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
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
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. …