Sins of Omission: Making School Textbooks Politically Correct


Because of the widespread use (and abuse) of the Internet in classrooms today, many high schools and colleges are asking their students to take an “integrity oath,” promising that they will not cheat or deceive in their research. As pervasive as academic dishonesty is, it is not limited to students’ plagiarizing; it also appears in the students’ textbooks, especially when it comes to issues involving the Catholic Church.

The common error in many textbooks is omission: Authors will include a controversial historical fact about the Catholic Church without any context, thereby leaving the reader with a misconception that the underlying motives were about power, greed, or bigotry. Examples abound, yet the same approach is rarely used with other religions and cultures.
This only compounds the problem for educators faced with stemming academic dishonesty: Why does the education establishment appear to sanction one form of deception — omission — whereas another form of dishonesty — plagiarism — is condemned?
A prime example of the omission method can be found  in the social studies textbook World: Adventures in Time and Place, published by McGraw-Hill (2001) and geared toward middle-school students.
While it would be unfair to expect a middle-school-level textbook to cover all the various historical nuances, still,  via omission, the authors give the false impression that the Crusaders’ massacres of Jewish villagers en route to the Holy Land were sanctioned by the Church. Although the book does quote an unnamed “shocked Christian” who opposed the massacres, it does not quote any of the Catholic leaders — including the pope — who also condemned the Crusaders’ barbarity.
Moreover, World claims Pope Urban II called for “pilgrims to capture Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslim,” insinuating that his motivations for the first Crusade were arbitrary at best, prejudiced at worst. Indeed, the textbook omits the important fact that these were the same Seljuk Turks who had re-conquered Syria and most of Asia Minor from the Byzantine Empire, closed the Holy Land to Christian pilgrims, and were threatening Constantinople.
What’s more, there is no mention whatsoever of Byzantine Emperor Alexis Commenus’s letter to Urban requesting the military aid against the Seljuk threat, which most historians agree was one of the key factors leading to the first Crusade. The book also neglects the Islamic Empire’s constant forays into Europe, and the fact that Europeans had repeatedly fought off Muslim attacks in Italy, southern France, and other regions along the northern Mediterranean in every century since the Islamic conquest of Spain.
Many sixth-grade students will be reacquainted with this “history-through-omission” tactic when they reach high school, where “global studies” is taught in more detail. One example is found in Prentice-Hall’s World History: Connections to Today, where students learn about King Henry VIII’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and their reign following the English Reformation. World History correctly notes that Queen Mary burned “hundreds” of English Protestants at the stake, but there is no mention of Queen Elizabeth’s own torture and execution of Catholics during the persecutions of the Religious Settlement.
World History also fudges its treatment of the powerful medieval pope Innocent III, paraphrasing his description of the papacy out of context. Here’s the quote as it appears in the textbook:
The pope, he said, stands “between God and man, lower than God but higher than men, who judges all and is judged by no one.”
But according to 19th-century Protestant historian Phillip Schaff — hardly a fan of Catholicism — while Innocent was creating a theocracy and consolidating papal power, he did not consider himself or the papacy as a sort of blasphemous “demi-god,” as World History infers. Here is the extended quote from Innocent, as per Schaff:
[W]hat manner of servant it is whom the Lord hath set over his people, no other than the vice regent of Christ, the successor of Peter. He stands in the midst between God and man; below God, above man; less than God, more than man. He judges all and is judged by none. But he, whom the pre-eminence of dignity exalts, is humbled by his vocation as a servant, that so humility may be exalted and pride be cast down; for God is against the high-minded, and to the lowly He shows mercy; and whoso exalteth himself shall be abased.
Innocent’s paradoxical statement requires a deeper understanding of history and Catholic theology, and as such may be too time-consuming for the classroom. Regardless, the authors of World History manage to completely misrepresent Innocent’s meaning in their misuse of his statement.
The authors compound the error by then claiming that Innocent “launched a brutal crusade” against the Albigensians. Why? According to the textbook, “The Albigensians wanted to purify the Church and return to the simpler ways of early Christianity.” There is no mention of the assassination of a papal legate, or any of the other events that led to the “brutal crusade.” The Albigensians are also mischaracterized: Most historians agree that their beliefs were a form of manichaeism or gnosticism, which were not “simpler ways of early Christianity,” but heretical misrepresentations of them.
To be sure, there are always space and time constraints in the publishing process. Yet the errors of omission described here are not limited to a few examples; it is a consistent and pervasive problem in the textbook industry. Student textbooks should be limited to concise descriptions of historical events, rather than not-so-subtle indications that the authors have an ideological axe to grind.

  • Danny DeBruin

    Danny DeBruin is a Catholic educator, writer, and cartoonist living on Long Island.

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