First off, sorry to everyone who submitted comments this week for the delay in approvals and replies – I was in Germany for a conference, and in order to comply with the laws of budget airlines, I was traveling sans laptop. In the meantime, I somehow got more comments in a week than this blog normally gets in a month. Please don’t take this as a suggestion that you should stop commenting – really, it’s the only thing that makes me think I’m not just talking to myself.
Also in the meantime, the Virginia department of education has come under attack from the Virginia Tea Party for its recently purchased new history textbooks, which the Tea Party claims are biased in favour of Islam. The textbooks were apparently purchased by the DoE after it became apparent that the old textbooks contained numerous factual inaccuracies – there’s a story about it here and here.
The Tea Party concerns are laid out here and here (they also have concerns over the new books’ portrayal of America and imperialism). In part, their concerns are statistic, that the volume on ancient history devotes twenty-two pages to the history of Islam and only eight to the history of Christianity. They also reject the argument that Islam forbade forced conversion or the killing of non-Muslims. Those are concepts that I’ve talked about a lot on this blog, so I’m going to focus on the broader questions of treatment and page counts.
The portrayal of religion in history textbooks is always deeply problematic, as the books lie on the narrow line between simplification and misrepresentation, and, all too often, venture from one to the other. In the sections on Christianity mentioned by the Tea Party, this tendency is obvious – like most basic history textbooks, Christianity starts out in the Middle East, but the history passes quickly to western Christianity, and appears to focus largely on the High Middle Ages and the Reformation. That’s fine, as those were periods of history that made lasting impacts on the traditions of western and imperial countries, but it overlooks the history of eastern Christianity, and implies that Christianity is essential European, and not also Middle Eastern, African, Caucasian or Central Asian.
This issue plays into the problems with the portrayal of Islam, as well – by implying that Christianity is essentially European, the texts then reduce dramatically, or overlook entirely, the cultural, theological, intellectual and literary output of Christians living within the Islamic world, thus further implying that the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia were homogeneously Islamic.
In general, I’m not fond of simplification in history, but I’m particularly not fond of it when it comes to religious history. But nor do I agree with the author of the Tea Party criticisms that “religious beliefs are best left for home or Churches, Synagogues, Temples and Mosques. Not Virginia classrooms.” Actually, I would argue for just the opposite – I’m really in favour of the continued presence or even expansion of religious studies in schools, and not just because it would make jobs for me and my friends. But to do so requires admitting that religious traditions are not simplistic, nor easily reduced to five word sentences. It also requires admitting that there is a great deal of disagreement and that the realms of tradition are filled with contrary voices, which is a concept that we always seem strangely resistant towards teaching to children. Portraying religions as homogeneous wholes that span massive sections of the globe just fuels the ‘clash of civilizations’ view of world history, in which groups of people are essentially divided and incapable of exchange. We encourage teaching diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity and culture, but somehow we feel uncomfortable with teaching diversity of thought, and without that concept, teaching religion is impossible.