Depiction of religion in history textbook used by Norwin is criticized


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A North Huntingdon pastor says a seventh-grade history textbook used by the Norwin School District "whitewashes" the history of Islam while demonizing Christian history, but the district stands by the book and doesn't plan to change its curriculum.

The Rev. Bruce Leonatti of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church said he doesn't want the book to be banned. He just wants schools to teach the "nice side" of religion.

"Don't talk about the growth of Islam or Christianity," he said last week. "Just teach the basics."

Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said arguments like Pastor Leonatti's come from anti-Islamic groups that are convinced that the world's problems, especially terrorism, are rooted in Islam.

Pastor Leonatti, a former teacher, provided a reporter with printed pages from www.prophetofdoom.net, a website that calls the prophet Muhammad a "ruthless terrorist, a mass-murderer, a thief, slave trader, rapist and pedophile."

"There's nothing textbooks can do that's going to satisfy those people," Mr. Haynes said. "It isn't true that Islam is the problem.

"He's so wrong it's hard to even know where to start," he added.

Norwin superintendent William Kerr said Pearson's "myWorld History: Early Ages" doesn't go into great depth about any historical subject and called the survey textbook, which is used in 16 other Pennsylvania school districts, "age-appropriate."

"In this case, whether it's Christianity, Judaism or Islam, we present that information in a very non-biased and nondevotional manner," Mr. Kerr said. "That's what public schools do."

Mr. Kerr and Tracy McNelly, assistant superintendent of secondary education, said the textbook is just one of many tools teachers use in the seventh-grade world history course that broadly covers human history.

"There's not a lot of depth in this course that covers thousands and thousands of years of history," Ms. McNelly said.

In response to Pastor Leonatti's concerns, the district compiled its own report on the seventh-grade history curriculum and asked for a report on the text from the Rev. Clifton J. Suehr, president of the Norwin Ministerium and pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in Irwin.

Pastor Suehr wrote in his report that he found the text to be "well written and enriching" and that he examined the text for "bias that would distort a defensible and classical understanding of events or twist events toward a historically non-tenable rendering." He said in the report that the text presents a historical overview "without using inflammatory language."

The district released both of those reports last month and now considers the matter closed.

Pastor Leonatti takes issue with, among other things, the book's assertion that "Islam spread peacefully" and, in a report to the school board, cited sections from the Quran that he said prove otherwise.

But Mr. Haynes said that's no way to evaluate the history of a religion.

"It's easy to take any scripture of any religion and pluck out passages to prove the religion good or bad," he said. Scriptures have to be taken in context, he said, and textbook writers have to evaluate what scholars, interpreters and practitioners of a given faith have said about the passages, how they've been practiced and what all of that means to the history of the religion.

Pastor Leonatti expressed concern about the book's passages on the Crusades, noting that more violent language was used to describe military action and killings in those chapters than in the chapters on the spread of Islam.

Mr. Haynes said the early spread of Islam isn't comparable to the Crusades, particularly the attacks on Jewish communities during that period.

"Obviously, people were killed and died and were fighting," he said of the early spread of Islam, adding that if Muslims had brutally slaughtered a specific group of people while traveling throughout the Middle East, that likely would be included in the textbook.

"Jews did not suffer in the same way in Muslim lands," Mr. Haynes said. "It just did not happen." He added that Jews, for the most part, lived peacefully in Muslim countries for centuries.

Though Mr. Haynes has not read the book, a reporter read sections on both the history of Islam and Christianity to him. He said he thinks it's important for textbooks to treat historical incidents fairly, but he doesn't think the spread of Islam and the Crusades are truly comparable.

He said Islam largely did not spread by force or coercion. The Crusades, meanwhile, are often described brutally in textbooks because they were brutal.

"I don't want to paint Islam bad, but I don't want them to paint Christianity bad either," Pastor Leonatti said, urging textbook writers to "tone down the rhetoric about Christians being evil crusaders."

The history of the Crusades "shouldn't be left out just because there's no parallel in Islamic history," Mr. Haynes said.

"It doesn't condemn the religion to say there are chapters of brutality in every religion," he said.

Pastor Leonatti thinks educators should leave out religions' sordid histories and just teach the basics of the religion.

"Leave the rest out," he said. "It gets too controversial."

Mr. Haynes said textbook publishers are quite aware of that.

"Textbook publishers are, of course, looking to be adopted in states, so they're very careful about anything that might cause a controversy," Mr. Haynes said. "It's not just about education, it's about politics."

But he said that, after working for more than two decades to encourage schools to improve the way they teach about religions, he doesn't think lessons on religious history should be overly simplified. Rather, he believes educators should do more to enrich lessons on religion, including a more in-depth look at religions and religious differences.

"I can't help but be discouraged when people want to go backwards," he said. "We've come a long way.

"We have a very high civic responsibility to prepare students to live with one another."

education - neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert. First Published June 7, 2012 9:00 AM


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