Book Review: Institute Uncovers Bias in K-12 History Textbooks

For more than three years, Dennis Ybarra did what many schoolchildren loathe to do for even one day: He pored over textbooks.

As part of a five-year study launched by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, an independent think tank based in San Francisco, Ybarra read 28 social studies, history and geography textbooks widely used in both public and private schools nationwide.

And what he discovered is alarming. In his new book, “The Trouble With Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion,” written with co-author Gary A. Tobin, president of the institute, Ybarra contends that 500 problematic passages about Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Middle East were uncovered in these 28 books alone.

Three of the textbooks Ybarra reviewed can be found on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s official Web site: “Glencoe World History” by Jackson J. Spielvogel, “World Civilizations: The Global Experience” by Peter N. Stearns and “World Cultures: A Global Mosaic” by Iftikhar Ahmad.

Previous studies have focused on anti-Semitism within college campuses, not K-12 education, Ybarra said.

Tobin said the problems on campus start because a foundation of subtle anti-Jewish ideas has been laid in earlier years.

“I believe that the Jewish community has largely been asleep at the wheel on this issue,” Tobin said. “People are shocked at the level of misrepresentations, ignorance and just plain nonsense that is in America’s schoolbooks.”

Tobin’s institute, a highly respected sociological research organization, has conducted research on anti-Semitism and anti-Christian bias in other areas. He said he doesn’t see this as a political venture.

“We are not right wing or left wing, and we are not an Israel advocacy organization, but we do document prejudice,” Tobin said. The study exposes “when anti-Israelism crosses over into anti-Semitism as an ideology that is there to delegitimize the State of Israel and demonize the Jewish people.”

The study found that through their textbooks some students were coming face to face with Jewish stereotypes. For example, “World Civilizations” by Philip J. Adler and Randall L. Pouwels advances the belief that Jews consider themselves to be superior to others by including this passage: “More than most, the Jews divided humanity into we and they. This was undoubtedly the result of their Jewish tradition whereby they had been selected as the Chosen. Jews looked upon non-Jews as distinctly lesser breeds.”

One of the most troubling passages Ybarra found was one that asserted that Jesus was a Palestinian rather than a Jew. And yet another passage describes Israeli Jews as European colonialists. In “World History: The Human Journey, Modern World,” Laurel Carrington wrote: “Since the late 1800s, Jews from Europe had been establishing small colonies in Palestine.”

“The accusation that Israel is the remnant of the ‘colonial legacy’ has no basis in historical fact…. In fact, they were victims of the colonialist European powers [who were] making their escape from Europe, rather than agents of the colonial powers,” Ybarra and Tobin write.

So just how do these inaccuracies creep into textbooks?

Ybarra said publishing companies have merged in recent years, leaving only three megapublishers to control the elementary and high school publishing industry. As smaller publishing houses struggle to survive, the same textbooks with the same errors are passed along from year to year — though Ybarra noted that he did at times see instances of improvement in a textbook’s updated version.

Errors are also the result of the limitations of the authors themselves, Ybarra said.

“In many cases, those at the keyboards have little expertise in their assigned areas,” write the authors of the book.

Textbook authors also often succumb to political pressure from organizations like Educational Research Analysts, a conservative, nonprofit Christian group, and the Council on Islamic Education.

“Publishers have been pummeled so thoroughly over the past two decades by any number of groups, including the education departments of many states, in an attempt to eliminate all bias, that they reflexively cut out balanced treatments of many complex and sensitive subjects for fear of offending anyone,” the authors write in the book.

Ybarra says that Muslim groups in particular have succeeded in influencing the way textbooks present Islam.

In “World History: Continuity and Change” by William T. Hanes, the Quran is defined as the “Holy Book of Islam containing revelations received by Muhammad from God.” The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are described as the “moral laws Moses claimed to have received from the Hebrew God Yahweh on Mount Sinai.”

Ybarra argues there is a consistent double standard applied to the teaching of Islam and Judaism within much of the textbook industry.

While Jewish groups may lobby against an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic bias, Ybarra argues that “interest groups that promote a pro-Arab, pro-Islam perspective have influenced the content of textbooks, often to the detriment of historical accuracy.”

However, Ybarra also said there are still model textbooks to be found and that more can be created if certain changes are made.

First, the process of evaluating textbooks needs to be improved and publishing houses need to re-dedicate themselves to putting out a higher quality product. Second, “the Jewish community and others who are not represented need a seat at the table with publishing houses.”

“We’re not asking that textbooks be 100 percent pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, whatever that means,” Ybarra said. “At a minimum, both sides should be presented.”


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