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Patrick O'Hannigan
Challenging bias, illogic, and wrong-headedness in public schools

Most of the people I voted for in this month’s election did not win the offices they sought. Some losses sting more than others, though, and the sad thing about one fundamentalist Christian’s failed bid for a seat on the San Luis Coastal Unified School District Board is that her campaign, based partly on a crusade against textbook bias that I wrote favorably about last February, never sparked a debate about whether ideas we take for granted are actually true.

Answering the candidate’s charge that special interest groups write anti-Christian bias into textbooks, one well-spoken high school sophomore wrote in an essay for the Tribune that his textbooks strive to be fair. Moreover, he added, who’s to say what a special interest group is when we’re all special?

This public exchange between school board candidate and student was a classic example of what happens when two people talk past each other. Sadly, the student got high-fives from admirers for his superficial argument and the candidate responded with a citation of bias that left most of the kid’s argument unchallenged. Some days later, the smoke cleared, the votes were tallied up, and conventional wisdom had waltzed through another political campaign without a reality check.

With that in mind, I say better late than never. It’s time to ask for some form of identification before selling beer and cigarettes to popular assumptions about education. Here are four beliefs that should be challenged, no matter who sits on the school board or what we’re thankful for come Turkey Day:

Government schools have the best interests of children at heart. This may be the mother of all educational fallacies. Horace Mann, the father of compulsory public education in America, modeled his creation on what he saw while visiting 19th-century Prussia (now Germany). Looking around at the dawn of the Industrial Age, Mann realized that factory workers would be needed. Assembly line work requires obedience more than independent thought, so schools that Mann helped organize were designed to graduate legions of obedient workers. Whether schools still do that is something people can argue about, but goals like developing the whole person or teaching kids how to think on their feet weren’t as important to Mann and his backers as making sure that education served society, which to them was organized from the top down rather than from the bottom up. After Mann died, American philosopher John Dewey decided that common schools, which until then were considered extensions of the home, actually served communities. Dewey’s shift in emphasis made teachers more answerable to governments than to parents, and it’s with us still.

Many influential people think children are state property. The Wisconsin Teachers’ Association described kids that way in 1865, and the Justice Department’s “rescue” of Elian Gonzales just two years ago was brought to you by the same thinking.

Not surprisingly, parents who don’t see their kids as human resources become suspects in the eyes of the educational establishment.

Everyone expects totalitarian regimes to treat people like property, but because it would be unwise to admit that our own government also treats kids like state parks, bureaucrats pretend, and sometimes believe, that everything they do is “for the children.” Although parents have little say in decision making unless they organize, local officials usually give them a chance to feel heard by sounding off in two-minute increments at the end of school board meetings. That school boards meet on weeknights and public comments are typically scheduled close to midnight just makes things more interesting.

School can be neutral about religion. This confuses neutrality with civility. Any attempt to value all religions equally must reject the idea that any one religion has divine roots, and when you reject something, you’re not being neutral about it. On the other hand, religious tolerance as an idea that helps us all be polite to each other can be traced back to the fusion of faith and politics achieved exclusively in the Judeo-Christian West. Anyone who sneers at that claim by pointing to the Crusades and the Inquisition as relevant examples of “Christian intolerance” only proves him- or herself ignorant of Christianity’s liberalizing influence, not to mention the changes wrought by an era between then and now called the Enlightenment.

Fair means equal. Not always. When deciding how history teachers should talk about Christianity in the United States as opposed to Buddhism, Islam, or any other religion, it’s important to remember that fair can mean proportional rather than equal. Starting with the Puritans and continuing up to now, Christianity has had more influence on American history than any other religion. Government schools can’t afford to pretend otherwise without doing violence to the accuracy of the historical record.

Contraceptive-based sex education is more effective than abstinence-based sex education. This assumption is a perennial favorite with activists like Nipomo’s own Bill “Condoms for everybody” Denneen, but no one knows if it’s true. Abstinence-based education hasn’t been around long enough to study its long-term consequences yet. Early signs are more encouraging than the contraceptive corps cares to admit, however. A Heritage Foundation report from April 2002 cites ten different scientific evaluations that demonstrate the effectiveness of abstinence education programs in changing teenage sexual behavior for the better. On the other hand, a recent study in the British Journal of Health Economics found no evidence that family planning clinics help reduce pregnancy among young teenagers. Embarrassingly for Planned Parenthood, when a court case in 1984 temporarily restricted teen access to family planning clinics in the United Kingdom, teen pregnancy rates fell. Maybe G.K. Chesterton was right to quip that “birth control” actually means “no birth and no control.”

Good teachers need help from the rest of us to inspect these and other assumptions of progressive education, not because alternative assumptions are always better, but because bumper sticker advice to “question authority” applies even when people who marched against “The Man” and “The System” now hold down the jobs they used to demonstrate against.

[published in New Times (San Luis Obispo) issue of November 21 to 28]

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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.

Also by Patrick O'Hannigan  Yes, this will be on the test  



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