The Rush to Rewrite History ; Textbook Publishers and Teachers Scramble to Add Information about the Middle East and Islam to Books, Course Outlines

Article excerpt

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. …

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