Friday, March 13, 2009

Critic Says Islamic Extremism Gets Whitewashed in American Textbooks

An education expert is warning that some American textbooks present a biased view of Islam and offer a sugarcoated picture of Islamic extremism, a trend that has parents worried about what's being taught in public schools.

In numerous history textbooks, "key subjects like jihad, Islamic law, the status of women are whitewashed," said Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, an independent group that reviews history books and other education materials.

Cindy Ross, the mother of a junior high school student in Marin County, Calif., said she couldn't believe her eyes when she read her son's textbook last school year. "I was very shocked by what I saw, looking through the book," she said - shocked at how Islam was portrayed in her son's seventh grade history text. "What did strike me was that all the other religions seemed to be lumped together, where there is an inordinate emphasis on Islam specifically," Ross said.

Sewall claims that publishers have been pressured by Islamic activists to portray the religion in the most favorable light, while Islamic terrorism is downplayed or glossed over. "The picture is incomplete ... and the reason for this is that publishers are afraid of the Islamist activists. They don't want trouble," he told FOX News.

Sewall, who authored a report on how textbooks teach and present Islam, singled out one book that he said failed to explain what the story of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In a section discussing Islamic fundamentalism, the textbook "World History: The Modern World," published by Prentice Hall, omits direct mention of the 9/11 hijackers' religion, referring to the 19 Islamic fundamentalists as "teams of terrorists."

"On the morning of September 11, 2001," the book reads, "teams of terrorists hijacked four airplanes on the East Coast. Passengers challenged the hijackers on one flight, which they crashed on the way to its target. But one plane plunged in to the Pentagon in Virginia, and two others slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. More than 2,500 people were killed in the attacks."

In his report on the text, Sewall called the passage "dismaying" in its flatness and brevity. "In terms of content, so much is left unanswered. Who were the teams of terrorists and what did they want do to? What were their political ends? Since 'The Modern World' avoids any hint of the connection between this unnamed terrorism and jihad," he wrote, "why September 11 happened is hard to understand."

But Muslim advocacy groups say students need to learn more about Islam to correct misconceptions and help turn away a wrongheaded focus on extremism. "It's wrong to show an entire faith community from the lens of a small extremist community, which is really a fringe. It's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the Muslim community, and that's not how Muslims want to be framed," said Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

"I think there is an unbalanced portrayal of Islam seen mostly through a political lens, but that is not the reality of who a majority of Muslims are," she told FOX News.

Khan said when it comes to teaching about Islam, "I think the more important issue is American values of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding," which can best be imparted with accurate information about the religion.

But the content of those religious lessons also has Sewall concerned, particularly on the controversial topic of jihad. Sewall says the violent aspects of Islamic jihad are glossed over and that it is presented as an internal struggle or a fight for protection in books like "History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond," published by the Teachers Curriculum Institute.

"Jihad is defined as a struggle within each individual to overcome difficulties and strive to please god. Sometimes it may be a physical struggle for protection against enemies," the book reads, noting that Islam teaches "that Muslims should fulfill jihad with the heart, tongue and hand. Muslims use the heart in their struggle to resist evil."

It's a lesson that Sewall says needs to change. "What is frustrating is that repeatedly the textbook publishers have been called on their bias on the sunny, doctored view of Islam" but have refused to balance their books, he said. None of the textbook publishers contacted by FOX News regarding their books responded to requests for statements or interviews.

Parent Cindy Ross told FOX News she is concerned that unpleasant facts are being ignored for the sake of political correctness in her son's textbooks. "When you are talking about a history textbook, that is supposed to be talking about historical facts and they are talking about jihad in terms of spiritual terms ... I think it would be completely inappropriate for a public school."


Stop Avoiding the Issue of Failing Boys

Hardly a month goes by without another major foundation or education advocacy group reminding us of the peril our country faces if we don't send more students to college. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that the United States is slipping fast in international rankings. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, we rank no better than 10th in higher education attainment. Most striking among the measures is the "survival rate," the measurement of enrolled students who actually earn diplomas. Our students rank at the bottom of the developed world.

Visit the Web sites of the prominent foundations -- Gates, Lumina, Broad -- and you will see the same message that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate leaders such as Intel's Craig Barrett have been warning about for years: We need to broaden the college pipeline, and do it quickly. The latest study pointing out our educational weaknesses - and offering solutions - arrived earlier this month from the respected MDRC, which offered the Obama administration a 15-point plan for turning things around.

Interestingly, however, there's something all these groups studiously avoid talking about. These U.S. education numbers look bad primarily because the schools are failing boys. For the most part, those awful high school graduation numbers are driven by boys, not girls (32 percent of boys drop out, compared to 25 percent of girls). And the lackluster college graduation rates are due primarily to men floundering in college (men earn about 42 percent of four-year degrees). Given that men are far more likely to major in math and science - a special worry for the technical industries -- the chamber should be particularly concerned about men falling behind.

But the gender angle never gets mentioned. Popular, well-thought-out solutions, which include strengthening the high school curriculum, building better after-school programs and making college more affordable, skirt the obvious solution of reaching out to failing boys specifically. As for MDRC's 15-point plan - gender didn't get a mention.

Those omissions are striking, given that boosting the number of men earning college degrees should be the low-hanging-fruit remedy. Why the silence? The boys issue gets skipped because it has become a controversy; one of those he said/she said spats where the dialogue becomes downright unpleasant. In cases like this, the easy tactic is to steer clear. Interestingly, only in the United States is the boys issue considered so controversial. Countries such as Britain and Australia have been openly confronting the problem for years. There, the boy troubles are an issue to be studied and remedied, not something to squabble about.

All this gives our new education secretary, Arne Duncan, an opportunity: Why not do what Australia did and launch a federal probe into the boy problems? Duncan has the ideal vehicle, the freshly unveiled $15 billion grant program to reward initiatives that draw academic achievements from students less inclined to succeed. That would include boys.

In fairness to Duncan, he needs to know what he would be getting himself into. Why is this considered a controversy? That question can't be answered with absolute precision, but from years of reporting on this issue I have picked up on two threads. The first arose in 1992 when the American Association of University Women released a report about girls being shortchanged in schools, in part because teachers paid more attention to hyperactive boys jumping up to wave their hands in the air: Call on me! I was one of many education reporters who wrote about the report uncritically. That was a mistake. Hindsight tells us the schools-favor-boys research was shaky.

Regardless, the AAUW report unleashed a save-the-girls juggernaut. That girls' crusade ended up doing a lot of good by boosting female participation in advanced math and science classes. Today, girls dominate most of those courses. But the flawed research left behind an unfortunate legacy. Boys, who clearly needed the help more than girls, once again got ignored.

The second thread emerged in 2000 with the release of Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War Against Boys. Sommers expertly laid out the case that boys, not girls, were suffering in school. Given that she was one of the first to tackle this issue, combined with the fact that The Atlantic serialized the book, Sommers had a unique opportunity to set the agenda about boys. Had Sommers stuck with her solid argument that boys were in trouble and then proposed solutions, it is conceivable the U.S. Department of Education would have launched a national investigation, identified the problems and funded experiments to arrest boys' academic slide. Today, the United States today could rank with Australia at the forefront of fashioning solutions to help boys.

But that's not how things played out. Instead of focusing solely on boys, Sommers devoted most her book to attacking feminists, blaming them for the boy troubles. Naturally, the feminists fought back, fingering Sommers as the tip of the spear of what they dubbed a "backlash" movement, those pushing back against the hard-won gains of women. Who could blame the feminists? After all, the book's subtitle was, How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

Since then, everything's been pretty much downhill. If boys are suffering any problems, argue feminists, those problems are limited to minority boys and rooted in racism and poverty, not gender.

Higher education leaders, who feel they are blameless in the boy troubles and have reaped the benefits of ever-rising numbers of female applicants, look the other way. That is proving to be a mistake. High-tuition second and third-tier private colleges that tolerated significant gender imbalances are now under stress from the recession. Today, they may be wishing they had stepped forward to try to solve the male college pipeline problem, which goes well beyond poor and minority boys.

Elite colleges generally don't suffer gender imbalances, especially those offering boys admissions preferences. Plus, their faculties remain fixated on the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard. His musings over why fewer women occupy top academic spots politicized campus gender issues, leaving professors likely to embrace the viewpoints of the feminists, who argue that women, not men, are the aggrieved parties in higher education.

Given all this, it's easy to understand why groups such as Gates and the U.S. Chamber prefer to duck. Who can blame them? Problem is, ducking does nothing to solve the very problem they raise, the slipping status of the United States as an educated workforce - a phenomenon driven mostly by boys. Secretary Duncan, you have a unique opportunity to get us beyond this political divide. Settle this issue once and for all. Boosting college graduation rates is an issue too important to be mired in this controversy.


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