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New Times (SLO)

Three cheers for the Morro Bay woman who complained about anti-Christian bias in the history textbook used by her son's middle school. Cynics may frown on her successful effort to alert the media about her concerns, but Jennifer Shroder is the kind of parent who keeps public education honest by supporting teachers and pestering school administrators.

 By slamming Houghton Mifflin publishing company's "Across the Centuries," a textbook used throughout the state for a decade, Shroder opened herself to ridicule. Well-meaning critics were quick to point out that like every other textbook approved for use in California, that one was reviewed by subject matter experts. Early editions even went through a round of public comment, though it hardly needs saying that questions about pro-Islamic or anti-Christian bias have more resonance now than they did before last September. Unfortunately, neither expert review nor public input makes the textbook selection process foolproof. 

Four or five companies (estimates vary) dominate 70 percent of the textbook publishing market for grades K to 12. That fact alone does not reflect poorly on textbook quality, but as Los Angeles Times columnist Matthew Miller wrote in 1997, California, Texas, Florida and 17 other states approve books "through a politicized process marred by ideological warfare, shoddy analysis and occasional corruption." Combine a near-monopoly in a four-billion-dollar market with an inept selection process, and undeserving books are bound to be approved.

A feature story in the October 30, 2000 issue of Forbes magazine cited serious errors in science and math textbooks used nationwide. The same article observed that Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, "has sought and received campaign contributions from textbook publishers."

There is no reason to think that history textbooks are exempt from the problems facing many math and science textbooks. Just this week, the February 4, 2002 issue of Time magazine quotes researcher Harriet Tyson as saying that textbook evaluation is the weakest link in the chain between educational publishers and the students who use their products.

 Unsurprisingly, anyone can find textbook flaws that expert reviewers either missed or ignored. Shroder seems at least as intelligent as the general building contractor with no journalism experience who alerted former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg to bias in TV news. Asked why she filed the formal complaint, Shroder insists that she has no quarrel with the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. "We have to change the textbook standards of California," she says.

 To people who wonder why children do not just ask permission to skip lessons they find offensive for religious or other reasons, Shroder makes an obvious but often-overlooked point: "Opting out requires discernment that kids don't yet have." 

Some critics charge that Shroder is insecure in her Christian faith and unwilling to expose her older son to even a glimpse of Islam for fear of "corrupting" him, but that argument collapses quickly. Insofar as it is possible to speculate about her motivations, love, anger, and responsibility seem to motivate Shroder far more than fear. What she objects to is a shamelessly partisan textbook, not the impartial study of religion or religious influence. Amateur psychologists who think differently have never talked to her.

 Memo to textbook selection officials: Shroder has no plans to shut up and start homeschooling. If lots of devoutly religious people did that, your per-pupil reimbursement money would go away, so pop another Excedrin and pay attention: "There is more to this than the textbook," Shroder says. "This is about freedom. My parental and religious rights are getting stomped on."

Quite possibly. But this controversy starts with the book, so I borrowed "Across the Centuries" from a fine upstanding neighbor kid and read it myself. Turns out that although some of the examples Shroder cites in her ten-page analysis seem nit-picky, she is right to find the book steeped in anti-Christian and pro-Muslim bias. 

As Tracy Idell Hamilton reported previously in New Times, the textbook defines religious persecution by talking about Christian persecution of other religions, and omitting the fact that Christians themselves have often been persecuted. Beyond that, the text devotes more than 53 pages to Islam, but nothing comparable to Christianity (or Judaism, for that matter).

 School officials explain the imbalance by saying that "Across the Centuries" is a seventh-grade book, and state education guidelines expect sixth graders to study early Christian history. This "seventh grade is Islam's turn" defense only makes sense if students read the New Testament in sixth grade and the Koran in seventh grade. Because they do neither of those things, "Across the Centuries" must be considered on its own.

 The book has a very high opinion of itself (mugging for the cameras with questions like "what makes this textbook so much more interesting than others you've used?"), but manages to survey world history from B.C. to A.D. without reference to the pivotal event implied by that change in calendars.

Since "B.C." means "before Christ" and "A.D." is Latin for "year of our Lord," an explanation of why we changed the way we reckon time would be in order.

 No such luck. Mohammed is introduced on page 58 and gets six pages. Meanwhile, in defiance of how history actually happened, Jesus makes a cameo appearance more than two hundred pages later. Blink and you might miss him, however. When Jesus finally shows up, it is only as a passing reference in a sentence that pays more attention to Peter: "Since the time of Jesus' disciple Peter in A.D. 64, the city of Rome had been the center of the Christian faith." True, but not enough. 

The absence of Jesus in a textbook whose editors blush when pondering Mohammed's "courage," "compassion," and "strong character" (p. 65) affects even secondary characters like the angel Gabriel. The book says Gabriel appeared to Mohammed without noting that Christians believe the selfsame Gabriel appeared to the mother of Jesus some six hundred years before that.

Who can blame Shroder for decrying such bias? Let's consign "Across the Centuries" to the ranks of books Above the Trash Can, Around the Dumpster, and In the Recycling Bin.

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