By Dr. Dan Olinger
Back in 1987, two bestselling books changed the way Americans thought about history. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind1 and E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know2 called the country’s attention to the frightening lack of historical understanding among its allegedly educated citizens.3 Soon numerous studies, formal and informal, highlighted the problem.4 Newspapers reported surveys that demonstrated historical ignorance.5
The Controversy Not surprisingly, the years since 1987 have seen constant battles over the history textbooks to be used in America’s public schools.6 Some of the most well-publicized dust-ups have involved an unacceptable level of egregious historical errors in textbooks,7 for which blame has been assigned largely to changes in the processes for publishing textbooks8—changes, it is often alleged, that have resulted from the industry’s attempt to keep up with unreasonable expectations of revision cycles.9
But the problem of factual errors is not really at the heart of the controversy behind textbook selection. Factual errors are a problem, of course, but competent editors, given appropriate time and resources, can find them and correct them. The real controversy in textbook selection is not over facts but over the interpretation of those facts.10 How will the textbook view the events of history? What events and persons will it include? What trends will it emphasize or de-emphasize? What sense of progress or meaning will it find in the historical events? Most importantly, how will it present what is good or evil, desirable or undesirable?11
The battle is currently being waged on two fronts. The most immediate is in textbook selection committees where states12 determine which textbooks schools may purchase with state funds. Since public schools have no practical source of funding other than the government, the committee’s decision determines which textbooks may be used in the schools.
The larger battle, however, is in history standards committees, which determine the specific historical material the students will be expected to learn.13 What will a successful student of history know when he finishes his K–12 education? What will he be able to do? What attitudes will he evidence? How will he make his decisions? As the standards committee makes these determinations, it is setting the course for future textbook development since textbook publishers will seek to conform to the standards and thereby raise the likelihood that a given state will adopt their text(s).
What Are We Fighting Over? At the heart of the controversy is what the study of history is all about. History is not simply the reciting of a series of events in chronological order or the memorization of facts. A historian seeks to discover the meaning of history—to identify causes and effects,14 trends, and bases for success or failure. That means that he has to interpret the events as well as describe them. More fundamentally, he has to define success and failure; he has to base his telling of the story on a moral foundation.15 That is at its core a religious task, a theological one.16 It should be no surprise that attempts to teach history in an allegedly nonreligious system are chaotic, with varying factions doing battle for their own perspectives.
Perhaps a couple of examples, culled from a previous Renewanation Review article written by my colleague, Dr. Bryan Smith, will help illustrate this point.
McGraw-Hill is a leading publisher for public schools. The following is an excerpt from their first-grade social studies textbook. It’s how they teach Thanksgiving Day.
“A long time ago, Pilgrims came to live in America. Their lives were very hard. They had trouble growing enough food. A group of Native Americans helped the Pilgrims. They showed the Pilgrims how to grow new crops. The Pilgrims wanted to thank the Native Americans for their help. They invited the Native Americans for a special meal. This day became known as Thanksgiving Day.”
Anything missing? From this account, a child learns that the Pilgrims were giving thanks to Native Americans, and God had no place in the celebration.17
And from a seventh-grade world history textbook, “Much of the terrorism in the Middle East is aimed against the West. One reason Middle Eastern terrorists have targeted Westerners can be traced to the Western investment in the Middle East oil industry. ... This industry brought wealth to ruling families, ... but most citizens remained very poor. They often blamed the West, especially the United States, for supporting the ruling families.”
Dr. Smith evaluates this view: This suggests that if we evenly distribute the wealth in that region, strife and warfare will disappear. That’s how you think if you’re a secularist. Anyone who thinks that way is not living in the real world. In the real world, people are religious, and their religious beliefs play a central role in how they view the world and how they behave.18
In short, the controversy over history standards is a conflict of worldviews. On one side is naturalism, which says that humans exist by random chance, that we are self-determiners, that we can define our own values, and that if we do it right, we can continue to evolve our social and governmental structures into utopias. On the other side is the Judeo-Christian view, based in English common law that drove the thinking of the American Founders.
Bringing the Bible to Bear So what is a biblical worldview? How does it inform our study of history? How much freedom does it give us in the setting of standards and the consequent selection of textbooks? A biblical worldview begins with the following concepts:
There is a God who is the Creator of all things.
God’s will is the standard of right and wrong.
God is telling a story in history; it has a beginning, middle, and end; and it makes sense. He is sovereign, working out His will in “the affairs of men and nations.”19
Humans are responsible for their decisions and actions. They are expected to think and behave in ways consistent with God’s moral absolutes, and they will be held accountable.
God has allowed human freedom and consequent sin.20 Because He is sovereign, He is not threatened by deviations from His will.
The greatest good is the glory of God. A key way for humans to demonstrate that glory is to reflect the image of God that they bear.
As a revelation of God’s will and working, history should be interesting to those in His image. Teachers should present history with all the drama and personality that we find fascinating. We all love stories more than essays.
Within these boundaries, there is considerable flexibility in our study of history. We may see different trends at work, but we will agree that they are divinely directed. We may emphasize different actors on the stage for different reasons, but we will agree that they are in the image of God and also depraved. We may champion different political systems or cultural practices, but we will agree that they all are accountable to God and that the Scripture is the standard by which they must be judged. In his study of history, the Christian will constantly be updating, correcting, and revising his facts and even his interpretations, within the bounds laid down by Scripture.
Conclusion Because government-sponsored schools are currently prohibited from espousing a particular theological viewpoint, they cannot teach history from a biblical worldview—or as a conservative Christian would say, truthfully. Because they are written primarily with government schools in mind, secular textbooks cannot demonstrate the one great unifying truth of history: that it is a story the Creator God is telling, a story that tells us much about Himself and about us.
The battles over history standards will continue. Different factions will take the ascendancy of decision-making power and then lose it. But for Christian educators, parents, and pastors, the curriculum will have to come from somewhere else.
Dr. Dan Olinger serves as Chairman of the Division of Bible at Bob Jones University.
ENDNOTES 1. Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster; Auflage: 1st Touchstone Ed, 1988).
2. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Vintage; 1st Vintage Books edition, 1988).
3. These were not the first in the field. In 1979, Frances FitzGerald lambasted the quality of history textbooks. Frances FitzGerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (Little Brown & Co; 1st edition, 1979).
4. As one example, see “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED441736.pdf. It summarizes a 1999 study on pages 4–5.
5. Russell Baker, “SUNDAY OBSERVER; Relevant Ignorance,” The New York Times Magazine, (July 12, 1987). “Ocala Star-Banner - Apr 23, 1998,” Google News, accessed September 10, 2018. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Y39RAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SAgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4881,4975597&dq=survey+students+history+ignoran%20t&hl=en. “Toledo Blade - Apr 19, 1993,” Google News, accessed September 10, 2018. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=a0xPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=TAMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6073,5693647&dq=su