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You Can't Judge These Books by Their Covers

Many school texts distort history, slamming the U.S. and glorifying despotic regimes.

May 12, 2003|Diane Ravitch

Fifteen years ago, I helped write the guidelines for teaching history in California public schools. Those guidelines -- drafted by a committee of teachers and historians and approved by the state Board of Education -- won national praise for their insistence that students should learn the importance of democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law.

Last year, while doing research for a book, I read two dozen leading textbooks in world and American history, including many of those used in California's schools, and I was surprised to find that the spread of democratic ideas is no longer a central theme.

Instead, the textbooks reflect the relativistic views that permeated higher education during the last decade: All cultures are equal; none is better than any other; we are not to judge other cultures' ways of life.

Most alarming was discovering that many of the books contain dangerous half-truths and distortions. They do not speak honestly about some of the world's most tyrannical regimes. Over and over, they depict the brutality and avariciousness of Europeans and white males in the United States, while presenting glorified portraits of other nations and cultures.

The textbooks go out of their way to sanitize the very practices in non-Western cultures that they rightly condemn in our society. For instance, every textbook acknowledges that the enslavement of Africans by the West was a great crime. However, when describing slavery in the Middle East or Africa, many claim that it was a path to upward career mobility or a chance to join a new family. Slavery is wrong in any time and place and should be recognized as such.

Today's history textbooks assert that women enjoyed exalted status in the past, particularly in non-Western societies. Women in ancient Egypt were said to be the equal of men. Women in ancient China and ancient Africa were powerful. In Native American societies, women controlled governing councils. Students are left to wonder whether the U.S. is the only place where women had to fight to win equal rights.

The textbooks are willing to criticize dictators whose regimes have fallen, but they tiptoe gently around the regimes that are still in power. Hitler and Stalin are properly shown as despots, but Mao Tse-tung and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are not. Their regimes survive, so the textbook writers stretch to find the positive side of their rule or ignore their terrible misdeeds.

Most texts -- including the Houghton Mifflin books used in California -- portray Mao as a heroic leader who modernized China. He redistributed lands to the peasants, built schools, bridges and roads. He reduced taxes and controlled corruption. He pledged gender equality. Missing from the textbooks is any critical examination of Mao's brutal dictatorship, of class warfare, of the cult of personality, of prison camps filled with political enemies. They acknowledge that he caused the deaths of millions of Chinese people but seem to suggest that the deaths were the result of mistaken policies.

The textbook descriptions of Iran follow a similar pattern. Students learn that the shah of Iran was cruel and oppressive. They read that the Iranian people revolted against him and elected an Islamic government to replace him. Glencoe's "World History" does not mention that the reign of the ayatollahs has been as brutal as that of the shah and has denied basic human rights, especially to women. Houghton Mifflin's text "To See a World" shows a photograph of three women in burkas and this caption: "Iranian women are experiencing greater opportunities in many careers. This woman is a television director."

The textbooks I reviewed barely mention the horrors of the recent past, like the genocide in Rwanda a decade ago. If mentioned at all, the genocide is blandly attributed in a couple of sentences to "ethnic conflict," with no reference to the failure of the United Nations (or the U.S.) to intervene to save the lives of nearly 1 million Rwandans.

The histories' treatment of religion is scandalous. The origin stories of each religion are recounted as if they were documented history rather than religious myths. Many publishers have multicultural advisory boards to ensure that the textbooks contain only positive facts about religious or ethnic groups.

The missing ingredient in today's history textbooks is an emphasis on democratic ideas. What our children should learn from the study of history is the importance of institutions that sustain the principles of human rights, the rule of law and political pluralism. The current crop of history textbooks denies our children the political intelligence and critical analysis needed to understand the world they live in.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University, is the author of "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" (Knopf, 2003).

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