The History Wars Continue, Part V

5. “Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.”

Here, the Network is on firmer ground. Geographers and historians aren’t specialists in religion or philosophy, and they often oversimplify or make mistakes. Consider some particular complaints:

(a) In describing Buddhism’s second Noble Truth, one text says, “Selfishness is the cause of suffering,” and later calls it “a cause of suffering.” The Network says the first is wrong and the second misleading, since, “According to the Buddha, the cause of suffering is not selfishness but desire; selfishness is only one form of desire.” The Pali term is tanha, which is usually translated as desire, selfish desire, or craving. It’s not far from the Biblical term ‘coveting.’ Though the text’s claim isn’t without any basis—selfish desire is an acceptable translation—selfishness by itself isn’t a very good rendering. I consider the complaint reasonable.

(b) Another book says, “Hindus are strict vegetarians.” Not true, says the Network, and they’re right. Some Hindu darshanas prohibit meat-eating, but others don’t. Reasonable.

(c) A Teachers’ Edition states, “All three religions [Judaism, Christianity, Islam] see Jesus as an important prophet, but only Christians see him as the messiah, or expected leader and savior.” Not so, the Network observes; most Jews do not think of Jesus as a prophet. That’s right; the complaint is reasonable.

(d) The Network criticizes one book for its imbalance: “The lesson on the history of Southwest Asia devotes only six sentences to Judaism’s origins and does not include a discussion of the Diaspora. By contrast, the lesson devotes two pages to Islam and its spread.” Their objection: “This is not adequate attention to the important events surrounding the history of the Jewish faith tradition and culture.” In a history book I think this choice would be sensible; the spread of Islam dominated the history of a substantial portion of the world for centuries, and included the many wars mentioned in an earlier post in this series. In a book on world cultures and geography, however, it seems less defensible. Judaism is the leading religion only in Israel, so, even for such a book, one could argue, its spread deserves less attention than the spread of Islam. But it’s not clear whether that argument is decisive. I count this one debatable.

(e) “Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and familiar with Christian events and doctrine.” The books generally don’t define such terms as ‘Protestant,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Orthodox,’ though they do define ‘Sunni,’ ‘Shi’ite,’ etc. The Network observes:

Whereas the lesson on Southwest Asia states: “The teachings of Jesus led to the rise of Christianity,” it does not explain what those teachings were or how Christianity spread. In contrast, the authors devote a full page to the teachings of Muhammad, Muslim practices (the Five Pillars), and the spread of Islam.

What’s Wrong? Given the increasing number of Texas students who come from outside the Christian tradition, textbooks should not assume that readers are familiar with what Christianity is and how it spread.

I’m amused that the Network demands more discussion of Christianity; I suspect the authors were worried that such discussion would have led to the opposite complaint. And the authors undoubtedly thought, correctly, that the percentage of Christians in their intended audience would be much higher than the percentage of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc. But it’s a fair point. Even Christian students often have a sketchy conception of the teachings and history of their own religion. And those with other religious beliefs, or with no religious background at all, are likely to have even less exposure to the history and teachings of Christianity. So, I consider this objection reasonable.

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