I am about to be honest guys, so brace yourselves.
I do not like textbooks. At all. Can’t stand ’em.
Now judging by my entirely non-scientific survey of a non-representative sample of some people I know, I am not alone in this sentiment. There are so many reasons textbooks drive me nuts that I can’t even begin to enumerate them. Having said that, I thought we would take a look at one of them today:
They claim to be impartial, but they really really aren’t.
We could discuss the poor-too-awful representation of Christopher Columbus in textbooks (mentioned briefly on this very site). We could equally talk about the lack of nuance used for discussing the Federalist debate. But the example I want to use today is a glaring inadequacy in how textbooks discuss religion.
We are wrapping up our comparative world religions unit in my junior level modern world history classes. We started out reviewing the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (sorry Zoroastrianism). After finishing those up, we moved into the so-called “eastern religions,” otherwise known as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Here is where the problem arises. We use the World History Alive! text from TCI. Our class-set of textbooks is supplemented by an online version of the textbook that comes with “teacher notes” to help the teacher know what parts of the text are really important (because that isn’t insulting at all). A quick survey of these notes reveal relatively detailed bullet points on Islam for example (explaining the the Sunnah is “the example Muhammad set for Muslims to live”), but an absolute dearth of similar details in the notes on Hinduism (stating simply that key beliefs include reincarnation, karma, and dharma, and not adding any kind of detail).
The problem continues with the entry on Buddhism. While other religions get three to four points on their origins and development stories, Buddhism must be content with this statement alone: “Based on the teachings of Siddartha Gautama.”
Buddhism is a major world religion practiced by (according to a brief survey of the internet) 360 million people, and that is all we get?
I don’t have a problem with monotheistic religions getting good detail when they are described in our textbooks. In fact, I was mostly pleased with the equality across Islam, Christianity and Judaism. What I do have a problem with is cutting details on other religions.
In our history classes, we are trying to encourage students to see the world in new ways. To realize there are billions of people in the world who live very differently than we do in the United States. To have a kind of empathy for the opinions and views of other cultures.
It is awfully hard to do that with textbooks that seem determined to keep students in the dark.
Solutions? Well in my world history class, we did a little more digging and learned a bit more than our teacher notes thought was really necessary. In general, though, I would like to see textbooks become a little more self-aware. My students know when they are being short-changed. And so do I.