutions in counteracting the Muslims’ infiltration push. Why this is so is baffling, for American Jewry has been quite forthright in fighting other aspects of anti-Semitism, such as efforts to deny the Holocaust, as well as attempts to denigrate the positions of Israel and the world’s Jews. The reasons for this inaction are probably beyond the scope of this book, but the book’s content raises the question in stark terms.

The second issue raised involves the part textbooks play in educating our children and youth. The authors seem to regard textbooks as the font of all wisdom, the be-all and end-all of the learning process. Actually, learning history – and, to a somewhat lesser extent, other social sciences – by reading and studying textbooks gives the student at best a superficial understanding of what happened in the past. Information in textbooks is heavily filtered as it passes through the hands of writers (usually more than one person) and production people.

History is best learned by studying primary source materials: writings, documents, statistics, photos and even items like art dating from the period being studied. This is certainly true at the high school level, and even to some extent in middle school. Teachers should be encouraged to make use of such materials, which are more available now than ever before as historians, archaeologists and other scholars delve more deeply into humanity’s past. It is unfortunate that all too many teachers “teach to the text” for a variety of reasons – they may be overworked, or they may be teaching a subject with which they are only barely familiar. This is one of the many deficiencies in the American educational system.

Teachers do use materials other than texts, as Tobin and Ybarra point out. But these supplemental materials often are provided by a variety of groups with a vested interest in having their viewpoints become part of the learning process. And these materials, unlike texts, pass under the radar, as they are not screened for content by governmental education institutions. Teachers without an in-depth knowledge of the subject they are teaching tend to latch on to them, so they exacerbate the ongoing problem.

Actually then, “the trouble with textbooks,” or certainly one of their major problems, is that they are overused. Balancing reliance on textbooks with use of primariy source materials would benefit both students and teachers.

Manson a freelance writer and book reviewer based in San Diego is a retired journalist, and holds a master’s degree in history from San Diego State.