The Public Interest

Textbooks and tribalism in California

David L. Kirp

Summer 1991

 IN JULY 1990 television crews from across California camped out in Sacramento for the state’s curriculum commission hearings, an event that promised a break from the capital’s usual humdrum. Over a hundred people crowded into a small auditorium, most of them to register their unhappiness with the textbooks up for approval, according to the account of Gilbert Sewall, head of the American Textbook Council. Religious issues, which have long been an untouchably touchy topic in public schools, provoked objections from several quarters. Muslims complained that the textbooks’ coverage of Islam mentions historical aggressiveness and religious passion aimed at the infidel and treats their religion as the gospel of ignorant nomads. One Jewish representative argued that the social studies textbook “stirs up anti-Jewish feeling” and “teaches history from a Christian perspective.” Christian fundamentalists said that the text “could be very damaging to the self-esteem of a fundamentalist Christian child” because, they claimed, it implies that fundamentalists are “emotional and hysterical.”

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